“Are you sure it’s me?” asks Plymouth Argyle wing-back Bali Mumba, on being told he had won September’s Young Player of the Month Award.
“I can’t stop smiling to be honest with you,” he says. “I was shocked and surprised, that’s why I asked if it was really me! It’s a proud award for me, I’ve seen a lot of young players win this before and I’ve always wanted to win it.”
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Having joined Plymouth Argyle on a season long loan ahead of the 2022/23 season, his start to life in Devon could hardly have gone any better. With five assists and two goals in 12 League One appearances, the 21-year-old Norwich City loanee has had a start to the season to match that of the Pilgrims, and is fast emerging as one of the top young talents in League One.
“I’m really enjoying my football here,” he adds. “That’s something that I’ve always wanted, to be enjoying playing football. I’ve been given the opportunity to just express myself and play how I want to play and I’m grateful for that.”
Constantly playing with a smile on his face, Mumba’s energy, enthusiasm and confidence has got the fans at Home Park smiling, too.
“I’m really enjoying playing for this team, I love my teammates and I love the fans. Everything about the club is brilliant and I can’t see myself ever playing without a smile on my face while I’m here.”
Argyle have won eight of their last nine league games, boast a 100% win record at home in the league this season and are unbeaten since August. It’s fair to say belief around Home Park is high.
Mumba adds: “All the lads have said what an amazing month it’s been for us and it’s just shown all the hard work we’ve been putting in is paying off.
“I believed that it was going to be a good season for me individually. I felt ready to contribute to a team and to play for a team like Plymouth as well, I see myself doing well here. I suppose the start I’ve had wasn’t necessarily expected, you never know how it’s going to go coming into a new club, but I’ve worked hard to succeed so far.”
Having been ever present in the league this season, the 21-year-old wears his heart on his sleeve and is fast becoming a fan favourite at Home Park.
“He’s producing some really good moments for us,” Argyle manager Steve Schumacher said recently, but Mumba’s best moment this season undoubtedly came against Ipswich Town, when the full-back’s goal helped the Pilgrims to a 2-1 victory over the Tractor Boys who, at the time, were unbeaten and top of the league.
A thunderous strike from Mumba in front of over 15,000 fans at Home Park is a moment he will “never forget”.
“To be honest, I’ve watched it back that many times I’m unlikely to ever forget it,” he admits.
“It felt incredible, to score at Home Park for the first time in front of all those fans, it was an amazing feeling. I remember having chances in previous games and not getting a goal but I knew when I scored it would be worth it and it really was.
“For it to come against Ipswich who were top of the league at the time too, it was amazing. I think a few Norwich fans enjoyed it as well, I had a few messages on social media and I think they loved it more than I did!”
Plymouth find their equaliser in STYLE! 😎 pic.twitter.com/c2JcezwlXT— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) September 25, 2022
The defender came through the ranks at Sunderland, making his Championship debut at just 16 years of age, but he managed only five first-team appearances for the Black Cats before signing for Norwich in 2020. A Premier League debut came for the Canaries in August 2021 in a 5-0 defeat to Manchester City, before joining Peterborough United on loan last season.
“I still remember my debuts for both clubs,” Mumba says. “Though I didn’t play regularly for either club, thinking about those debuts brings a smile to my face, they were very proud moments for me and my family and ones that I cherish.”
And after featuring just 10 times for Peterborough in the second half of last season, Mumba returned to Norwich before the end of the campaign after a “tough period” that saw him “struggle” under Grant McCann.
But in Plymouth Argyle, it’s become clear that Mumba has found a home, on and off the pitch, as he continues to thrive playing in a style suited to him and for a manager who believes in him.
“The experience I had at Peterborough has helped me to kick on down here for sure, it probably helped me in the long run and got me to where I am today but the playing style at Plymouth suits me and the type of player I am perfectly and that’s something that plays a huge part when you’re deciding where to play football.
“With the formation, style of play and type of manager Plymouth have, it made sense for me to come and play here and it just felt right.”
Mumba was quick to highlight Schumacher in his decision to sign for Plymouth, stating that the Argyle manager had already played a “big part” in his development.
The 38-year-old has led Argyle to 23 wins from 39 League One games in his first managerial role, after stepping up from the number two position when Ryan Lowe left Home Park for Preston North End last December. The former assistant coach is already highly-rated as a manager, despite only being in the role 10 months, and it is clear from talking to Mumba that the players believe in his philosophy and managerial approach.
“He’s played a big part this season already for me and was a huge factor in me coming here. The way he spoke to me, the way he expressed what he wants for the club and the potential he saw in me was really important.
“Being allowed to express myself through my game and have that license to play a certain way, it’s important to me as a player. He’s said not to worry about making mistakes, because all young players do, so knowing I can go out onto the pitch and play without fear allows me to play my best game. I don’t go home and dwell on anything because I’ve got confidence in my game and he’s got confidence in me.
“When a manager puts trust in you like that, the only way you can pay them back is by performing each week and I want to show him how much I’m enjoying my football here.”
After a disappointing end to last season saw Argyle miss out on the League One Play-Offs despite finishing on 80 points, the goal is to go one better this time. And having already beaten Ipswich, Barnsley and Sheffield Wednesday, who currently occupy top six places below the Pilgrims, there is a real feeling that the club is on the up.
“It’s all about taking it game by game, day by day and continuing our run of form,” Mumba says.
“There’s still so much of the season to go, there are still plenty of games to play and we won’t be getting carried away. We won’t be thinking just because we’re top we’re the best in the league.
“The group of lads we have here are a very humble group. We know we deserve to be where we are right now, but we’re under no illusions that there is so much hard work still to do. We want to finish as high as we can and we think we’re capable of is but our aim is to remain focused, take it game by game and see where we’re at.
“For me as an individual, I just want to have a good season. After every game I try to set myself new standards so I’m always reassessing my targets and reach new heights. I want this to be a season to remember, a season where I contribute to a team with goals and assists and that’s something I’m on track with right now.”