Ibra Sekajja: My debut goal – that kept Crystal Palace up – is still the highlight of my football career

BY SAM SMITH

Ibra Sekajja was so certain he would score on his Crystal Palace debut that he meticulously planned his celebration and then informed members of the first team how the occasion would pan out.

It is 10 years to the day since an 18-year-old Sekajja came on with the Eagles needing a goal in their penultimate game against Hull City to mathematically end relegation fears.

Anthony Gerrard had put the Tigers ahead before the striker stabbed at a rebound after Matt Duke saved Claude Davis’ header. The ball trickled over the line and the teenager darted away, leaping into the first of his triple-backflip routine.

Championship football was confirmed for another year. Sekajja’s dream debut goal arrived in the 88th minute, which is a source of frustration as he reckons he would have scored a hat-trick had it come 10 minutes earlier.

“I was backing myself so much. We were having a lot of banter when we were travelling up to the hotel. Some of the lads were saying: ‘Do you reckon you’re going to score?.’ I said: ‘Listen, I KNOW I’m going to score. And if I do, I’ll do backflips,’” the 28-year-old told the South London Press.

“They thought I was joking. But I was having my best season in the academy and I had so much confidence going into the game. The players loved my confidence. They were like: ‘Do you know what? We look forward to that happening.’ You should have seen their faces when I scored. In the midst of all the excitement, I was thinking: ‘I told you guys.’

“The goal is well remembered, but if you look at everything else I did on the ball, I was very direct and fearless.

“I couldn’t wait to come on. So many people have asked if I felt nervous – no, I was excited. I just wish there had have been another 10 minutes. As soon as I scored, I saw myself getting a hat-trick.

“It’s the greatest achievement of my career. In the year before, the club had got new owners and had been on the brink of liquidation.

“We really struggled throughout that season and weren’t really getting the results. For me to get that goal, off the back of what we had been through the previous year, it was surreal. There are no right words to describe the feeling and what it meant to me and the club.”

Sekajja moved to Croydon from Uganda at the age of 11 and was almost immediately picked up by the Eagles academy, striking up a long-term friendship with Wilfried Zaha. A 2009-10 FA Youth Cup tie against Newcastle United at Selhurst Park prompted the latter’s break into the first team.

“I scored in that game, but we lost,” said Sekajja, who earned an England U16s call-up and played alongside Jack Wilshere and Jonjo Shelvey. “That was Wilf’s best game for the youth team and it was the game that got him his breakthrough. He absolutely ripped the game apart and won a couple of penalties.

“I had a good performance, but he was just devastating. He deserved everything that came after that.”

Zaha made his senior debut 13 months prior to Sekajja in March 2010. Within 18 months, Zaha had shone in front of Sir Alex Ferguson in a 2-1 win at Manchester United.

Sekajja was supposed to be on the bench at Old Trafford in a game now famous for Darren Ambrose scoring from 40 yards but a freak thumb injury, which needed surgery, ruled him out.

Zaha became Ferguson’s final signing at United. Sekajja is left to ponder what might have happened had he made a similar impact.

“That put me down, to have the chance to play against Manchester United taken away.

“Man United at the time – Sir Alex Ferguson, Old Trafford – that’s one of the best teams you’re going to get to play against.

“I could have shown what I could do on that stage. It would have been a great platform.”

Sekajja’s first two managers at Palace, Dougie Freedman and Ian Holloway, had a big effect on his career.

“He (Freedman) had a huge impact on me. Before I went on at Hull, he said: ‘Just go and make a difference, kid.’ He had so much belief in me, it was unreal.

“I will forever be grateful to him for giving me the opportunity and I’m glad I repaid him.

“Holloway called me across after the first meeting he took as manager. He said: ‘You’re the kid who caused my Blackpool team all sorts of problems, aren’t you? I’m having you in my team.’

“He’s an incredible person, full of energy. We have stayed in touch ever since. I was with him on trial at Grimsby last year but I tore my meniscus just before lockdown.”

Despite the trust from different managers, injuries halted his progress. When he was fit, Glenn Murray scored 31 goals in Palace’s promotion season. Sekajja had an option to extend his deal in June 2014, but new boss Tony Pulis had told the young players that he would be opting for experience the following season.

He decided to leave, although Pulis would unceremoniously depart just a few months later.

He moved to Dulwich Hamlet in 2016 and scored 12 goals as the South Londoners made the Isthmian Division play-offs.

There was a four-year hiatus before Sekajja returned to Champion Hill in January on a non-contract basis. The National League season was halted with him having made just one appearance.

Sekajja is full of admiration for Dulwich boss Gavin Rose.

“He’s done an amazing job. I don’t even know how he’s done it. Having been part of it and seeing the challenges he’s faced, he’s dealt with all sorts of players.

“I don’t think he’s rated enough for what he’s done at Dulwich. I’m aware he’s had offers to manage Football League clubs, he’s been very loyal to the club. He’s moved on a lot of players into the Football League. Just the job he’s done… wow.”

PICTURES: KEITH GILLARD

 


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