Or to put it another way, Bilel Mohsni. The French defender has come from playing on parkland around Paris to England's League Two in the space of a year. Here's the full story...
“He’s Mohsni Bilel, He’s Mohsni Bilel. He can’t speak English, He’s Mohsni Bilel” the Southend fans erroneously chant. For a start, he actually goes by the name Bilel Mohsni, but that reversal is instantly forgiven considering that Bilel had been plucked from such obscurity that the Shrimper’s own website referred to him as an array of different names during his first few weeks.
Secondly, the young Parisian can speak English, if only a little, but if his progression and desire to succeed on the pitch is matched in the classroom, then he’s sure to be fluent in no time.
Mohsni arrived on the south Essex coast like a bolt from the blue. Paul Sturrock had taken the reins from Steve Tilson, harshly axed in the wake of the Shrimper’s relegation from League One and amid financial chaos, and was forced to assemble a squad of players mere weeks before the season began. A merry band of seasoned professionals, young upstarts and Sturrock affiliates were flanked by an exuberant French defender who had previously been plying his trade on park pitches in Paris.
“My agent worked with Paul Sturrock, so that’s how he first heard about me and how I got the transfer in the first place. I wanted to play in England when I was 18,” says Bilel, who signed for the Essex outfit from the Championnat de France Amateurs 2 side, Sainte-Geneviève Sports, reneging on a previous deal to sign CM Aubervilliers.
Thrown in at an end so deep it was almost subterranean, Bilel’s first experience of the English game came through Southend’s pre-season campaign. In his second fixture, a relatively ill-tempered game against Salisbury City, he was hauled off having played just over 35 minutes of football following a number of challenges which Roy Keane would’ve been proud of.
A delay in international clearance saw his full debut put on hold until the club’s League Cup encounter against Premier League side Wolves, a game which saw him clatter the crossbar, have a goal ruled out for offside and earn rave reviews from both sets of fans. Scouts from the Black Country outfit were rumoured to have been a continual presence at Roots Hall for the remainder of the season.
Competing against the Premier League side marked a dramatic turn in fortunes for the Paris-born defender, who manager Paul Sturrock admitted had signed for little more than “a pair of boots”, but Mohsni has since taken to the English game swiftly. “My first introductions to English football were very hard, though. I’ve had to learn to protect myself more because I get a lot of injuries otherwise,” adds Mohsni, who went on to feature 26 times for the Shrimpers last season in all competitions, scoring five goals.
Bilel’s mention of injuries is distinctly accurate and, if anything, an almighty understatement. Southend’s squad was assembled on a whim just two weeks prior to the first game of the season and, as such, failed to garner much of a pre-season schedule. As a result, injuries came thick and fast and forcing the aging Graeme Coughlan to feature more prominently than had been previously planned. Bilel, however, was not to be deterred and a defining moment of his fledgling career in English football saw him take to the field with two heavily strapped ankles, two black eyes and a bandaged brow.
It is this infectious enthusiasm for the game that has caused Southend United fans to take to the defender in such rapid fashion. No sooner had Bilel carved open an opening berth, had The Blue Voice, Southend United’s answer to a vocal supporter group, designated him their player of preference with the aforementioned chant. Both players and managers alike have spoken of the energy Bilel infuses into his football, but this attribute has also been his demise on several occasions.
Such is his enthusiasm that, during one of a number of injury crises that have plagued Southend this past season, Bilel was plunged into a striker’s berth for one particular game against Macclesfield. In true Mohsni fashion, the defender-come-striker scored a brace, helping Southend on their way to a 4-1 home win, and benefiting the scores of Southend fans who helped themselves to substantial wins over bookies who naively priced him at 33/1 first scorer.
On first glance, Mohsni’s football appears to be almost maniacal. The image of him charging around the pitch invokes all kinds of bull and china shop imagery, and it is fair to say that he has left his mark on several competitors this season. Eight yellow cards complimented his five goals and he has been lucky to receive just the two dismissals. It’s an area of his games that Bilel knows needs work, and something that he has certainly improved on since his first forays into the English game. “Paul Sturrock has helped me improve my discipline and self-control so far,” added Bilel, keen to promote the helpful influence Sturrock has had on him so far.
But what’s different between the fourth tier of English football, and the fourth tier of French football from whence Bilel came? Stereotypically, the amount of time the ball spends hoisted into the clouds, according to Bilel. ““The difference between football in France and in England is that, in France, the game is played more on the floor and in England most of it is in the air,” he says, almost incongruous to the effervescent abilities he displayed during the opening stages of his Southend career. Indeed, Mohsni’s first act during a pre-season friendly against West Ham was to pick up the ball in the right full-back position and transverse the Roots Hall turf, turning one particular midfielder inside-out en route.
Unfortunately for Southend, or perhaps fortunately given the club’s parlous financial state, Mohsni’s abilities have not gone unnoticed. Scouts from across the country descended upon Roots Hall to catch a glimpse of the Frenchman in action, culminating in a rumoured £250,000 approach from Ian Holloway’s Blackpool during the January transfer window. A host of unsettling, free departures last summer has left Southend fans paranoid that their prize asset may depart for little more than packet of crisps and a snickers bar, but Bilel has been quick to pledge his allegiance to the club that has given him his breakthrough into the English game he loves.
Despite this, Mohsni is a man with lofty ambitions. “Ultimately, I want to play at a higher level and my ambition would be to be the defender I can,” says Bilel and, given his rampant improvement over the course of one season, who could begrudge him the opportunity to do so. Renewed interest in the vastly prodigious defender is likely this summer with a number of clubs likely to court the Parisian. Bilel’s journey so far has taken him from parks in Paris suburbs to an English seaside club in one year; it’d be foolhardy to rule out yet more wandering for him.
To read more from Liam you can follow him on Twitter here