Musa Barrow and his Bologna team-mates may have been without their manager for almost a month, but the squad are unwavering in their commitment to their absent coach.
Rossoblu boss Sinisa Mihajlovic is in hospital receiving treatment for leukaemia, having been diagnosed with the condition for a second time at the end of last month.
The former Yugoslavia international, 53, first announced he had leukaemia in July 2019, but was successfully treated in the following months and returned to the touchline.
“We know him well, he never gives up,” forward Barrow told BBC Sport Africa.
“It’s not easy for anyone, but what we can do is to keep together and do well on the pitch for him.
“We are a tight-knit group, we give our all even if he is not with us in person. We make him feel our affection by listening to what he demands and performing on the pitch.
“He watches all of our games from the hospital, and if we get a good result, that’s good for him too! We really hope he comes back to us as soon as possible.”
Mihajlovic, who has been described by his wife as “a lion with a soft heart”, has set Bologna the goal of a top-ten finish in Italy’s Serie A.
That looks like a tough task with the team currently 13th in the table and eight points outside that top ten with six matches left.
But Barrow, a mature young man despite his 23 years of age, says the squad is “ready to believe in our goal and to battle for it until the end”.
Development under Mihajlovic
Barrow first moved to Bologna in January 2020 on loan from Atalanta, and he made the switch permanent at the end of last season.
With five goals and five assists this season, he feels very comfortable in Bologna and believes he has developed into a better player under Mihajlovic.
“I speak a lot to him. He’s very demanding with me, but I always listen to what he says,” Barrow said.
“I have improved a lot since I got here. I am much more attentive when it comes to defensive work,
“I help my team-mates more. In the past I loved to run all around the pitch with the ball, now I do a lot of runs without it, I try and go deep way more than I used to.”
Barrow is also relishing his link up with former Stoke City and West Ham United striker Marko Arnautovic.
The Austrian centre-forward arrived last August and, with his 12 league goals, has proved the ideal partner for the Gambian.
“Marko is very important for me and for the team in general,” Barrow said.
“He’s there in the middle and I am free to move all over the pitch. We are both very dangerous when we play close to each other, but sometimes I move wide or low to pick up the ball and build up our game.
“I like to move around and I am fortunate the manager allows me to do so.”
Life in Bologna
Away from the pitch Bologna, with its demanding yet respectful fans, seems an ideal fit for Barrow, who enjoys a quiet life.
“I live in a beautiful city, fans are very friendly to me,” he said.
“I like all of my team-mates, we are a good group. Most of them are very funny, we laugh a lot and that’s important.
“At home we are three, my brother lives with me too. It’s nice to have a member of the family here; The Gambia is far away. Luckily I can travel home and see my family when I play for the Scorpions or during football breaks.
“I also have friends from The Gambia here, and I spend most of my time with them. I don’t like to live alone – I need people around me, especially after games.”
The Gambia eye second straight Nations Cup
Barrow helped The Gambia create history on their debut appearance at the Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year.
After scoring two decisive goals to help the West Africans to the quarter-finals, where they were eliminated by hosts Cameroon, Barrow is determined to reach the 2023 Nations Cup as well.
Tom Saintfiet’s Scorpions have been drawn in a qualifying group with Mali, Congo and South Sudan, after surviving a scare against Chad in a preliminary play-off.
“We won 1-0 in the first leg and risked elimination in the second leg – it would have been terrible not to take part in qualifiers for two years!” Barrow admitted.
“It was really difficult. We are used to being the underdogs, so we play tight at the back and try to catch big teams on the break with counter-attacks. This time they did the same against us and it was an unusual situation for us.”
Yet Barrow is adamant The Gambia will compete for a spot at next year’s tournament in the Ivory Coast.
“We have already faced Morocco, Algeria, Togo, Benin, many teams. We are here, we are ready, we will try our best.”
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