Rising star Sullay Kaikai scored a well-taken goal for Brentford FC to show once again why he is a Premier League star in the making. We caught up with him at the Bees training ground to talk about his football journey and the African players who have influenced his style of play.
There is nothing quite as humbling as going back to your roots, as rising football star Sullay Kaikai discovered when he first visited Sierra Leone, the country where his parents grew up. The young Crystal Palace winger, currently on loan at Brentford, was born and bred in south London and admits he was taken aback when he first visited Sierra Leone.
Yannick Bolasie, his friend and former Palace team-mate, once described visiting DR Congo for the first time as ‘mind-boggling’ and Kaikai agreed with him. ‘I’d say the same,’ smiled the 21-year-old as we chatted at Brentford’s sunny training ground in west London.
‘The first time I went out there I was nine or ten years old, and realised it was a very different experience to what we are used to here every day. I’ve been back many times, and whenever I go over there, it makes me appreciate what I have here.’ And like Bolasie, getting to meet relatives he had previously only heard about from his parents was an eye-opening experience too.
‘Getting to know my extended family was humbling, and good as well. I am quite engrossed in the Sierra Leone side of my family, and it means a lot to me.’ The similarities do not end there with Bolasie, who left Palace for Everton in a £24m transfer this summer.
Kaikai is also an easy-going Londoner, a goalscoring winger who has made a big impression in the lower divisions and is waiting for his chance to show what he can do in the Premier League. He had productive spells on loan at Cambridge and then Shrewsbury Town last season, where he was top scorer for the team and voted into the League One team of the year.
It was not his only accolade. As well as winning the League One player of the Month last March, he was voted Sierra Leone’s Young Player of the Year in 2015, an accolade that meant a lot to him and especially his parents, who collected the award in his absence. ‘I was unable to collect it because I was playing at the time, so my parents went along to collect it for me.
I’d had a tip-off about it and said I was very humbled by the award and thanked every one that voted for me.’ His mother Navo Kaikai said at the time: ‘He was excited when we told him that we were coming to this award ceremony. He’s been to Sierra Leone several times and last year he went and practised with the national team.’
‘We went with the coach and then got an email from the President of the SLFA asking Sulaiman to go and play for the Under 21 national team, but at the time he was called upon to go to Shrewsbury on loan.’ Kaikai admits he is not yet ready to commit himself to playing for the country where his parents grew up and where his father played football as a young man.
I am still trying to establish myself at club level, before thinking about international football.
‘I’ve been invited by the under-21s and asked about it many times but at the moment I am still young and have a lot of time to think about it. I am still trying to establish myself at club level, before thinking about international football. The move to Brentford should be another step up, playing in the Championship for a team well known for their attacking style of play. It was Palace’s promotion campaign from the Championship three years ago that launched Bolasie and fellow winger Wilfried Zaha on the football world, with the latter earning a big-money move to Manchester United before returning to Selhurst Park.
Kaikai admits: ‘To train with those two, and be able to watch and learn from them at close quarters can only help my development.’ But his heroes growing up were big names in Africa as well as Europe. ‘Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o were the main two I looked up to as a kid, but in terms of a role model I suppose I’d have to say Jay Jay Okocha inspired me with the way that he plays football.’
The Nigerian star, who played at Bolton Wanderers and Hull City as well as Paris St-Germain and Eintracht Frankfurt, was famous for his trickery and skill as well as for playing with a beaming smile on his face, which the amiable Kaikai admires. ‘Yes, not just his ball skills but his character on the field.’ You can see why Kaikai admits he is similar: ‘I am quite a relaxed guy off the field. I like music (R’n’B), I like to chill out with my girlfriend and family.
He won’t be relaxed when he has to sing to his new team-mates, though, as part of the initiation ritual all players undertake. ‘I know it’s fun but it can be nerve-wracking, too,’ he laughs. He still hasn’t chosen what to sing, but may go back to an old classic he covered when he went to Cambridge United on loan. ‘I did Let me Love You by Mario, so I’ll probably do that again.’ But he takes his football seriously. ‘I played all sorts of sport at school, and really liked cricket, but it was always football for me.’
It is not easy to make the journey from schoolboy terms at a club to full professional – only about five per cent make it that far – but Kaikai has a strong mentality, too. ‘I’ve always had self-belief – that is what I needed to remember to make it as a professional. And my family have always supported me. He has an elder brother and sister, and says ‘They also played football. We get our football genes from our father, who played for his district back in Sierra Leone.’
And if one day Sullay Kaikai ends up representing the country of his heritage, there will be no prouder parents than his mother and father.