It was only five years ago Bevis Mugabi was in academy football at Southampton – and it feels closer to 10.
After learning his trade with players such as Luke Shaw and James Ward-Prowse at St Mary’s, the Ugandan international made his way to ML1 via Yeovil Town.
He’s made himself a fans’ favourite, broke a world record set by Cristiano Ronaldo and cemented himself as a solid part of Graham Alexander’s side.
Still only 26, his time in senior football has been brief in the grand scheme of things.
But it’s been a learning curve of the steepest gradient. It was either sink or swim if you wanted a football career after time in the Southampton academy, something Mugabi knew all too well.
Some of his former team-mates have hit football’s summit. Ward-Prowse is captain of the Premier League club and Shaw scored for England in the Euro 2020 final during the summer. Others aren’t involved in football anymore.
Mugabi was desperate not to fall into the latter category. Both he and former Motherwell winger Gboly Ariyibi were team-mates in the Saints academy, and it was tough to witness the brutal reality of trying to become a star.
“Five years ago I was playing academy football,” explained Mugabi. “I moved to Yeovil from Southampton before I came here. I feel I’ve been a professional for so much longer.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity I was given to be honest, because a lot of the boys ended up falling out of football, ending up nowhere. I’ve seen it first-hand with some of my former team-mates.
“Me and Gboly were so close at Southampton and we still speak to each other now. With our age group at that time, we had guys like James Ward-Prowse, Luke Shaw, and Callum Chambers. Then there’s me and Gboly.
“A few of us have gone on to have careers. Others have fallen off, which is sad to see as they were talented players. It’s all hard work and dedication. So I’m very grateful to be in professional football.”
You might be wondering which Ronaldo record was broken by Motherwell’s Ugandan centre-back this year.
The chosen setting for this probably wouldn’t have been Dingwall, the home of Ross County, midweek in January as Alexander’s men scrapped for Premiership survival, but there it was.
Leaping very, very high to head into the net to seal a 2-1 victory, Mugabi’s jump was measured once he had left Highland airspace and returned to the ground.
In December 2019, Ronaldo scored a pretty spectacular header for Juventus against Sampdoria. it was a crazy piece of physical strength as he soared 8ft 5in in the air to nod home the winner.
The vertical leap was a record goal-scoring jump at the time before Mugabi jumped 8ft 6in off the ground for his winner in Dingwall.
He said after the match in Dingwall that Manchester United’s talisman forward would need to up his game after that moment in January. There’s been no response since as the Ugandan international holds the mantle.
“At the time I wasn’t even aware of how high I had actually jumped,” Mugabi said. “My brothers were telling me that I really leapt for that header.
“It got a bit of publicity and it went viral. The pitch was very heavy that day so I don’t even know how I managed to jump. But we needed the three points desperately at the time. So that was a nice goal to have.
“It was a bit weird, having that comparison to a such a football legend. It was a special moment just to have that kind of talk with your name mentioned.”
Like any king, there’s always someone eager to have your throne. Kampala Capital City Authority Club forward Sadat Happy Anaku had a go at taking the record, but his leap fell short and reached the fair height of 8.44ft.
“They are a team over in Uganda,” added Mugabi. “It was some leap to be fair to them. I can only imagine how my one looked because at the time.”
Bringing things quite literally back to the ground, the old cliche of ‘can he do it on a cold and rainy night in Stoke’ is often thrown about. It essentially means could the best players strut their stuff in the harshest conditions.
Whatever those conditions are in Stoke, it’s probably child’s play to Mugabi’s time at Yeovil. It was straight from academy football and into the environment that would help shape him as a player, and a person.
Huish Park is an old-school ground with terracing to boot. No longer was Mugabi in the often pampered world of academy football at the elite level, he was in the rough and tumble of England’s fourth tier.
Firing long balls up to ex-Well striker Alex Fisher in the middle of February against Forest Green Rovers was certainly a fresh experience, but one Mugabi is grateful for.
“Feed the fish and he will score,” joked Mugabi. “Some guys maybe struggled to make that transition into men’s football. At academy level, everything is done for you.
“You get pampered and then you get thrown into the real world. You have your own flat, you cook your own dinner. At some clubs, you have to wash your own kit and do your own gym sessions.
“Some people just can’t make that transition. Getting into men’s football was the best thing I did – but nobody likes making that trip down to Yeovil. It’s far.
“But it was good to be there and get some sort of experience. It did me the world of good. League Two level is direct so I was getting a lot of action at a young age. The majority of the team was young, full of guys who needed exposure.
“It helped me a lot to be honest. Big Fisher was a great target to be fair. He was a great guy and a great target to aim for.”
There are differences to be found in Motherwell and Yeovil, in Mugabi’s eyes. Both are community clubs at the centre of their respective areas.
That’s certainly the case in ML1. Mugabi and the rest of the Motherwell changing room recently opted to join the Well Society.
The players, together with the coaching staff, decided to collectively join and contribute monthly to the club’s fan ownership group, playing their part in the continuing health and growth of Motherwell as a football club.
It comes off the back of Motherwell fans raising over £60,000 towards the Well In initiative, which handed season tickets to those less fortunate. The club matched this generosity.
“I feel like the club does an amazing job of including the community and being supportive of the environment around us,” said Mugabi. “It makes sure everyone around us is supported.
“Everyone is connected. It’s the least we can do to give back. We don’t make £10,000 each week or anything like that, but even the small amount we contribute could hopefully make a big difference.
“That would be amazing. With my previous club Yeovil, I feel it was similar to Motherwell. It was a family club, they tried to include the community in things.
“It’s important, I feel, to have everything connected and everyone pushing in the same direction.”
Mugabi’s focus remains on securing his place at the heart of Alexander’s defence, with fierce competition from the likes of Sondre Solholm Johansen, Ricki Lamie, Darragh O’Connor and Juhani Ojala.
Johansen and Ojala hail from Norway and Finland, and there’s a chance for the remaining trio to pick up a new language. Lamie hasn’t started, and neither has Mugabi though.
“My second language isn’t coming along, to be honest,” Mugabi laughed. “But I should probably start picking up different bits and bobs to be fair to them. It’s difficult but they have had a good transition into Scottish football and Scotland in general.
“They’ve equipped themselves really well. They have settled into the club well itself and they are integrating into our group very well. They are also good quality players that the gaffer has brought in.
“So for me, it’s going well. It’s a young squad, and I feel I’ve had enough experience to be one of the more experienced guys in the changing room.
“That’s with the way I lead and train before a game. But I’m not old yet.”
Mugabi has also battled back from fitness concerns to form part of Alexander’s defence this season. A shoulder injury troubled him throughout last season’s campaign.
After going through Lanarkshire’s tape supply and undergoing an operation to get his shoulder sorted, Mugabi has been right back in the thick of the action for his manager.
It was a tough period, but he’s on the other side fit and healthy, ready to continue making his mark.
“I am fully recovered from my shoulder injury at the end of last season,” added Mugabi with a sigh of relief. “That was really needed.
“It was more so getting the strapping done before every training session and then again before every game. Myself and definitely the physios, I do not know how much money we spent on tape, just for me.
“I guess it was probably a hefty amount to be honest. But I am just glad it is over with and I can move on from it.”
Motherwell are in the top half of the Premiership after the first 10 league fixtures and Mugabi is playing almost every week. It’s been a good spell for the defender after a tough time with injury.
He’s been due some luck and this season he’s got his break, playing regular football without the worry of a shoulder popping out of place or dislocating. Form progression is key now.
“Personally I think the season is going well,” added Mugabi. “I missed the majority of pre-season with the shoulder injury I had at the end of last season, but I was thrown in on the first day of the season.
“That was good, to just be thrown into the deep end of playing games again.”
Bevis’ interview appears in the latest edition of the Motherwell FC programme, along with a host of other great features.
You can pick yours up at Fir Park ahead of Motherwell v St Mirren on Wednesday night, or order online here.