Bright Osayi-Samuel left London at the crack of dawn, his mind wired and exhausted, a kitbag over his shoulder and an air of disappointment hanging over him. The previous day had begun with him calling Karl Oyston personally, pleading with Blackpool’s owner to accept an offer from Queens Park Rangers. With just hours of the transfer window remaining, the winger sped down the motorway to Hayes, hastily passed a medical and agreed terms at the training ground. The whirlwind was over. But then there was nothing but dead air.
“There were 10 minutes left until the window shut,” Osayi-Samuel tells The Independent. “We were just waiting for Blackpool to sign the papers but suddenly they were ignoring all our calls. My agent called the manager, but there was nothing he could do, it was out of his control. I even started texting and calling the owner myself. When the window shut, I went back to my hotel room and I started praying. Nobody had any idea what was happening. I remember speaking to my mum, my agent trying to calm me down, I was so upset.”
Osayi-Samuel spent that night wide awake, whizzing through what-ifs, the hope gradually eaten away by disappointment. As the train pulled out of Euston Station, QPR was a hall of mirrors fading in the reflection.
“I just remember sitting on that train, I was sad, I was angry,” he continues. “And then my agent called. He told me the paperwork had gone through. Still to this day I don’t know how it all happened so late. A few minutes later, Ian Holloway [then the manager of QPR] rang and told me how happy he was that I’d signed. I was so happy and relieved. I wanted the move so badly.”
Even now, those 24 hours still feel like one endless blur of emotion. Osayi-Samuel has since established himself as one of the most exciting wingers in the Championship, armed with the type of pace which petrifies and paralyses defenders. His “breakout season” at QPR had already seen him score six goals and assist another eight before football’s suspension, announcing himself to the wider public and attracting interest from several Premier League clubs. “I want to show everyone I’m the best in my position,” the 22-year-old says. “To show I belong at the very top.”
For QPR, it had been a typically chaotic campaign, regularly playing some of the most attractive football in the league before undoing it all in moments of reckless abandon. A major driving force in those periods of success came in the relationship between Osayi-Samuel, playmaker Ebere Eze and midfielder Ilias Chair – a trio of close friends born just nine months apart. “I remember us sitting in my house,” Osayi-Samuel says. “We’d spend days talking about taking QPR to the Premier League, the chances of doing that and how much the people in west London would love us if we can pull it off. We’re capable of that, and that’s the ultimate goal: to showcase my skills at the highest level. I’ll do anything to get there.”
Osayi-Samuel and Eze have been dovetailing since they were schoolboys, both from Nigerian backgrounds and raised in southeast London, where their skilful and combative style of play was hardened in cages on local estates. “On a Friday, I’d go there at eight and get home at 1 in the morning,” he says. “Everybody is watching and you have to have the confidence to do things you’ve never done before and try and beat your man. I was the youngest playing against people who were 25, older bigger men, and I’d get pushed off the ball and fouled but that’s what makes you stronger.”
Yet, despite showing an obvious raw ability, Osayi-Samuel’s pathway to professional football was always potholed. At 15 he was still without a club, turned away by Charlton and training in a development camp for promising players in West Ham. The most dispiriting train journey of all came a few months later after being invited to play in a trial game for Norwich. “Two of us from the camp had been invited and we got the train up together,” he explains. “I didn’t have a good game and the other guy did. I knew I wasn’t going to get in and I cried the whole way back. That’s probably the last time I cried, it was very out of character, but I was just so disappointed in myself. When I saw my mum, I felt like I’d let her down, too. From there on, I had to try and prove a point. I knew I needed just one more chance.”
It was a Manchester United scout, John McNab, who eventually gambled on Osayi-Samuel’s potential. “He wanted to take me to United, but he also spoke to a coach at Blackpool. I talked to my mum and dad and they said there’d be a lot bigger chance of me making it at Blackpool. That’s what made the decision for me. I was so keen to play, I didn’t care where it was, I’d never been at a proper team before and I was willing to sacrifice everything. When the chance came, I grabbed at it with both hands.”
The years Osayi-Samuel spent there, separated from his family and his friends, were what defined him as a professional. In particular, the coaching of Gary Bowyer as the club won promotion back to League One in 2017. “I was always the youngest in the team and I’m a quiet person generally,” he says. “There were times we’d have team meetings and he’d make me stand up and speak to everyone. Little things like that gave me a lot more confidence and then I took that into games. Another thing was criticism. When I was at the camp, when I didn’t play well I’d sulk or get angry. At Blackpool there was no time for that, you had to learn quickly.”
Then there was the revolt around the Oyston’s ownership, a unique state of pandemonium that no player can ever prepare for. “I remember at one point we’d be going to games and there’d be fans outside the stadium shouting: ‘You shouldn’t play for this club. Get out and save yourself. This isn’t the club for you’,” he says. “I knew I had to move to improve my career.”
But when the sheer ecstasy of his transfer to QPR finally subsided, Osayi-Samuel’s overriding emotion wasn’t just relief. Even when it felt as though his dream move had been stripped away and the rails might as well have been breaking beneath the train, there was never any resentment. “The first thing I have to say to anyone at Blackpool is thank you,” he says. “Even when I thought the move had fallen through, I was always willing to go back. They gave me the chance to start my career, but it wasn’t just about becoming a player, they improved me as a person.”