Posted in Player Interview

Player Interview: Nana Opoku Ampomah

With one of the better players in the league this season, I finally had the pleasure of calling and having a chat with Nana Opoku Ampomah. The Ghanaian is not only adored by Beveren fans, but he has admirers across the Pro League. A season to remember, I was extremely grateful for him to put some time aside for me to talk football, amongst other things.

Hey Nana. You’re in your second season in Belgium now. Is Belgium beginning to feel more like home?

Yeah it’s beginning to feel like home now. Im almost into my fourth year here I think and I’m feeling more relaxed now.

How did a move to Belgium happen?

I came to Mechelen. They scouted me and put me on a six month contract. Then I played a couple of games for the second team and I gained some good experience.

What actually happened at Mechelen?

I just didn’t get the chance to play for the first team even though it was good experience. But in football things happen and I had to move on because I had to play.

This season is like a polar opposite of last season personally for you. How frustrating was last season?

Well as a football player you always want to play and when you don’t get the chance it does become very frustrating. You can get sad. But I always trained hard and did my best everyday to get the coach to notice me and I didn’t let negative thoughts get into my head. I just wanted to play because the coach is the one who selects the team. If he thinks there is someone better than me then I just have to work hard and not get down and try and get into the team. I had to learn from all this and continue to work and I’m getting my chance this season, although I still have a long way to go.

When Phillipe Clement came in, how did you feel? What were your emotions like? Were you calm or apprehensive…?

Well as a new coach he has his rules and ways of doing things. When I came back from vacation I said to myself ‘I have to improve!’ A new coach, new start, new beginning and I just had to work harder. He saw how hard I was working in training. Doing everything I could to be in the team. I was grateful that he gave me the chance and I’m really happy for that.

Did he say to you that you’d be a key player for him when he joined the club or did he say to everyone that it’s a clean slate and you all have a chance?

Because he was new he didn’t know the players and he started looking at us in training. I think cause I was really working hard to be in the team because I wanted to play, I was doing everything he wanted me to do. I knew how to do best and it’s working for me.

This season you have been exceptional. Opposition fans want you at their club because of your performances and you were selected for Ghana. Has this season almost been a dream for you?

Yeah I’d say it’s been my best season ever. I still have mistakes and have had ups and downs and know I still have to work hard to get to where I want to go. I still have to work on my statistics with just seven goals and three assists, I could have done better. And now I was really happy to play for my national team in Ghana. It’s every child’s dream in Ghana to play for the national team and I was really happy to be selected to play for them. I was proud and happy and hope this continues, but I’ll have to work for this. I know I still have to work harder.

You have been part of one of the most attacking and exciting front lines in the league. How fun has that been for you knowing how potent you and your teammates can be?

Yeah. When you get some players you’re going to play with and against and you have good players around you, it gives you confidence and boosts your mentality and physicality. I think Morioka was one of them players where you felt he could assist or score, and Thelin, who can always score. He has scored an amazing amount of goals and is leading the competition. That gives us more confidence that we can do anything together and they are some of the best in the Belgian League. It was very good and I’ve been lucky to play with this talent. It’s a very good feeling playing in this team with those players.

When I came and spoke to Aleksandar Boljevic he said that if Morioka has to go, we have to just let him go. What did he say to the players when he knew he was joining Anderlecht?

Naturally he is somebody who doesn’t speak a lot. We knew something was going to happen and knew he was going to leave so we just had to….we wanted him to stay but he knew and we knew he had to take that step in his career and I’m very happy that he got his move to Anderlecht and sometimes in football you just have to let him go. He is one of the best players in Belgium. We had to just forget about it and just concentrate on our game and keep going because he is just one out of eleven players. We have quality on the bench who are ready to play. I was happy for him and we understood this and we have to keep working hard as one.

Unfortunately a plethora of quality players have left or will leave, and of course Phillipe Clement went too. How has that affected you and the squad mentally?

It sort of gave the team more perspective. Of course the manager went to Genk and he came in and told us he had to take that step in his career. That’s the job though. If you’re losing and not doing well he’d have got sacked, but because he did well he moved on. It’s good for him (Clement). Personally I was a little bit sad but incredibly happy for him. Happy for him to take that step and he can become a great coach. But we have a very good coach now in Sven Vermant and he has done a good job. He has been here a couple of months now and he is doing well so we’re just concentrating on our own team and to do the best here.

When Sven Vermant came in he carried on the good work. I think he was undefeated in his first six matches? What did he say when he joined and how does he compare to Clement?

When he came the first session was very good. I think he will do his best and he came at the right time. He made us feel good. Yeah the first few games he was undefeated and he was very proud. We are ready to fight for him.

Where do you see yourself next season? Is it still at Beveren or if the club get a good offer for you, could you be elsewhere?

Personally I am fully concentrated on Beveren because I am still here and I’m hoping to play well and we can go far in the playoffs. Now personally I’m concentrating fully on the team.

If you are at Beveren next season, would you feel more like a leader within the team?

I wouldn’t say I’d be a leader. There’s other leaders within the squad who are more responsible. We just have to work hard together to get to where we want to get to. We want to work very hard.

Is Europa League still your main objective in the Playoffs?

Yeah. Yes! We want to win the playoffs. We’re not just playing for playings sake. We just want to get to the top and get where we weren’t able to in the league. We want to be top of Playoff 2 and I hope everything goes well for us. We’ve been working very hard and we want to do well.

Looking at the groups, you could be in the tougher group with Kortrijk and Zulte Waregem. How difficult will it be to finish top?

Kortrijk are strong and have a very good team now. Of course Zulte have a good team too. But we don’t think about who is tough and who isn’t tough. We just think about ourself. How strong we are and how strong we’re going to be. We don’t think about them we just think about how we’re going to win. We’re thinking about how to get to the top and that’s really important for us. That’s our main goal.

We were meant to chat back in November, but thankfully for you you were called up to the national side. How big a surprise was that for you even though you were in good form?

I had an injury in the game against Egypt. I started the game and somebody caught me in the nose with their elbow and I had a very deep cut. The bleeding couldn’t stop so I had to come off. Personally I felt I was doing well. (Unless their was poor connection on the phone or a misinterpretation of the question, Nana answered a question there nonetheless)

How good were Egypt that day and obviously with them qualifying for the World Cup?

It was hard. I was very proud to be selected for the first eleven. But playing against the likes of Mo Salah, Mohamed Elnenny, Trezeguet, I was really proud of where I was and it was a little bit tough. But we got a point and that was important because we didn’t lose.

Growing up Ghana were quality at the 2006 World Cup and had bad luck in South Africa. Who did you idolise growing up in Ghana?

Growing up we had Michael Essien, Asamoah Gyan, Stephan Appiah, Sulley Muntari. These players made the national team. These are the players I always looked up to. And I was really happy playing with Asamoah Gyan. One of the best players from Africa. I was really grateful to train and play in the same team as him. These were my idols.

What is Ghana’s main aim in the near future. Is it the Africa Cup of Nations or at least qualifying for the next World Cup?

We were really sad that we didn’t qualify for the World Cup this year, but then yeah, the goal is to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations and to get to the 2022 World Cup. Personally I hope they call me again in the national team.

As a continent, Africa does have some great individual players. Without sounding too unrealistic, do you think Africa is getting closer to another ‘George Weah’ and a Ballon d’Or winner or maybe winning a World Cup?

I think we have the talent and we can produce and who is doing well right now, with kids coming through too, I can’t see why not. That day will come and I think you’ll see an African do well again.

Going back to the Pro League, who is the toughest player you’ve played against?

In Belgium? That’s a really good question and a difficult one to answer. Erm….Hans Vanaken. (After a brief pause) Aidoo from Genk. (After a longer pause) you’ve made me think a little bit (with a slight chuckle)….I think Pozuelo. There are good players in Belgium.

Finally, have you ever had to deal with racism in the Pro League and how can we eradicate it? What’s the solution?

As a player I’ve never had to deal with something like this. I really don’t care for people calling me a monkey you know? I try not to listen and stick my head above it. The person who calls me that….I’m a human, not a monkey. If I meet this person, I think it’ll get really rough. I think I’d go and fight them (with another slight chuckle). But I think for the fans, doing something like this, I can’t explain. It’s really bad for fans and things need to be done about it because Belgium has a very good league and things like this can ruin the league.

It’s ignorance.

Definitely. When fans do this and call me a monkey it makes me want to play better to beat their team. At the same time I don’t want to show them it’s affected me. It happens to a lot of players across Europe. They have their own way of dealing with it.

After thanking him again, I ended the call. Unfortunately the line wasn’t the greatest, hence the answer to one of the questions, but Ampomah was pleasant and respectful, knowing that he is representing Beveren in a good way.

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Posted in Player Interview

Player Interview: Juan Pablo Torres

What a treat for me. Two interviews in two weeks with two young prospects in the Jupiler Pro League! This time around it was with young American talent Juan Pablo Torres. The 18 year old took time out after training to give me a call and talk about life, Lokeren, the US National team amongst other things.

Hey Juan Pablo. You’ve been in Belgium for basically a full regular season. What’s your opinion of Belgian football?

I think it’s a very high level. It’s a very physical game. You need to know what you need to do quickly when you get the ball because as soon as you receive it, you don’t get the time to think, so you have to play very, very fast and keep up with the physical side of the game. But I feel I’m still learning as the season’s going on. But yeah, I’d say it’s a very high level.

Did you know much about the Pro League?

I knew just a little bit about it. I knew the big teams like Gent, Genk and Club Brugge, but in my first season here I’ve learned a lot about it and all the players who play for different clubs and the history of all the clubs. So yeah, I’ve known a bit but I’ve definitely learned a lot now that I’m playing here.

I saw that you said you’ve played in Europe a lot with the US youth teams, but how did the move to Lokeren actually come about?

My agent told me about an opportunity at Sporting Lokeren and said that I can come and train with the team. So I came and started with the u19’s, trained there and then worked my way up to the first team. I was able to play well during the month I was at the club so that’s how the opportunity came about.

I saw you had trials at Sevilla and Schalke in the past. How was that experience?

That was really huge for me because when I was at Schalke, I was pretty young. About 14-15. That experience was pretty eye opening for me. You know, it was my first time seeing European football and I saw how competitive it was at an early age and how good the kids were. I knew that when I went back home, I had to work ten times harder than what the kids in the United States were working because what I was doing originally wasn’t good enough. At Schalke I saw that immediately so when I went home I made sure I was working harder so that when I went back to Europe, I knew what level I had to train at to try and get a contract. I’d be better prepared.

Were there many other clubs interested in you?

I knew there had been talks with other teams, but what I was really happy about with Lokeren is in the beginning, I’d be training with the first team and getting football right away. I felt that was really important and that it’d be a huge step for me in my career. So when the opportunity with Lokeren arrived I knew I wanted to take it. I liked the environment, I liked that when I was there I enjoyed my time. It felt like a good move for me and for my family as well so for me, Lokeren was an easy choice.

So early in your football career, Rúnar Kristinsson was sacked and Peter Maes came in. Did it show you how cut throat football can be?

Yeah definitely, definitely. It really showed me that this is a business and that you can’t get too comfortable. Whether that’s with the coach or when you’re selected you have to keep fighting for a spot because you never know what things will happen in the future. That definitely put things into perspective of how things can be and that I’ll always have to be sharp and ready for whatever happens.

Peter Maes is loved at the club, especially because of the cup wins. What’s he like to work under as a coach?

He is a very demanding coach. He tells the players what he wants and you have to do it. You have to work really hard with him and do your job. That’s one of the most important things and be part of a team. He obviously gave me my first start and I’m very grateful for that. You have to continue and keep pushing so that he can look at you and want to use you and want to put you in the team.

To put you in against Gent for your first start, was that a bit of a baptism of fire? How daunting was that for you?

To be honest I was pretty calm. I knew it was a big game and I knew how good a team Gent are and their history. I had a lot of respect for them but I just didn’t want to think about it too much and just play my game and focus on what I had to do to help the team as best as possible. My family was actually there when I had my first start so that really helped me a lot knowing they were there, that they were in the crowd watching. That really eased things for me. Of course I had butterflies. I was a bit nervous because it’s all new to you and I’d never experienced it before. I knew that with me working really hard that the day would come and that I had to take the chance.

Unfortunately for the club, relegation is a possibility. How’s the confidence within the team?

It’s an unfortunate situation that we find ourselves in. We have to move on and get ourselves prepared for the next game. The thing is everything’s in our hands and that’s really important. You never rely on other teams to do you a favour so that you’re secure in the league. It’s in our hands and I think that’ll bring calmness because we know what we have to do and we’ll prepare like always in every game. I think everything will be alright.

Your home form has been pretty poor all season. Why has the team been so good away?

I’m not sure. Its disappointing because at home you always want to be strong. You always want to play well, especially in front of your home fans. It’s a good question. It’s something we’ve noticed as a team, to get better at home. I think it’s important for a home game to be strong and that teams don’t want to come to your ground and to have that sense of pride when you’re playing at home. It’s something we need to work on and we’ll continue to.

I watched the Mechelen 0-2 Lokeren match and it was interesting because the team got the result in a professional manner. Clinical in attack and strong defensively. Is that what Peter Maes is trying to get across to the players in away matches?

We know there’ll be games where we’ll have to be solid. To be defensively tight between the lines and especially against teams who have the ball more. At the same time though, we have to also play when we have the ball and keep it. In training we do a lot of possession drills and keeping the ball, being able to play. So if we go into a game knowing we have to be strong defensively, it’s not necessarily that that’s all we’re thinking about. We still try to create attacking plays and still make chances.

Since you’ve been in Belgium, who has helped you settle the most?

All of us young guys in the team are all close. We’re always talking in the locker room. I always look up to the older guys that have played for a long time in their career because now that I’ve seen what they do day to day, I know how much of a grind it is, how difficult it is, so obviously when you see a guy who’s been playing for ten years or however long, you know they’ve been doing something right and that they know what they’re doing. I try to look to that and use that as someone to learn from.

There are a couple of Americans in the Pro League and Erik Palmer-Brown came over recently too. Have you reached out to them or vice versa?

With Erik and the national team, he was in the older age group so I don’t know him that personally. But when I saw that he’d come to Belgium it was obviously a good thing and I wish him nothing but the best. Maybe if we ran into each other, it’s always nice to see an American guy because he comes from where you come from, so that’s always nice to have. But I also have close friends in nearby countries, that play in Germany as well. We always keep in touch because even if it’s not the same league, we’re all going through the same thing. We always keep in touch.

Yeah because when I was looking this up, there was a lengthy list of Americans that especially play in Germany. There’s loads!

But back to this season. Individually, you haven’t had a lot of playing time. Is that because of the clubs circumstances right now or have you been told you’ll get more time in the Playoffs if you stay up?

I know that the start was good for me and there were great experiences being able to play. I take it every week, working hard in training and if the coach selects you, I know I’ll have to be ready. I know there are things I need to work on and to improve on. I always try to get better and maybe that’s the reason I’m not getting selected so I just have to stay calm, continue to work hard and just wait for the next opportunity that comes.

Is therea big difference in facilities between Lokeren and back in Georgia?

Yeah of course. Back in the United States I never played for a professional team in a professional environment. It was an academy near where I lived. We maybe trained three or four times a week and maybe in different soccer facilities around the city. Obviously that’s different to now where everyday we go to the club. Same pitch. When I was younger I had to get into going to the gym and eating right on my own because we didn’t necessarily have the people for that. Making sure I take care of myself on and off the field. What I’m eating, what I’m drinking, when I’m sleeping and all those other aspects that are important to the game.

How quickly is football growing in America amongst the other sports?

I think it’s growing at a rapid pace. When you think of the United States you think of the top sports. You think of American football, basketball and those kind of things. But football in America is something people are playing. You know when you see little kids the first sport they’re playing is football, which I think is great. Like you said, the league (MLS) has a lot of money and they’re looking to invest in big, nice stadiums, attracting big crowds and it’s working. A team like Atlanta United, the city where I’m from, the fans that they generate and the passion they have for the game, the football that they play, it’s all very, very good, so it’s growing at a really good pace and hopefully it’ll continue for years to come.

In your opinion, how long will it be before USA produces a Ballon d’Or winner? Mainly due to the population and facilities that the United States have and can build?

(After a brief chuckle by Juan Pablo) Yeah one day I think ‘why not?’ but there are so many aspects that go into that. For me, one of the biggest problems in the United States is the level of training. Speaking from my perspective, from where I was playing, it was too weak. Not sounding in an American way at all, the kind of trends that you had and the guys you were going up against. It wasn’t pushing you too much to the highest level you can be pushed. When I jumped over here you learn that very quickly, it’s a lot more competitive. The kids here in Europe see from such a young age that it’s competitive and see how good you have to be so they kind of have that advantage. They have that edge compared to say the young American kid that’s playing football. But yeah, an American winning the Ballon d’Or, why not. There are young American players right now who are very strong and you look at the likes of Christian Pulisic at Borussia Dortmund, Weston McKennie at Schalke. Now you have a lot of young American players who are making it in Europe.

Without going too far ahead, do you hope to maybe play in another country one day, or going back to America and playing in the MLS?

I sometimes think about that kind of stuff. For me it’s just to see where football takes you. Obviously you want to do well and progress your career. You want to take the next step. The harder step. But right now I want to do well at Lokeren in Belgium. As far as playing back home in the US, that’s always something I think about. It’d be nice to play in the country where you grew up, where all your family is…but for now it’s about focusing on Lokeren and focusing on doing the job here. If I keep thinking about the future without doing well in the present then all of this would be for nothing.

Which team did you support growing up?

Yeah I was a really big Barcelona fan. I shouldn’t say was, I still am. I enjoy watching them a lot. I grew up watching Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets and how they dominated teams with the way that they played. I’d watch a game and then I’d train and try and replicate what they were doing. You know obviously these guys are world class so it’s not easy. But yeah, Barcelona is definitely a team I supported a lot.

Without being blessed with too much height, do you look at players like N’golo Kante or SantiCazorla who play in possibly the hardest league in the world and see how they cope?

I try to always watch the best in the world and see what they’re doing. See how good they are and how they do certain things. I think the defensive midfield position is in a new era where a lot of them aren’t exactly ‘killers’ anymore but on the ball they’re very creative and the ones who can start the attack whilst they can do the dirty work, they have that asset. You look at Kante and see how he can pick up passes and how he reads the game. Can press forward and immediately being able to nick the ball. His like a mosquito always flying around. You want to swat him away but his always there. I always look at Sergio Busquets, who for me, he’s the best defensive midfielder in the world and you see his talent on the ball and he plays it simple and how quick he plays and always picks out the right pass. Also with a team like Barcelona where they commit so many players forward, when they lose the ball they’re susceptible to the counter attack, but so many times Busquets is there like a brick wall and stops it before it can gain momentum.

What is currently going on with the USMNT and not qualifying for the World Cup?

It’s definitely a huge setback. Like you’ve said, we’ve been taking steps forward and then there’s this major step back. As far as what happened it could be down to a lot of things, but I’m not going to get into all of that because that’s a huge controversy that people still talk about today. I don’t think there’s just one answer. There was that one game we needed to win and we didn’t. That’s the reality. Like anything in life you’re going to take steps forwards and take steps back and it’s how we respond to it. This may be a big step backward but we have to learn from it and who knows what will happen in the future? Maybe something clicks and we see even greater things to come from US soccer. That’s the hope. Now the young players may get that chance with iconic players like Michael Bradley and Tim Howard finishing with the national team and these younger players may fill their shoes and do better and raise our expectations.

Speaking to Chuba Akpom last week, he said a younger player is a hungrier player always wanting to do well. You think it’s getting that right blend with the USMNT?

Yeah definitely. Obviously you want that experience in your team because when things aren’t going well, you have that guy who’s been through times like this. He’ll know what to say and how to react to certain things to bring up the mood and help the attitude of the team. If you have a guy who’s been through thick and thin, that’s essential. As a young player you have that eagerness to play hard and that’s something I have as well. You’re eager to play, you want to show yourself. I think it’s good to also have that mature player.

Did you play many other sports in America other than football?

I did other sports. Up until 12, 13 or even 14 I did swimming in the summer because the football season would be finished for two months in June and July. Me, my brothers and sisters all did swimming and it helped with cardio and staying active in the summer. I enjoyed it a lot and I was competitive. I want to be the best I can be at whatever I do. I also played basketball for three or four years and that’s a sport I really like. I like watching it, the NBA and that kind of stuff and I really enjoyed playing it, but it conflicted with my football so I had to make a choice and obviously I was always going to pick football.

If the USMNT and Colombia both offered you your first international cap, which would you choose?

Ha, I get this question a lot. I always have to choose the United States. Obviously both my parents are Colombian and I always have Colombian pride because that’s where my parents grew up and made their lives. But I was born and grew up in America all my life. I have that pride in me. I’ve only ever just travelled to Colombia and not lived there so for me, it’ll always be America.

It’s not a bad choice to have though

Yeah it’s true. The Colombian national team is very strong. I do support them and they will be at the World Cup. Their national team is very very good.

To end…what do you miss most about America?

Just my family really. That’s the biggest things for me. We’re all very close and I would see them everyday. That was the biggest sacrifice I had to make. For me the family is the biggest thing I miss. I’ve been coping with it well and I can see them in the off season. But yeah, it has to be them.

After thanking him again, it showed how articulate and humble the young man was. A tough season on the pitch for the club, whereas off it, Juan Pablo Torres is soaking up every drop of experience that can aid him with hopefully a long career ahead!

Posted in Player Interview

Player Interview: Chuba Akpom

Since I have been writing my Belgian football blog, I have managed to speak to every Englishman who has played in the Pro League. I’ve managed to speak to Gary Martin and Jordan Mustoe, but without being too unkind, this is a big one. Current Sint-Truidense striker, on loan from Arsenal, Chuba Akpom took some time out to chat with me as we discussed the past, present and future as I dived straight in!

Hello Chuba, I saw that you specifically chose STVV. Were there many clubs wanting you on loan last January?

Yeah I had clubs. Especially in England. I just wanted a fresh environment where I could get my head down. Get back to playing regular football.

Why the move abroad?

I just wanted a new environment. Obviously the team (STVV) has been doing well. I was speaking to one of their coaches and he told me some good things about the club, so I thought I’d go and get regular football.

I read that you’d researched STVV. What was the thing you liked about the club to make you join?

I think the main thing was just to play regularly for a team who is fighting for something, you know? Fighting to play in Playoff 1.

Did you know anything about the Pro League? Especially this season?

I knew about the teams who’d played in Europe like Anderlecht in the past. I knew that some top players had come from the Belgian league. I had to do a bit of research on the league and how they play and stuff. It’s a good league. I’d say it’s underestimated. Obviously not as big as the Premier League but there are good players here.

I’ve been told it’s more physical than some leagues. You’ve obviously played in the Championship. Is it that physical or more technical?

Yeah it’s a physical league. I’ve played in the Championship and I’d probably say that the Championship is one of the most intense leagues in Europe. Here, the teams are very organised and are physically good. It’s a tough league and is definitely underestimated.

So far you’ve had three tough matches. How has the quality compared to English football?

You can tell by the quality. These top teams have maybe those few players who have that quality on the ball and tactically they’re organised, meaning we have to be that more organised when we play these top teams.

In the matches you’ve started you were unlucky, especially against Gent. Hitting the post and the team received, what I thought was an unfair red card. What did the manager say after that match?

He was happy with the shift we put in. It’s just the fact we didn’t take our chances that he was disappointed with because in that Gent game, the score line didn’t reflect how the match went. We had a few chances and could’ve been leading in the first half. It does show that we can compete against the other top teams. If we start taking chances, like you saw against Anderlecht when we beat them, it showed we can compete against them.

There was a minor break during the first half against Anderlecht. Had you ever experienced that before?

No. I’ve never experienced anything like that actually. The atmosphere was good, but obviously when the flares went onto the pitch, it made it difficult for the players to see. But I think it helped us.

I was going to ask if that break helped as you took the lead shortly after that

I think it definitely helped because we went into the changing room and tactically changed things. Their midfield was playing deeper so we changed it up and it actually worked better for us. It worked in our favour.

You scored a quality goal through persistence and composure. Did you hit the shot early to catch the goalkeeper out?

I thought if I took it early I’d be able to catch him off guard and the ball just sat up right for me to have a shot, so I thought ‘why not?’

Going by the celebration, you seem to already have settled within the squad. How much have the players helped to integrate you?

Yeah I feel like I’ve settled. Obviously the transition from a big club like Arsenal to Sint-Truiden, things are different. I’m just getting used to everything. The surroundings, my teammates. I think the best thing for that is to just be playing and gaining an understanding. It’s nice because the celebration was good because it showed the team unity. That we’re all playing for each other because we all want to get into Playoff 1.

With that win, and the other results last weekend, just four points separate six teams. You have three tough matches to finish the regular season. Do the team have the belief to get into the top six?

The manager just told us to focus on ourselves. Focus on our three matches and get as many points from each game. Obviously we’ll need help from the other teams sometimes, but I think we need to just focus on ourselves and win each game. It’s going to be tough, we know that, but we got belief from the Anderlecht win.

With an inferior goal difference, as well as having Charleroi and Club Brugge, is the top six realistic?

We need luck and we need to take our chances as well. Who knows? If we can win two or three from our remaining fixtures…it sounds tough but that’s what we’ve got to be aiming for. You never know?

The Stayen has a synthetic pitch. How do you feel about playing on it? Do you prefer grass or the synthetic pitch?

It’s not something that I’m used to. It’s taking me a while to adapt to in training. The pitch is harder than grass so some people may be worried about getting injured on there, but so far I haven’t had any problems.

Do you know if there’s any benefits playing on there regarding injury prevention or sustaining injuries?

It’s not scientifically proven if a synthetic pitch injures players, so I’m not too sure. All I can say is that it’s definitely harder, so physically it’ll be harder on the body. For STVV it benefits us because not a lot of teams play on synthetic, so when teams come to our ground, they’re not used to it, whereas we train on it so we’re more used to it.

Amongst my questions, I was asked to question Chuba on behalf of @PlayingAFH on Twitter!

PAFH – Even though you’ve been in Belgium a short while, how has it compared to being on loan at an English club?

Yeah there’s a difference in the way that clubs do things. A small example is that we have to take our boots ourselves to games, which I think is a culture thing, because I think all clubs do it. In England it’s not like this. I think it’s good for me in helping me adapt as there’s obviously a different language and different way of doing things. It can only be good for me. I’ve come out of my comfort zone because I know this can make me a better player and better person. As long as I’m doing what I love, which is playing football, I have no problems!

Obviously you’ve only been here a short while but you’re looking good and confident. Are you enjoying your stint so far?

It’s funny because I’m confident at the moment and I know there’s more to come! These were my first two matches in four months so I’m just gradually getting back into it. I still feel I can give more than I’ve actually given so far. I’m just hoping as the games keep coming I’ll get more confidence, more match fit and everything will just click. I just want everyone to see what I can do.

To compare the managers (age wise) you have Arsene Wenger coming to the end of his career, but Jonas De Roeck has basically just started. How do they compare in their approach with their differences in age?

Yeah there’s definitely a difference. Arsene Wenger is one of the best managers in the world who’s calm and humble. He is very intelligent with the way he approaches things. Overall he is a calming influence. Now with Jonas De Roeck, you can tell he is very passionate. Everything is intense. He wants his players to always give 100% like he does. You can tell he spends a lot of time behind closed doors doing tactical things. He has a direct approach. Both are different in the way they do things.

PAFH – Which coach or player has been the biggest influence on your career or has helped you the most?

I would say Tomas Rosicky. Since I was young I was in and out of training with the first team at 16-17 and he saw something special in me. He would always try and help me in training or in the matches. He was always speaking to me, telling me I’ve always got that quality and that I should keep going. It’s something I will never forget giving me that motivation. When a top player like Rosicky is telling me he believes in me, it certainly going to give you a lot of confidence.

Do you feel you’ve been given a fair chance at Arsenal?

I would’ve liked to have been involved a lot more. Like any player, I was just eager to play. That’s me, I’m always eager to play. I’m passionate but I didn’t get that game time. What can I say? I’ve always stayed confident, optimistic, patient and eager to play, which is happening now.

It’s almost like that frustration is spilling out into your performances right now

Yeah, basically (as he chuckles) I’ve just been eager to play!

With 18 months left on your Arsenal contract, would you say you still have time to showcase your talent at Arsenal?

Yeah definitely. You never know what could happen in football. I just always have that confidence in myself to show what I can do, so I need to be ready. However, my focus for now is helping STVV to get into the Playoffs. That’s my focus.

I only ask because for example, Jeremie Aliadiere had years at Arsenal, but Benik Afobe was shipped out quite quickly and is still a Premier League player. If you got your chance, do you think you could, for example, flourish like Harry Kane when he was given the chance?

Yeah definitely. It’s always been my dream to play for Arsenal. I’ve been there since I was six! Of course I feel if I got the chance I’ll take it and it’ll be another story!

PAFH – Do you think youth players get enough opportunities at the bigger clubs in England?

In England there’s world class talent coming through academies. I feel if the players played they’d take their chances and wouldn’t feel out of place. For a manager, looking to win the Premier League, a lot of them go for experience that have done it before, not trying to risk with any player from the academy. It’s tough for players like us coming through.

Would you not feel that a manager is more worried about getting sacked? That’s why they don’t take the risk?

That could play a part. I think a manager has to realise that a young kid is going to try harder and be more hungry. He’ll always give 100% and they’ll be more grateful.

Finally, unfortunately there have been a couple of cases of racism in Belgium this season. Have you come across a lot of that in your career?

Yeah I have. How it still goes on in this day and age…I had it when I was playing for England. It’s tough for us players cause all we want to do is play football, no matter what colour. For there to be racist abuse is just unacceptable. Fans come and watch games and it shouldn’t be allowed. It’s 2018! There’s Asian players, African players, European players all over the world and the fans who are racist have a diverse team and yet they’re racist to the opposition. It doesn’t make sense?

After a brief chat thanking him for his time, the young striker was very polite and was talkative as the interview went on. Not only do I appreciate the time taken by Chuba Akpom, but I am also extremely grateful for the press staff at Sint-Truidense for allowing him to chat.

Good luck Chuba!

Posted in Player Interview

Player Profile: Orlando Sa

Tough to call regarding this PP. Not because I didn’t know who I wanted to discuss, but because there are always big names, AND…I’ve forgotten who I’ve already written about this season. But a player who is the focal point for one of the biggest clubs in the country, the one who I’ve said is the Portuguese version of Olivier Giroud in the Pro League …Orlando Sa.

The big Portuguese leads the line for Les Rouches the best he can and is easily up there as one of the bigger players in the league, at the club, and as a big striker. He is probably top 3 in terms of big front men this season. Holding up the ball, laying it off, getting into position using his brain, movement and strength before making sure that ball crosses the line with his head, foot, knee, whatever!

But am I doing him a disservice? Some goals this season have been majestic and key too. Scoring 6 in the league this season, Standard haven’t lost in a match he has scored in. His main priority is to be at the end of every move rather than involved with the build up, cause doing the business is the objective.

Without realising, he has played in 6 countries too. I remember him at Fulham when I were younger, but making his way around Europe including Poland, Cyprus and Israel, he has played at top clubs in different leagues. I’m sure now though, he may consider Liège as his home. Now onto his second season, I’m sure he feels comfortable around the club because of the fact his manager is Portuguese, Carlinhos speaks the language, Edmilson Junior has Brazilian roots, so could well speak the language too and this could all help against opposition potentially and just feeling comfortable within the country.

With that attack, and Paul Jose M’Poku too, it’s pretty potent up top. I guess these four would like to score more goals. Individually Sa has done well, but with 20 goals as a squad, just over a goal per game, I’m sure they’d want better. A Croky Cup semi final though is a great achievement at the moment as the club continue to push for the top 6, which isn’t a million miles away at just 3 points.

That brings us to this weekend. Up next at home is Sint-Truiden, a team who snatched a last minute winner against Standard and Sa saw red, along with Collins Fai too. Three points separate these two teams as there’s a bunch of teams who are jostling for 6th at least. You could say down to Genk in 9th, they all could be playing for the championship play off, and without being a snob, I can’t rule out Zulte Waregem yet either.

Personally, I feel Liège are playing STVV at a good time because of their sporadic form, and with Sa up front, at the Stade Maurice Dufrasne, anything could happen in a positive way!

Pictures courtesy of Getty Images

Posted in Player Interview

Player Interview: Aleksandar Boljevic 

On Wednesday I made the long journey to Waasland Beveren to talk to Montenegrin attacker Aleksandar Boljevic. A player who has helped his side climb to fifth in the table with attacking flair and a real team effort. He was open, honest and humble after heady heights early in his career as he reflects on a fantastic past and hopefully an even better future now settled in Belgium. 

How have you found life in Belgium and do you feel you’ve adjusted to life in your second season at the club?

Its good. The first year was a little bit difficult because I was in Holland for three years and I change everything and the country. It was difficult to find everything. Now it’s nice, especially about football. First year I change teammates and club, but now everything is okay. 

Moving from PSV Eindhoven to Beveren, how did you find that mentally regarding expectation level and stature of club?

It was difficult because PSV are a really big club. It was an amazing time. Then I come here and I cannot say we’re a small club, but we are smaller than PSV. Everything is changing because in my first 3 months I look at everything as bigger. I try to change my mind, change everything. The second year started really well for me and the team and now it’s good. Better…much better.

I noticed whilst at FK Zeta you were heavily beaten by PSV. Were those matches almost like trial matches? You must’ve performed well to then be signed by the club who defeated you so heavily

Yeah true. It’s nice to be part of a team like that. I play with Wijnaldum, Memphis Depay, big players. The coaches, Van Nistelrooy, Van Bommel, Cocu. Was amazing. But for me it was one big, nice experience where I can learn from these guys. They taught me a lot. I go there at 17. They all helped me a lot. Now I am here and I have learned so much more, but it’s more easier now that I have come from there (PSV)

Football wise, how was it growing up in Montenegro?

For me everything is different. In Montenegro it’s the most popular sport, but it’s not so good. Coming as a 16/17 year old to PSV was incredible. Was really, really difficult because all I know is running, and then I go Holland and it’s strong passing in the first few months and then it’s like I learn football from the beginning because I think ‘Okay, I’m a good player’, but then I go PSV and I think there’s a difference between a professional player and a good player and then I have to start everything again. 

Who did you idolise whilst growing up in Montenegro?

For me, my idol was Vucinic at Roma. Now the best player is Stevan Jovetic. Vucinic was amazing. He was a crazy player. When he wanted to play he’d play and then sometimes he was like ‘I don’t give a fuck!’.

Did you feel you were given much of a chance at PSV Eindhoven?

When I came over I was given a one year contract. Then after that I was given a contract for three years and I thought things were going well for me. In the first half of my first year I was in Jong PSV and it was going really good. I was top goalscorer and then they like me in the first team. I would then do everything with them. I go to training camp with them. I was selected for all the games and I make my debut against Cambuur, few minutes, and I was thinking, okay I was young and in the team and I was thinking ‘that’s it. I’m in the team’ and that was my mistake because it changed my head. I bought a car. I was totally clear in my head. I think they could’ve really given me a chance but then I think maybe I don’t deserve it. I was thinking about everything but not about football. I think it was a really nice experience for me.

Was there enough guidance for you to make you think ‘just focus on the football and then everything will then come?’

I had my family and agent always with me. I was listening but it was going in here and then going there (whilst gesturing to his head and ears). I learned, if anything, too much at PSV but I think I could’ve done more there, but now I was maybe too young.

Did you know much about the Pro League before you came to Belgium?

I really didn’t know, no. Okay I’m a professional player. I know Anderlecht but I never followed it no. It was nothing special. Also whilst I was at PSV I know I had to make the next step but no I never followed the Pro League. That’s why I had a difficult first year because I knew nothing about the League. In Holland it’s more about football, but in Belgium it’s more about physical, that’s why I have a big problem in beginning.

Last season the club finished 14th and were in a tough play off group. How did you feel the season went for you personally?

Its interesting. The humour is different between Holland and Belgium. I had to find out how to be with other players. If I say something here they look at me differently and I say ‘what the fuck is this?’ You know? It’s an interesting question. But now it’s going well. I have to find who I can play with. Also here it’s better now than last year. But you know you have to have some guys who speak French, then some who speak Dutch.

I totally understand as there is more than one language spoken, depending on where in the country you are

That’s why it’s sometimes difficult. At lunch you have a Dutch table, and a French table there and then a rest of the world. This year we’re altogether and it’s much better.

Coming towards the end of last season I felt Cedomir Janevski would be on his way out. How was he with you and as a coach?

Going back, when I first came here it was difficult for the club. But this year it’s much better to be here, much better atmosphere for the club. Last year was all about survival. Cedomir, you know he was a good person. He was a good coach. He also came at a tough time for the club. He was fired at the end but he was good because he spoke some of the same language as me because he is from Macedonia. I didn’t play much under him but in the play off I played much more. It was just important that we stayed in the division. Because of that I feel we’ve grown and become a better team.

Phillipe Clement took his place of course. How has it been playing under him?

Cause he came from Club Brugge, he have bigger goals. Sometimes it’s good but sometimes he expects more from us. Of course at Brugge there are more technical players. It was a little bit difficult in the beginning cause I felt he asked more from us, but for young players, like me and others, it’s good. I feel he is improving this team. The level is much better. For me I’m thankful I can work with him because sometimes in a game I need extra motivation and he is always there to push you. You can sometimes have a bad game, but when you see him, you can at least always try. When he is next to the line you always try for him and the team. That’s why I like him as my coach cause he push me to the maximum.

He seems to have created an exciting, more attacking side. Did he say that was an aim at the start of the season?

He tried to play and bring with him what he had at Brugge. We have quality in this team and we try to play football. I was surprised in a way because we had really good preparation in pre season. It showed we can play against big teams and in the beginning I was really happy and we play good football. People talk about us as a surprise you know. We had this quality in the team before but we needed someone to get it out of us. Now he is here it is perfect.

You have the joint 4th best home form in the league. Did Clement focus on getting points at home when he joined?

When Clement came here he said our aim is to stay in the league. When we start we took a point against Genk, next game we continue, we kept going and then people start to talk about us, so one meeting he said ‘keep going but don’t lose focus. If we lose two games we’re down again.’ We just go game by game, but now we start to talk and think because we’re nearly halfway through and if we stay in the top 6, in the first half of the season, why not the second half? No looking back and just go for it!

I was worried for Beveren when Zinho Gano left because you lost 2 in a row. How vital did you feel he was for the team and how great is Isaac Kiese Thelin and Ryota Morioka?

We start really well with him and then you could see in the mangers face he was angry. We let him (Zinho Gano) go. We played good football. To lose the best striker from the team, you can’t just go out and buy a striker like him. We’re not Manchester United and spend millions trying to replace him. After a few games we tried different combinations with me and a striker, wingers, fake striker. At first I was scared but then we think we go again. But after they find Thelin. At PSV they had De Jong and now I think Thelin is a quality striker. He is perfect. You don’t have to give him a good ball or cross and he puts it in the goal and makes me look good.

On social media, some Anderlecht fans said they don’t want him back…

This guy has scored 8 goals you know. Of course he is on loan and we can’t keep him. I think he is progressing really fast. For sure they’ll take him back after this year. If we lose a striker like him we have to start again and get a new striker.

I was speaking to a Beveren fan on Twitter about Morioka after the Zulte Waregem match and they’re worried they’re going to lose him. To be honest, he is fantastic… 

This is true. It’s like this with not so big clubs because you can’t keep these players if a club comes along with a big offer. What are you going to do? You have to let him go. We’ll try and do our best this season and then we’ll see next season what will happen. I don’t know how but I want us to stay as a team next year. But yeah, it’ll be really difficult to keep Morioka.

Lastly, how close do you feel to getting into the national side now that you’re playing regularly at Beveren?

I think if I continue to play like this and sometimes I think a team can make players. With me and the team playing like this I have a chance. Montenegro national team isn’t like Belgium. I feel I could make the qualifiers next campaign. Before we had an older team but now I feel we’ll have a better chance next year with younger players.

After the interview, we shook hands and I had a 2 mile walk to the station!  A really enjoyable and honest conversation with a young talent who seems to have learned from his mistakes and really does seem to have Beveren in his heart. With the season going so well for Beveren, I just hope Boljevic kicks on too and both succeed come May! 

Posted in Player Interview

Player Interview: Diawandou Diagne

This Thursday I finally met the ever present KAS Eupen player Diawandou Diagne. On a very wet lunch time in East Belgium, I managed to travel through Cologne and Aachen, down into the small town where amongst the residential areas stood a stadium that looked almost brand new. After a brief wait where every player not only exchanged pleasantries, they also introduced themselves before I even had the chance to say hello. With such manners from such a young squad, I could tell De Pandas coming through The Aspire Academy were being taught more than just football.

When I finally had the chance to sit with the defender/midfielder in a casual setting, the interview took place in a slightly noisy lunch room in the players lounge.

So Diawandou, how do you feel the season has gone?

Not bad. The season was good because our aim was to stay in the first division and we made it. Now we’re in the play offs. Our objective was to be first and play the final of the play offs, but that didn’t happen so our aim is to play and win and finish the season well. For me, the season was good.

After the last minute draw against Standard Liege I thought you may have been relegated. Did the team ever doubt themselves and think they’d go down?

We never gave up. Our aim was to stay in this division. That game was here and they equalised but the team never dropped their level because everybody was saying ‘we can do it’. We can be in the first division and we had to keep fighting. We need to deal with some mistakes we were creating because we were doing so many in the last minute, losing so many points in the last minute like Standard here and Lokeren here too. If we wanted to stay up we needed to stop doing this.

To be more discplined as a group?

We need to be more organised. At the start we did a lot of running for each other for the team, because that’s the most important thing.

Did you think age was a factor? With such a young squad, do you think that may have came into play?

That’s true, because we are the youngest team in Belgium. We have so many here with not much experience. Some day they come from the academy in Africa and then they’re playing in the first division. It is not easy for them because to deal with the climate, fans, teams, etc. It’s not easy because sometimes in the academy you play in tournaments, but here you’re playing for your family, your living and the club.

So do you see football more difficult now that it’s your job?

Yes because for me, professional football is not easy. It’s really difficult because 5 years ago you’re at the academy, living isn’t the same. Now you’re in your own house, eating here (at the club) and you have to deal with just yourself. In the academy everything was done for you. It’s not the same. 

On a personal note, how do you think you’ve performed this season?

For me it was good because last season I played a little bit because of my shoulder. After that I had an operation and missed a lot of the season, but this season was good for me. I’ve played almost every game and I feel this year was a good season for me.

You’ve only kept four clean sheets in the league all season. Would you feel you need to work more on the defensive side?

For me the first target is to defend well. We are a team where nearly every game we score at least 1 goal, but after we score we concede. For me the manager will need to deal with it for next season. To prepare to defend very well because our problem is to defend because we concede a lot. Defence for me is when everyone defends!

Because of your versatility, where is your preferred position?

I prefer to play in midfield. But if the manager says play in the centre (of defence) or left back or right back, I need to play to help the team because of injury and you need to help the coach.

Is there anyone you tried to base your game on as a child?

No…When you are a kid you just play. At Aspire they played me in many positions.

Did Aspire play you in all different positions to see where you fit and performed well?

They were doing that. For me, every position was not difficult.

You have left here and come back a couple of times. Do you feel at home in Belgium?

Yeah I feel at home here. I was here for 2 years, then went to Spain, and then come back and I knew Belgium. I feel comfortable here. I feel at home here and with this club and the supporters it’s really good. I feel great here.

I think I counted 17 African players at Eupen. Does that make you feel more comfortable at the club and does your experience of being here help them settle here too?

Every African player here, you have to make them feel at home. You need to make them feel better the first year because Belgium is really really good. You need to adapt to the weather and the league and to life in Europe.

Because you’ve said it’s really good here, do you think the Pro League is under appreciated?

The thing with Belgium is that it’s a league where other leagues look at the players. It’s not a top, top, top league. It’s still good but not the level of England or Germany or France. You see from this year Anderlecht and Genk go far in the Europa League.

Are there many differences between the Pro League and Spanish football?

Its not the same level as in Spain it’s so high. Almost all the teams want the ball, whereas here, sometimes here they wait for a corner or a free kick because they have so much height in the team. It’s different between here and Spain.

You say that because I love that in England you have Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham who play one style. Then you have West Brom, Stoke City and Crystal Palace who play another way. Do you like a mixed league like here in Belgium?

I do like that. You have Manchester City and Tottenham who can play both and mix it up. For me, England has the best football in the world. You can’t compare it with anywhere else. Very tough, very strong. To be in England you have to work really hard.

How good is the Aspire Academy?

For me, Aspire is the best in the world because you learn more than just football. You go to school in the morning and the afternoon and work hard. They have great facilities to play football.

Because the club has a lot youngsters, do you feel the club could eventually achieve something now that you’ve stayed up and reached the Croky Cup semi final?

I think it’s possible. We got to the semi final of the cup and stayed up. We have the top scorer (at the time). It’s not easy coming from the second division. For me the manager will have to deal with a lot of what we’ve already said first.

You mentioned the top scorer, do you think Henry Onyekuru will be here next season?

No. I think he’ll go. Many clubs are looking at him and for me he has had a great season and deserves more.

Do you know where he may go?

No I don’t. Many clubs like him and only he will decide where to go. For me I wish him all the best for wherever he goes. He is a great player and a great person.

Do you think it’s a negative if he leaves Belgium? With Tielemans going and the better players leaving?

No. They have to go and progress. We have great players coming through in Africa and Qatar and they can come and make it.

Picking up only 2 yellows cards is impressive. What do you feel is your best attribute?

For me it’s tough not to get a yellow card in defensive midfield. But I need to keep working and improving for next season because now the clubs know more about us.

Who is the toughest player you have come up against this season?

Lukasz Teodorczyk

Why was he so tough?

Its not that his good technically, but he’s very strong and in the air too. And Hans Vanaken is very, very good. He impressed me also.

Do you feel you’ve warranted more starts for Senegal?

YEAH!

Did you feel Senegal were unlucky in the AFCON this season?

I feel we are the best team in Africa!

Lastly I decided to take the opportunity to ask about Saido Mane for my friend who is a massive Liverpool fan!

How good is Saido Mane?

We talk a lot. He is a top player, best player for Senegal.

I think he is quality and Liverpool are worse without him. What do you think?

For me, he is the best player in the Premier League this season!

As the interview came to an end, we simply shook hands as I was grateful that not only the player took time out his day for a chat, but the club arranged the chance for me to talk to him in the first place. A club that looked like they were here to stay in the Pro League, progression certainly looks on the cards for everybody involved at Eupen!

Posted in Player Interview

Player Interview: Jordan Mustoe

With one Englishman down this season, I managed to catch up with the other remaining Brit plying their trade across in Belgium…But unfortunately not for too much longer.

After a short chat regarding where and when was best for the Scouser, Jordan Mustoe was more than happy to save me some time travelling, and money if I’m honest, and arranged a telephone interview Friday night.

The polite Westerlo left back was on his way to Manchester, via Amsterdam, and took some of his time out to talk a little bit about Belgium, Martinez and…Chinese?:

So Jordan, hows life been in Belgium the 2 years you’ve been over there?

Yeah been here 2 years and I’ve really enjoyed it. First couple of months were a little difficult, new experience for me, but after 3 or 4 months it became my home.

Have you tried learning the language?

NO. I had a go at the start but it was too difficult. I managed to pick a few of the words up but i found it too difficult. I’d rather just speak English really.

So how did the move to Westerlo actually come about?

My manager from Evo Management, he works with someone in London, and then he got in contact with an English guy who’s been living in Bruges for 25 years and he was close with the Westerlo manager, Dennis van Wijk, so I ended up going on a four day trial there.

Now that you’ve moved abroad, would you prefer to stay abroad?

Now that I’ve played abroad, I think it opens me up to more teams abroad. I might have a better chance of a good team coming out of the Belgian league. I’ve told my management that I’m open to offers anywhere in the world really.

Because your contract is up at the end of the season isn’t it?

Yeah it’s finished. We’re all looking for offers right now to see what we can do.

Are there any offers for you right now?

They’re trying to sort something out. I’m not sure if Westerlo will offer me something but to be honest, I don’t think going to the second division is a right move for me. But it is early doors isn’t it. I’m relaxed about it. No need to start panicking…Until July (with a slight laughter).

Why do you think English players tend to stay at home?

I was the same. I didn’t think I’d end up in Belgium or Europe anyway. I’m happy I came across and I think more players from England should. It’s a better standard than League 2/ League 1. If you do go abroad, it’s a different style of play which may suit certain players.

Would you say there’s been an improvement in Belgium, especially the way teams have performed in the Europa League?

I’d say a little bit yeah to be honest. You get more recognised when you do have these teams in the Champions League and Europa League performing better. I’m not sure if I recognise that myself because I’m in Belgium and I play in the Belgian league cause when I was back in England, I wasn’t paying attention to any Belgian teams.

You had a good run in the side and then didn’t feature at all. How frustrating was that for you?

Yeah it was frustrating. I had a run of 14 games. I started off out of the team and then the manager changed, put me in for these 14 games, lost a few on a run, changed the defence and then won and drew the next 2 games, which was my luck. That was a bit unfortunate for me but that’s swings and roundabouts in football. Like when I first got in the team, we went on a good run. But it is frustrating. I’m used to playing games from January til the end of the season and then I’d get a contract and wherever I go next, hopefully these lack of games won’t affect me too much in the future.

You’ve had 4 managers in you short spell at the club. Has that affected you off the pitch as well as on? That’s the equivalent of having a manager every 6 months after all.

It affects me when I’m not playing, but with each manager I had spells as their No.1 full back, even recently, in December I had a conversation with the manager saying I want you to play the next game, you’re the strongest full back I have at the club and literally, that was against Standard Liege, I gave away a hand ball, they score a penalty. Afterwards, next game, he changed it. Sometimes it’s a bit of luck you need.

Unfortunately, even though Westerlo are down, who else do you think may go? Silvère Ganvoula M’Boussy has already gone, who do you think may follow?

There’s a lot of of players out of contract so I think a lot will move on. I don’t know if anyone has anything lined up. I think only 5,6 or 7 players are contracted for next season. We’ll have to wait and see.

Speaking of managers previously, did you ever see Roberto Martinez taking over Belgium the way they currently are whilst you were playing under him at Wigan?

His management and tactics, he is very good so it didn’t surprise me but I think he did very well getting the job off of the back of not doing so well at Everton. He had a good go there (at Everton) for a while, but I think in the end, Everton can be a bit of a difficult team to manage, the fans can be hard at Goodison. He deserves a good job.

You were sent out on loan a fair bit at Wigan. How much did that help you with your progression?

I wish I did it earlier. I think I went out at 21, I should’ve done it at 19. But I was doing well in the first team. I should’ve been pushing to go out on loan earlier but in the end it worked out well.

When you were at Liverpool as a kid, was there anyone you tried to base your game on at the club?

To be honest…No. Even now I don’t watch anyone really. It’s just the way I’ve always been. Always been a bit laid back. Never really watched a lot of football when I was younger. I just really enjoyed playing.

So does that mean you didn’t watch Djimi Traore?

No, i never really watched a lot of Djimi (as he slightly chuckled)

Coming towards the end, I thought I’d ask some random questions, just to see how the player was off the pitch, apart from the first…

What were your favourite boots you ever had?

The old Adidas Predators when I was 10,11,12.

What’s your favourite dinner?

Favourite dinner…CHINESE.

Nice

I might have one tonight if I’m home early enough!

What do you usually have?

Sweet & sour chicken, to be honest, I usually get a banquet and we all share.

So what cartoons did you watch as a child?

The Simpsons. I never watched much telly but never missed The Simpsons.

And where is your favourite holiday destination?

Vegas or Dubai. Different holidays. Both top level. Vegas was a good one!

And on that note I thanked him, wished him good luck with next season, wherever he may turn up, wished him a good Chinese and safe travels. Such a polite player who seemed focussed but maybe a bit down trodden, not only regarding his clubs relegation, but maybe as well, the fact he never got given the chance to help do anything about it on the pitch. I also want to thank the press officer at KVC Westerlo for being so helpful arranging this.

I’ll sign off by saying that I hope Westerlo are able to bounce back from this next season and build for the future!

Courtesy of Getty Images
Posted in Player Interview

Player Interview: Gary Martin

In England there are plenty of Belgians turning out in the Premier League. Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne to name a few, but when the shoes on the other foot, only 2 Englishman come to mind and I caught up with one of them on Tuesday. 

I travelled thirty minutes south-west from Antwerp to Lokeren and through a fantastic host of a press officer, we were taken to the Daknamstadion to meet Gary Martin. An interview-come-chat took place and…Well…This is what we said in what sounded like his North West England/Scandinavian accent.
So Gary, hows life so far in Belgium?

Not too bad, more like England than any other country I’ve played in so far. It was a bit tough in the beginning but my girlfriend is coming over in 2 weeks.

So you’ve found it easier to settle compared to everywhere else?

Definitely easier. When I arrived in Iceland I didn’t have a driving license. A lot more people speak English here and I’m more grown up. Iceland was tougher too due to 24hrs of darkness in the winter and 24hrs of light in the summer.

Has the gaffer made you learn any languages so far?

No, but I’m going to do it. I’m waiting for my girlfriend to come over so that we can learn together. Can be a difficult language but I’ll definitely try.

Does that mean you’re here for the long run?

I haven’t found the level of play too hard. I understand that contracts are shorter here than in England. If you play really well, they have to sell you. If you underperform, you run the risk of getting nothing.

For me the Belgian league is on a par with the English Championship and ideally I’d like to stay in Belgium for as long as I can if I don’t go higher.

With 3 teams in the Europa League, what do you think of the standard?

People don’t realise how good this league is. Look at the national team, I’ve come here in my best years at my peak.

I think I counted 15 nationalities in the changing room. Is it easy to communicate?

We all speak English. Perfect for me. They all have their own ways of living. For example, the goalkeeper told the defender in French to leave the ball and I didn’t know and the coach said that’s why you need to learn the language and that plays a big part.

Would you prefer more playing time and do you think the language problem has hindered your starts?

I’ve worked with the coach before so I trust him. I’m working more towards next season. For now, it’s about coming, learning and adjusting. Look, I haven’t had a pre season as the Icelandic league ended in November so I’m just adapting and looking towards next season.

Are you relishing the competition?

Yes. None of the striker’s are like me. I prefer to run in behind. Personally, I’d rather play as a 2 but I’d never tell the coach what to do. He just received a new deal and has said his looking towards next season.

How is your relationship with Rùnar Kristinsson?

Very good. In Iceland his at the top of the tree. If he thinks you’re good then you’re good. I have the upmost respect for him so I’ll only give him 100%.

You’ve basically played abroad your entire career. Would you hope to play back in England one day?
It depends. Personally, I like it here, but if the opportunity ever came up and was right for everyone (me and the club), I’d love to play in Holland 1 day. I’ve lost my English mentality. I’d go to the Championship or a high League 1 side but I’d rather stay abroad.

So in your opinion, why do the top English players stay in England?

I know why. They’re narrow minded. I wasn’t born into a lot of wealth, so when I could play abroad I jumped at it. I know players who are from England and now play in the Europa League in Scandinavia rather than League 2.

What if there was to be a North Atlantic league?

If Anderlecht left it would make the league weaker, but I’d be happy to see the back of them (as he jokingly laughs) all you do is run against them teams. The thing I like is that Belgian clubs know their place. When you see Charleroi, Mechelen and Oostende above Gent and Genk who are performing in the Europa League, it’s no joke.

He then spoke briefly about the changing room saying he missed the banter in England. Iceland and Norway is better for that, but it will never compare to England.

Since you’ve arrived you have had some very tough fixtures.

You’re right. People who know their football know it’s tough in the Pro League, especially away. In Iceland and Norway there was no difference between home and away. 

You mean the crowd?

No, just in quality. But I think we’ve faired well against the top clubs and naive against the lesser sides. I think we believe we’ll overpower the teams below us but the gap isn’t really that big. We’re defensively solid against the top teams and we go away from that against the lower clubs.

So what’s Lokeren’s aim in the Playoffs? 

You never know with playoffs. When you’ve got Gent, Genk and Standard Liege they need Europe. It maybe gives us the chance to play players who haven’t played much, looking towards next season. It’s difficult but not impossible (for Europa League) you never know.

Who did you try and emulate as a child?

Ole Gunnar Solksjaer.

You a United fan?

I was. I also liked Van Nistelrooy, Mark Viduka when I was at Middlesbrough, but as soon as I saw Fernando Torres, I had to try and play like him.

At the end, on behalf of @PlayingAFH, I asked one question about his coach from Ujpest.

How much influence did Willie McStay have on you in Hungary?

Yeah…Willie McStay and Joe McBride. Willie called me when we played Celtic in a Champions League qualifier and wished me good luck. I’ll never forget that. He had a massive influence on me. Top man. He tried to get me to Scotland when my contract at Boro ended.

After a handshake, Gary looked relieved to get back to training, stood up and left. A comfortable chat and was polite and open throughout. I wished him luck.

After a brief look around and a good football chat, I was driven back to the station by the press officer and I was on my way. 

A humble and welcoming football club, I wish Lokeren the best for this season and beyond.