Alex Oxlade Chamberlain interview
Pace, power and fearless play saw Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain fast-tracked into the England side for Euro 2012. Three months on, he’s still there. Sport spoke exclusively to the winger about his rapid rise, and why his new nickname has made his mum particularly happy…
“Since I’ve come to Arsenal, ‘The Ox’ has really taken off,” Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain tells Sport, with a grin. Taken out of context, it’s a line that suggests the young Arsenal and England winger has started to believe his own hype; that before long, he’ll be referring to himself as ’The Special One’ and insisting on wearing a box-fresh pair of trainers every day.
Fortunately, the line is actually part of a wider conversation about Chamberlain’s recently acquired – and rather apt - nickname. It is not, as it might seem, a sign that the 19-year-old is cultivating an ego big enough to fill Wembley Stadium.
Which is exactly where he’ll be tonight for the third instalment of England’s World Cup qualifying campaign. Having been selected by manager Roy Hodgson to start both of England’s previous qualifiers (a thumping 5-0 victory against Moldova and a tricky 1-1 draw against an impressive Ukraine side), Chamberlain is hoping to make it a hat-trick against San Marino at Wembley.
Not that the son of former England player Mark Chamberlain is getting ahead of himself. Indeed, over the course of the afternoon he spends posing for pictures and being interviewed in a central London studio, it becomes clear that Chamberlain junior is one young footballer who knows exactly where he’s at, and where he’s headed. That’s even more impressive, given that Chamberlain has made the long-haul trip from Championship to fully fledged England international (becoming a Premier League and Champions League regular along the way) in less time than it takes to say his full name after a night on the sauce.
It’s been a suitably rapid rise for the winger who ambles into our interview room and – after the polite bits are done with – throws himself on to a comfy chair.
The accompanying sigh is that of a man who has spent the morning grafting on the training ground. But the broad smile as he hears our first question is that of a teenager who’s determined to make the most of every opportunity that comes his way.
You were called up to your first [under-18s] England squad in 2010. Did you have a target age in mind for when you wanted to be playing for the senior side?
“I wanted to make sure I was in and around the senior squad by the time I was 21. So for it to happen when I was 18, you know, I was happy with that. But the thing with England is you can drop out of it just like that. If you switch off or your performances with your club don’t merit a squad place, then I don’t think you deserve to be in it. If I take my foot off the pedal, I know I might not be back in that squad by the time I am 21.”
When Roy Hodgson selected you for his Euro 2012 squad, you were yet to win your first senior cap. How did it feel to find out you were in?
“I was at my friend’s house when I got a phone call from the boss. I had a hint I might be getting a call because someone at the FA had rung me the day before to make sure I was around in the morning. But, at the same time, I still didn’t expect it. The next morning I was up waiting for this phone call and it was the manager, Roy Hodgson.
"He let me know that I deserved a place in the squad and that I needed to prove him right. I was delighted, but it hadn’t been announced yet and my friend had other mates round who weren’t close to me, so I wasn’t going to tell everyone – I kept it to myself. I didn’t even tell my dad or anyone – they found out when it was announced on TV.”
Did you go to the Euros feeling pressure-free because you were so inexperienced, or does putting on the England shirt bring a certain pressure with it regardless?
“Even though I was going out there with the least experience and no one – especially fans who weren’t Arsenal supporters – really knew what I was capable of, I still expected myself to be able to take people on and do well if I got a chance on the pitch. I always put a high demand on myself. If I’m not playing well, I beat myself up a bit. If I have high standards, I think it’s always more likely I’ll play and train well.”
Were you still able to enjoy the experience?
“I enjoyed every minute. To go there and gain experience from the likes of Steven Gerrard and John Terry was amazing. Then to get a call to play – it was a really big surprise. I received a lot of support from fans, too.
"Not just Arsenal fans, but England fans. That helps you to relax, because you know they realise your age and stuff. But age is irrelevant, really. At a certain point you have to prove that you’re good enough. If you are, then it doesn’t matter how old you are.”
Hodgson tends to be seen as the good cop in contrast to Fabio Capello’s stricter, bad cop. Is there another side to Hodgson that we don’t see, though?
“Definitely. He’s the old-school type of manager – when something needs to be said, he just says it. I think that’s why the boys have so much respect for him. He treats the lads as adults and the senior boys get to have a say in how we feel as a team, which helps the boys’ morale.
“He’ll give you down time when you can go and play a round of golf or see your loved ones – the boys really appreciate those little things, and it makes them want to do well for him. So he’s really good at that side of things. His man-management is excellent, but when it’s business time, it really is.”
What about your manager at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger – what were your first impressions of him?
“The first time I met him was actually on the day I signed. He’s a nice man, you know? He’s very calm and has that aura about him – you know he’s the boss. The way he speaks is really intelligent and everything he said to me on that first day was quite inspirational. It gave me a lot of drive to come in and prove that he made the right decision to sign me.”
He seems like a manager who likes to be quite involved on the training pitch…
“Yeah he does, but he does it in a clever way. It’s not like you hear him shouting a lot in training, but he’s always watching – he doesn’t miss anything. And if he sees something, he’ll always remember it and bring it up next week or the week after – to remind you what you weren’t doing or what you need to be doing. So he’s very clever in the way he watches training and observes all of us.”
When you were at Southampton, you had Arsenal and Manchester United fighting for your signature. Was it hard to stay focused?
“It was a bit surprising at first, because I used to watch all these clubs on Match of the Day every week and dream of coming to a massive club like Arsenal. But my parents never let me get carried away, and at the same time I had a lot of respect for all my teammates at Southampton.
"We were trying to get promoted, so when all the speculation was coming out my number-one priority was still to get promoted with Southampton and develop there. It was nice to hear all those clubs were interested, but it wasn’t hard for me to keep my feet on the ground – I had a lot of commitments at Southampton that season. So I just kept my head down and focused on that. You almost let everything take care of itself, as it did in the end.”
Did it get to the stage where you had to make a choice over where to go?
“I always favoured Arsenal. It’s a massive club and I’ve loved the way they’ve played football and brought players through. When I was younger, I used to go and watch Southampton versus Arsenal when they came to the club, and loved watching Thierry Henry. I went to the Emirates a few times, too, and the atmosphere was just unbelievable. So it wasn’t a hard decision for me.”
Have you always been known as ‘The Ox‘, or is that only since you moved to Arsenal?
“Yeah, before that I used to sort of hide the Oxlade name because everyone said it was too long – but my mum never used to like it being left out because that was her part of my surname. Since I’ve come to Arsenal, ’The Ox’ has taken off. Before, everyone just called me Chambo, but the Oxlade has stuck and I like it. It’s a good nickname. Will I get it on my shirt? [Laughs] I don’t think the boss will let me.”
Your Premier League debut came during the infamous 8-2 defeat to Manchester United. How difficult was that experience?
“Not difficult at all, really. I was just dying to get on the pitch for Arsenal and to make > my debut at Old Trafford was an unbelievable moment. Obviously it was difficult after the game, to realise we’d lost 8-2. You never expect that to happen to anyone, let alone Arsenal. So that was hard to take and it did put a dampener on the occasion really, because we were all gutted about the result. In the end, making my debut didn’t really mean anything at that time. Looking back at it now, though, to be able to come on at Old Trafford and try to help my team was a massive experience – and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I learned a lot that day, so soon in my Arsenal career. I think we all did.”
Has it been difficult to handle the attention since moving to Arsenal? Suddenly you’re making headlines and crowds are chanting for The Ox…
“I’ve noticed that coming into a big club and when you play for England, stuff evolves on to a bigger level – especially in the media. But you learn to ignore it, to a certain extent. You know what you need to do and what your aims are, and you just have to get on with it. If you read the papers too much – whether it be good or bad – you can get distracted. At the same time, when you do hear people appreciating what you’re doing, it’s a nice boost.
"When I warm up at the Emirates and get a big cheer or the fans are singing for me to come on, it’s a huge confidence boost – because as a young lad coming into a big environment, it can be daunting.”
Both your dad [Mark Chamberlain] and your uncle [Neville] played professional football. Do they give you advice on your game now?
“My dad does all the time. I’ll always try to get a copy of my games for him to watch because he’s always honest with me. Even when he was my under-11s coach at Southampton, he wasn’t biased towards me at all. We were away at Tottenham one game and in the first period – we used to play four periods – he took me off because I wasn’t doing something well enough, and he never put me back on.
"I remember crying on the sidelines, but I never made the same mistake again. So, right from when I was younger, he’s always been honest with me. And, if I’m not doing something well enough, he’ll let me know. I let him watch my games as much as I can.”
You play mostly as a winger, but you played in central midfield for Arsenal’s Champions League game against AC Milan last season. Which do you think is your best position?
“I grew up playing in central midfield and naturally I’m more of an inside midfielder. But at the same time, when I play there, I like to dribble. [Smiles] So playing out wide is good for me because I get the licence to express myself in that way. But for the boss to put so much trust in me on a big occasion like the Milan game was massive. I was dying with flu that day too – I didn’t even think I’d make the game.
"First half I was okay, but when we stopped for half time I was coughing and spluttering. Gaining experience in the Champions League playing in a central midfield role was a big eye-opener for me, though. I think the boss sees me developing into a central midfield player as I get older, but if I stay on the wing I’m happy to do that, too – we’ll just have to see where I’m best suited and go with that.”
Back to England, then. When people talk about the future, your name is among the first mentioned, along with Jacks Wilshere and Rodwell, and Kyle Walker. Can your generation be trophy winners?
“Yeah, why not? There are boys from the top football clubs in England. Everyone raves about how highly rated English football is, and those boys are all playing with fantastic players from other countries at their own clubs. The likes of Wilshere, Danny Welbeck and Walker are strong players and strong characters as well. There’s a lot of talent, and the fact the manager is bringing a lot of us into the squad now, when we’re young, means we can grow up together. For the next generation, it’s looking positive. I think it is, anyway.”
Sarah Shephard @sarahsportmag
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iPad EXTRA: THE OX ON…
What he was like at school...
“I was alright, to be fair. I was a bit cheeky (smiles) a bit chatty – but I was good. My mum used to push me when it came to doing schoolwork so I got all my grades, but being the character I am I was a bit cheeky at times. I liked to chat to my mates in lessons and mess around a bit but every lad does that, don't they?
“I think school was driven mostly by my mum with a helping hand from my dad, too. My dad took control of the football but my mum had a big part to play in that as well. She's a physio so she looked after my diet and used to take me out in pre-season and do running and circuit training.
“Obviously, when I got a bit bigger and a bit quick for her she had to take a back seat. But they both had a big role to play and they've carried on on doing the same for my little brother who's 14 now and playing at Portsmouth.”
The other sport he could have made a career out of…
“I played cricket until the age of 16; I always loved playing and I happened to be quite good at it. I got to a good level but I always knew that once it was time for football to take over full time I was always going to go with that. And the same with rugby, which I enjoyed playing until everyone started to get too big and it started getting a bit rough – then, Southampton didn’t really like me playing in case I got injured.
“Sometimes I still miss playing cricket. I had Hampshire trials but I couldn't really manage it because that was four times a week training and I already had Southampton commitments. I could have got quite serious with my cricket but football was always number one and I was probably better at football than I was at cricket, anyway.”
The advice others gave him before the Euros…
“They said, when you're playing football its unbelievable – the atmosphere and the fans make it an amazing experience. The only thing they said to be careful of was that it can get boring so they told me to bring a lot of Playstation games and films. I think one of the things that was highlighted when they went to South Africa was that they were very secluded from everyone and the players did get a bit bored at times.
“Obviously that doesn’t come into it when you're training and playing but you don’t play all the time – theres a lot of down time. Where we were staying in Krakow though,the facility was amazing and it was around the fans – there were fans outside 24/7. So the place was really lively and upbeat, no one really got bored at all.”
The England players he admired as a young Ox…
“Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney probably – they were the two. More so Steven because he's been around for a bit longer. It was everything about him, really; his drive, the way he used to play in midfield and make driving runs into the box and score goals, his passing and everything.
“He’s Mr Liverpool, isn't he? He's an inspiration for any young footballer and any senior footballer really – everyone has so much respect for him.”