The old cliches about new challenges and settling in fall away when Offrande Zanzala talks about his journey through life and football. Moving from Crewe Alexandra to Carlisle United is simply the latest positive step for a young player whose story began in much more turbulent circumstances.

Zanzala is comfortable speaking about the time he and his family fled the civil war in Congo many years ago. He believes that overcoming the difficulty of that time, and eventually becoming a professional player in England, was achieved with God’s protection.

“It’s made me the person who I am,” he says. “I was born and raised in Congo, and my family were at a good stage in life. We were wealthy, I would say, and lived a good life. But the civil war changed our life completely.”

The centre of the conflict in 1997, a clash between rival forces connected to the country’s first democratically-elected president Pascal Lissouba and his predecessor Denis Sassou Nguesso, was Brazzaville, the Congolese capital and the Zanzalas’ home city. Thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced.

“It made us leave the city,” says says Zanzala, whose father travelled to Austria but could not take the rest of the family with him immediately. “We were living in the jungle, which was quite difficult as I’m sure you can imagine.” Families survived on bush meat, and illness was rife. Eventually the Zanzalas made it to Nigeria, from where they were able to join Offrande’s dad in Europe.

“The experience of stays with you for life as a young kid,” he says. “I was only two but I can remember quite a lot.

“Going to Austria, and having to adapt in a different environment, country, culture, the language, school…it was quite difficult at the time too. It made us angry inside, I would say, coming from the civil war to the whole new world, basically, and having to adapt so quickly. But definitely along the way we’ve been blessed and we’ve been protected by God – protecting us, keeping us safe, blessing us. Our lives is a blessing and a testimony.

“I’m proud to say that mine has been blessed and the only person who’s done that is God himself, and I’m happy to be part of God’s plan even though it was difficult. I’m here, I’m healthy, my family are here and doing well, they’re healthy, and that’s all that I can ask for – we are serving God and we’re all happy.”

News and Star: Zanzala has joined Carlisle after a spell with Crewe (photo: PA)Zanzala has joined Carlisle after a spell with Crewe (photo: PA)

Zanzala still has relatives in Congo and says he wishes they could see his football success first hand. He was eight when his family moved to England and four years later his talent with a ball was spotted. “I was just playing at a park, and got scouted by a coach,” he says. “It was Sunday league, and from there I signed at Derby when I was 12, and came through the ranks, played youth team football and signed my first-year pro.

“I won the [youth] league with Derby, with [new United team-mate] Callum Guy. It was a great experience. It was something which made me very proud. Winning the league, scoring goals, winning player of the month, great lads I shared the dressing room with…memories I look back and am happy for. It’s definitely helped me kick on and look to push on with my moves, and here I am today.”

As well as Guy, Zanzala is familiar with Nick Anderton from a spell at Accrington which saw the 24-year-old enjoy a League Two title win in 2018. He has also encountered Aaron Hayden, Rhys Bennett and Joe Riley at different levels of football and after a half-season spell at Crewe did not yield all the first-team football he had hoped, Zanzala is clearly engaged by the idea of joining Carlisle’s promotion push under Chris Beech in 2021.

“It’s always a good feeling to sign for a club, but I think it’s a better feeling when you come to a team like Carlisle who are doing well in the league and looking to get promoted,” he says. “The players are good, the stats are good, and I’m just happy to be here to be on this journey and delighted to see what the future holds.

“[The move] has been going on for about three-and-a-half weeks, going back and forth. When you know you’re becoming a free agent you get a lot of interest, but it made it a lot easier when I spoke to the gaffer here – I felt like he was definitely the manager to be a player under. From the conversation we had, and also just how he is as a person.

“There’s nothing better than going to play for someone who is just down to earth, honest, and most of all hard-working, and that’s what I’m all about. I’ve had a few training sessions with the boys and I’ve felt welcomed from everyone here. I’ve felt appreciated straight away. I feel like I’m at home,  and can’t wait to spend more time with the players and get to know more about them, play games, score goals, and at the end of the season lift a trophy with the boys and make more memories.”

Zanzala said he felt a “connection” when speaking to Beech about the way United perform. “I’ve done studies already of how they play – they play very quick football, attacking, everyone works hard, and that’s just me to a T, really. I play with passion, desire, I want to score goals, and just work hard for the team. I’ve seen that around the players in training and in games which I’ve watched.”

Zanzala admits Crewe, where he moved last summer, did not “go to plan” but is grateful for the opportunity. “I’ve learned and it’s made me a better player, made me hungrier to kick on, and I appreciate what they’ve done to me.”

Accrington, before that, via a loan and then permanent switch from Derby, was a richer experience. “It was a good time. Winning the league just topped it off. There was a buzz around the team and changing room and we had a great team bond which made it a lot easier for players like myself. My [title] medal is still at home and I’m proud to say that I’ve won League Two, and I want to do that again this season.”

News and Star: Zanzala helped Accrington to the League Two title in 2018 (photo: PA)Zanzala helped Accrington to the League Two title in 2018 (photo: PA)

After helping Stanley over the line three seasons ago, Zanzala is clear in his wish to taste it a second time in Cumbria. United are top after 21 games. “The team already has that buzz, which is good to see – that buzz, desire, work rate, they’re working for each other, they’re honest amongst each other, they demand greatness from each other.

“I want to come here and be part of it, but also bring to the table what I’m capable of bringing to the table, whether it’s on or off the pitch. If it’s personality, helping someone out…whatever it is, if I can help someone get closer to the big end goal, which is winning the league, everyone’s moving the same way and we’re all happy, aren’t we?”

Beech says Zanzala prefers to play centre-forward but he has played for Crewe in wide positions and, either way, will need to be adaptable in Carlisle’s front three, which is currently staffed by Omari Patrick, Joshua Kayode and Lewis Alessandra, with Gime Toure and Brennan Dickenson also in the wings.

“I would say I’m quite versatile,” he says. “When I’m on the pitch I’m happy to be on the pitch. If the gaffer wants me to play goalie I’m happy to play goalie. I’m a striker, the gaffer knows I’m a striker, and I’ll just see what the gaffer wants me to do. He knows my position. I don’t pick the team, and wherever he thinks I should play I will play.

“There’s no point going to a team which is doing well and going for promotion if you’re not looking to face the challenge. Everywhere you go is a challenge and you have to show who you are as a person. You have to work hard and that’s what I’m willing and able to do. Whenever I’m called to do so, I’m willing to give my best for the team and contribute where I can.”

Zanzala has had to wait for his debut, given that Saturday’s game against Leyton Orient fell to a frozen pitch, but Tuesday’s trip to Harrogate could see his first Blues involvement. “That’s what I’ve been waiting for,” he says. “The good thing about football is the next game’s around the corner. [The postponement] gives me more ammunition to get sharper and ready. If I’m called then I’m ready to go. All I can control is what I can control, which is looking after myself, training to the best I can, and helping other players where I can.”

Zanzala’s story makes him a fascinating new presence at Carlisle, and he answers each question thoughtfully. He also chuckles when reminded that his move to United was little secret. In the days before Friday’s announcement, supporters spotted a personalised number plate in Brunton Park and cottoned on to the fact he had been followed on social media by several Blues players.

“I seen that!” he says. “I had loads of messages asking if I was coming – is that my car, are you staying at the clubhouse, are you doing this or that – but I didn’t give anything away. I had to be professional in that. Now it’s done and it’s been published, I’m just happy, and I like to believe the fans are happy.

“I don’t want to disappoint them – I’ve come here to kick on and score goals, and get them up, get that promotion.”

News and Star: Zanzala wants to help fire United to promotion this season (photo: Amy Nixon)Zanzala wants to help fire United to promotion this season (photo: Amy Nixon)