Demba Ba interview
Olympique Lyonnais, AJ Auxerre, Watford, Barnsley, VFB Stuttgart, Paris Saint-Germain, Lille, Arsenal, Charlton Athletic... if you were the chairman or owner of any of these clubs in the past five years, step forward, bend over and kick yourself firmly up the backside.
Legend has it that each and every one of those teams looked closely, at one time or another, at a young footballer named Demba Ba – and each and every one of them decided that he wasn’t quite what they wanted or needed.
But then, why would they? Who needs a goalscorer who scored 16 in 36 games for his club last season? And who would want a man who already has seven in nine Premier League appearances to his name this season? Who would really want the top division’s leading striker in their team? Goals are overrated anyway.
Now, it might make some kind of sense if Demba Ba had been overlooked when he was just another young footballer with raw potential, but he’d already turned 20 – and in a game where many clubs have identified their future stars before they even turn 10. The answer came back time and again: non, no, nein.
It took Ba until he was 22 for a team of any real European standing to take a chance on him, and even then 1899 Hoffenheim were languishing in Bundesliga 2. But, with his foot finally in the door, he grabbed the chance and began to make up for lost time. Today, then, as Sport sits down with him on Tyneside for an exclusive interview, the opening question asks itself...
So what kept you, Demba? Why did it take so long for you to break into professional football?
“Why? Well, the problem was that nobody wanted to take me – that is why. If I could have had a team when I was 15 and gone through an academy like everyone else, I would have been happy. But I went from trial to trial to trial and I would always end up with a negative answer, for whatever reason. It wasn’t that I chose to leave it late. It wasn’t that I decided late that I wanted to play football, believe me. I was out there trying and trying, but always being told no.”
There must have come a point when you thought it wouldn’t happen – when you thought you might have to look at doing something else?
“Never. Never. I was disappointed every time, of course. But there were always positives that I could take and work on. And I was always saying to myself: ’If not here, then somewhere else.’ Everything happens for a reason, and I’m very happy with how my career has gone.”
When you play now, are you out to prove those teams wrong – that they made a mistake in rejecting you?
“No, no – the only point I want to prove is to myself. The only thing I want to do is give the best and get off the pitch without any regret. I have nothing to prove to them, or anyone but myself.”
Stoke City’s decision not to sign you was different in that they claimed your left knee was a “ticking time bomb“. How much of a surprise was that to you?
“Yes, when I heard them say that I look at my agent and I say: ’Quick, get out the office, it’s going to blow!’ But like when I was doing my trials and going from rejection to rejection to rejection, I just took the view that if that’s what they thought, then so be it. If I didn’t join Stoke City, I’d give my services to someone else. Since that day I’ve played something like 50 games and I’ve scored, well, you’ve seen how many goals I’ve scored – I don’t have to prove my fitness to anyone.”
Ten months later, you scored a hat-trick for Newcastle away at Stoke. Did that feel like payback?
“No. I mean, it felt special because it was a hat-trick, but I am not sure it meant any more because of what had happened. For example, it was nothing compared to the hat-trick I’d scored against Blackburn a few weeks earlier. That was my first hat-trick in the Premier League – I was at home in front of 50,000 fans and the feeling of that was way, way better than the hat-trick at Stoke.”
What does it feel like to score a goal?
“Wow... it’s difficult, you know? Sometimes you’re so happy when you score, you cannot control your gestures – you don’t know what you are doing. You just go mad, you know? I can’t describe in words how it feels – you just have to experience scoring in front of 50-60,000 people in an important game. Whooaaa! I mean, it is just a crazy feeling.”
Would you rather score and lose, or not score and win the game?
“The second one, of course. To score and win would be best, but if I had to chose then I would say the second option because football is about winning. It is not about one player, it’s about the team working together to win.”
But doesn’t a striker need to be selfish – or let’s say single-minded – to succeed?
“To a certain degree, yes. But you cannot win a game without your teammates, and I always remember that. We play football to win, and we win as a team.”
You began life as a defensive midfielder before being turned into a striker. Did you enjoy that role?
“Well, I certainly got a lot more touches of the ball playing that role. The downside was that I had to do a lot of running backwards, although I’ve since learned that you still do a lot of that even when you’re playing as a striker.”
How hard was it to reinvent yourself as a striker?
“Not as hard as you might think, because we all grow up watching strikers play and watch how they run – and you tend to absorb more than you might think. I watched a lot of Thierry Henry, for example, and I studied how he made his runs with and without the ball. After a while it became automatic for me to do the same thing. Plus, I was given some advice that has stuck with me: someone once told me that when you make your run, you should never go wider than the width of the 18-yard box. If you go out any wider, then you will not score. And that has been true for me.”
What’s your greatest strength as a striker?
“I always say the biggest quality for me is not on the pitch – it’s mentally. Everything that has happened in my career – rejections, injuries – I have had to be very strong in the head to overcome them. If you ask what my strength is on the pitch, I like getting on to the ball, playing football. I like beautiful football, passing it around. But sometimes I just like to be powerful. I’m okay with that side.”
How much of a culture shock was it to move from London and West Ham to Newcastle – a country within a country?
“I was living in Heidelberg in Germany when I was playing for Hoffenheim, and Heidelberg was a tiny place – beautiful but tiny. My whole family lives in Paris, so to go from Paris to Heidelberg was a big shock for me. Then, when I went from Hoffenheim to London and West Ham, I thought: ’Oh, this is the city for me, this is the city I want to stay in.’ But then, after a few months, I had to go to Newcastle and I was a bit sad. Not because I didn’t want to go to Newcastle, but because I loved London and felt very comfortable there. But that is football. You get used to moving around and going where the game takes you.”
How are you getting on with the Geordie accent?
“Well, they talk to me, but often it just sounds like noise – so I make it up in my head and guess what they’re saying to me. I’m getting more used to it, but I do just nod a lot. The thing is, I speak African English to them, so it’s hard to understand me sometimes. But I still think African English is easier than Geordie.“
Is it true you’re in awe of Peter Beardsley, the Newcastle reserve team coach?
“Yes, a little. I didn’t know who he was or what he had done when I first arrived here. Then I watched videos of him play and I go back to Hatem [Ben Arfa] and say, I found someone more skilful than you: Peter Beardsley. And then I show him the video of Beardsley playing and he sees what an amazing player he was – small, but quick and with very quick feet. He played a very different game to me, but he is always there to talk to about the game and share what he knows.”
Who is the toughest defender you’ve encountered in English football – who has given you your hardest game?
"I won’t say I have a single defender who really terrorises me on the pitch, it’s more... we played Liverpool away last season and I was alone up front, like one striker, and I had to fight with Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel. That was tough, two versus one the whole game. Of course, there’s a lot of very good defenders > in England, but there’s no one I have played who afterwards I have thought: ’This guy terrorised me, I don’t want to play against him again.’”
Okay, so who is the best defender you have faced?
”Fabricio Coloccini. I play against him every training session – and it’s not that he’s particularly physical or hard in a duel, but he’s so intelligent. He doesn’t even need to go into a tackle to get the ball – he just looks and he takes it. I’m just glad I don’t have to face him properly, because I don’t think I would touch many balls.”
What is Alan Pardew asking from you this season?
”He asked for a lot, because now I am here in my second year. He always says I am an important player in his team. He wants me to be a leader on the pitch – not only a goalscorer, not only a striker, but a leader as well. He wants me to step up and start talking and lead the team more.”
Has he put a figure on how many goals he wants from you?
Not at all?
”No. It is going not too bad so far, but I haven’t set myself any kind of target. I just want us to win games and, if I score as well, I will be very happy.”
Your manager has said that you play better when you’re angry or have a point to prove. Do you agree with that?
”I think the best of my game is when I feel happy and sharp. The most important thing for me is to be happy in my head – then I can play my football well, you know?”
After you had scored 15 goals playing centrally last season, Pardew played you wide on the left when you returned from the Africa Cup of Nations – and the goals dried up. Did that make you happy or angry?
”It didn’t make me happy at all, but it is for the team. I was playing on the left and we were winning games, so there was no reason to change the system. Of course, I was not too happy with the position because that is not where I am best – but what you read in the papers about me being unhappy or angry, that is just what they write just for the image. If I have to do it again, I will do it. I won’t be happy, but that is not what’s important for the team.“
Okay, final question: where are you off to now?
“Now? I’m having some pictures taken and then I’ll just go home and maybe do some training.”
Training? At home?
“Yes, I love to train. I train a lot. Even when I don’t have training, I’m training. I have my gym at home and proper-sized goals in my garden. My garden is big and shaped like the football pitch – that’s why I took the house, so that I could put up a big goal and keep on practising.”
Who goes in goal?
“Nobody. Nobody in goal. I don’t need a goalkeeper when I’m practising. They would just get in the way.”
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