This interview was originally published in HeedLines issue 184 on Saturday, October 29.
Few National League players have had a life quite like Adi Yussuf.
Born in Tanzania in 1992, his family travelled to England when he was only an infant and eventually placed their roots in Leicester after a short time in London.
After working his way through the local football circuit as a child, Yussuf signed his first scholarship and professional deal with Leicester City and gained a reputation as a youngster with big things on the horizon.
A series of injuries at a string of clubs in his late teens and early twenties later however, and perception of the forward had changed.
“It got to a stage where when I was released by Lincoln City where no one would touch me, I couldn’t even get a trial,” he revealed.
“I went from this goal machine at Leicester who scored all these goals and people expected big things, to three years down the line no one even taking me on trial.
“No one would give me an opportunity because they thought what’s the point, he’s just going to get injured and it’s just wasting our time.”
In 2013, however, Conference North side Oxford City offered a glimmer of hope.
“Justin Merritt took over as manager and he was the only one who would let me come on trial, I was lucky that he gave me an opportunity,” Yussuf continued.
“I just needed a chance and Justin gave me that chance, so I’ll be forever indebted to him – he saved my career.
“My family was saying ‘maybe you should consider doing other things’, but for me there was no chance because I knew I could do it.
“When everyone else said maybe you should think about doing other things, my dad was the only one who was saying ‘you’re going to be fine, you’re going to do it’.
“He is absolutely delusional – it’s probably a negative word, but he’s a very positive and optimistic person.
“He’s played a big part in my career, even without the football stories my dad means everything, without him I would be nothing.”
Yussuf’s 27 league goals in 39 games attracted Football League suitors, with spells at Mansfield Town, Crawley Town and Grimsby Town following over the next two seasons where he scored nine goals in 53 appearances.
Managerial changes created a sense of instability for the Tanzanian in the Football League, though he found himself a home in which to thrive at Solihull Moors in 2017.
“I signed for a couple of teams and then the manager left a few months afterwards, so I wasn’t really stable,” said Yussuf.
“Where it did stabilise a bit was at Solihull – I couldn’t speak a bad word about them.
“Quinny [James Quinn] who is the assistant manager now was great with me, he did everything to help me out.
“We did well and finished second, but we should have won the league that year.
“I’m still in contact and have friends there for life, it was probably one of the best times in my footballing career.
“I had a couple of good years there and then got a move to Blackpool, and I felt that all of the hard work I’d put in had paid off.”
Yussuf’s 21-goal haul in all competitions during the 2018/19 season earned him a two-year deal with The Seasiders, then in League One, and in 2019 he made his international debut for his native homeland in a friendly against Zimbabwe before making the squad for the African Cup of Nations.
“I was away in Egypt for the African Cup of Nations and had just signed for Blackpool – It was literally a dream come true,” he said.
“I got called up after I was at Oxford and never played, but after the Solihull year I was more experienced.
“It was a dream to be in the squad. A lot of people wouldn’t think it, but Tanzania have some really good players and it wasn’t easy to get into the team.”
His influence in Tanzania extends outside of football however, with the forward setting up the Adi Yussuf Foundation in 2018 after what he admits was an eye-opening visit back home in his early twenties.
“It really opened my eyes to see that there’s a completely different world there that I didn’t take in when I was younger,” he said.
“I saw a kid who was about eight or nine years old and I remember asking him where he was going, and he didn’t know.
“He said he didn’t have a mum or dad, didn’t know when his next meal was going to be and was just walking around.
“I was like wow, this is wrong, so we rented out a place. It didn’t cost a lot, but it made sure he had breakfast, lunch, dinner and a place to stay and that’s where the foundation started really.
“I said whoever is in a similar situation to him can stay there for free, and as that got bigger my dad said if you want to help more kids you might have to get help from other people.
“I haven’t played in the Premier League and earned millions, if that was the case I’d do it all myself, so the more I get it out there and more donations I get, the more kids I can help.
“Every single penny goes to the kids. I used to give to charity beforehand and you never know where the money is going, so that’s why I post about what we’re doing all the time.
“It makes me feel good – it’s a selfish point of view, but there’s no better feeling than giving.”
A chance conversation with former Chesterfield team-mate James Montgomery brought him to Tyneside in September following a brief spell in Gibraltar, and Yussuf says he is thoroughly enjoying North East life so far.
“I’m good friends with Monty, so when I got back from Gibraltar we were speaking,” he added.
“He was asking what my plans were, said there were a few injuries here and would I be interested in possibly joining.
“Rob [Elliot] got in touch with me and everything went from there.
“it’s the best place I’ve lived in England – and I’m not even saying that because I’m here!
“The boys here are the best group of boys I’ve been in a changing room with and are just nice people.
“Even just walking around town, everyone is so much nicer up north.
“You can ask anyone on the streets where something is and they’ll help you out, it’s a lot more welcoming than it can be down south.”
To learn more about the Adi Yussuf Foundation, search @adiyussuffoundation on Instagram or visit www.theayf.org.