Mboma puts on a brave face

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The Independent Football

The Sunderland striker Patrick Mboma is unlikely to forget the start of 2002 – sadly not just for the right reasons.

Last month Mboma helped Cameroon lift the African Nations' Cup in Mali. As soon as he returned to Europe, the 31-year-old striker then signed for Sunderland and made his Premiership debut.

There may be a great deal of difference between the pinnacle of the African game and a relegation fight on Wearside but Mboma, currently on loan at the Stadium of Light from the Italian side Parma, insists he is enjoying every minute of it.

Mboma was handed a first start on Wearside in Tuesday's vital 1-0 win over Bolton, which slightly eased the Black Cats' worries about getting caught-up in the relegation struggle at the bottom of the Premiership.

Unlike in his previous appearance against Tottenham, Mboma did not get on the scoresheet but the vast majority of the 43,011 spectators inside the stadium were unaware either that he had been given a pain-killing injection before kick-off to offset the effects of a lingering back problem, or that he ran out still coming to terms with the tragic death of one of his closest friends.

The Chievo player Jason Mayelé, described as "virtually a brother" by Reid, died in a car crash in Verona on Saturday evening. Mboma was too upset to talk about his loss, but drew some comfort from the challenge that lies ahead for him.

"I feel at home," he said. "I feel as if I was here for several years because of the fans and also because I've been helped so well by my team-mates, by the coaches and the manager, everybody here. I came here just because I wanted to play football. It's something important for me and I didn't expect such a thing. It's something incredible."

Mboma made his debut in the 1-0 home defeat by Newcastle on February 24, but scored in his first start at White Hart Lane on Saturday and kept his place for the game with Bolton. While he feels that he has more to give, he is satisfied with his early contribution. "It's not bad for my first three games," the former Paris St-Germain and Cagliari striker said. "Finally, we took three points, and that was the most important thing for me.

"I'm playing with confidence and I think the best is yet to come from me. It's the best beginning I've had, except for maybe Japan, but that's a different level. I've also played in France and Italy, and the beginning was not as good as now. Many people told me, many friends, that this is probably the best league I can play in."

Despite the win over Bolton, Sunderland remain far from safe, and with trips to Chelsea and Arsenal to come later this month, there is still plenty to be done. But the importance of that first home win of the year cannot be under-estimated.

"It was important because we're fighting against relegation," Mboma said. "It was important because Bolton also needed three points. There are some important games in March, going to London twice, and we need to get outside this zone as soon as possible."

But if the Wearsiders' situation is still slightly uncomfortable, Bolton are facing an increasingly tough climb away from trouble, and the gradient became steeper on Tuesday when Mike Whitlow and Michael Ricketts both picked up injuries. Whitlow suffered a suspected broken rib while Ricketts damaged a knee.

Reid, a former Bolton player, is confident that Wanderers can escape. "If they can get Ricketts fit and scoring and Dean Holdsworth and Youri Djorkaeff scoring, I think they'll be all right," he said. "I think they've got enough. Sam's got to buy a goal somewhere. The job he's done has been fantastic and he'll see it through."

The Wanderers manager is hopeful both Ricketts and Whitlow will be available for the visit of Derby to the Reebok Stadium on March 16. "We've got a little bit of a breather with no game this week because of the cup, and hopefully that will be enough time for those two players and the other ones to get fit," Allardyce said.

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