What a character Nordin Amrabat is. If there is an award for the interview of the season at Watford’s lavish end of season gala dinner at Wembley Stadium then the Moroccan international has it sewn up.
We should have suspected something outside of the usual banal platitudes (you know, stuff about it being all about the three points, the next game or the team/group) was in the offing when Amrabat strolled into the newly-assembled media suite at the London Colney training ground on Friday dressed like he was heading to the award’s bash. His jacket, in football dressing room parlance, was rascal. Troy Deeney, you hope, was dishing out a fine for the new boy on that one.
Amrabat, who turns 29 in March, is confident but not arrogant and talks fast and loose, so much so that you half expected a member of the club’s media team to step in and ask if he should really be talking so openly. Thankfully, on this occasion, they didn’t. Some would at other clubs, which is always a shame as it means one cannot convey to the fans the personality of a player. And boy does Amrabat have plenty of that. He talks refreshingly about any subject. His thoughts on the two red cards he picked in Spain are gold, so much so that our words could not do it justice. So we’ll the man tell you in his own words. Here’s him discussing the one he picked up in April 2014, against Villarreal for gesticulating to the referee he needed glasses.
He was on a roll so we thought we’d try our luck and also ask him about his performance against Real Madrid in September. He thought we were asking him about the straight red card he was shown for elbowing Marcelo, the Brazilian left-back. His reply was equally entertaining…
Amrabat feels he got a bit of a rough deal in Spain from the referees and is glad to have found a relatively safe haven in England where referees are largely more liberal.
“The problem is when you are an attacker and they make a foul they give you a yellow,” he says. “Sometimes defenders make crazy tackles yet, me, I touch them a little bit [and I get a yellow]. In one of the last games the ball was between us and because he fell and I didn’t, he give me a yellow. But we did exactly the same. In Spain they give fast yellow cards. In England it is different.”
Amrabat isn’t a loose cannon, although he averages a yellow card every three games this season so far, and he isn’t about to do a Valon Behrami, but his all-action, physical and high-octane style is what attracted Watford to him. He might not have as much natural ability as, say, Steven Berghuis, who was also schooled in Holland, but he has the physical, direct attributes Quique Sanchez Flores has been crying out for.
The winger-come-forward has been an avid watcher of the Premier League and the night he watched Newcastle United draw 3-3 with Manchester United earlier this month he knew his mind was made up – his heart was set on a move to England.
“I think every player wants to play in the Premier League, not only me,” he says. “Something always happens in the games here. There are chances and both teams try and attack. Some of the games in Spain can be really boring. It’s just pass, pass, pass. Here there is always action. The game is back and forwards all the time. It is a hard competition but it’s fantastic.”
Amrabat has played here before, in the 2012 Champions League group stage tie with Galatasaray against Manchester United, in the same competition with PSV Eindhoven at Anfield in 2008 and at the Emirates Stadium in the summer of 2013 when two goals from Didier Drogba helped Galatasaray sink the hosts Arsenal. Amrabat also reminds us he scored “a really nice goal in a pre-season game against Everton” and another “nice goal” for PSV against Newcastle United. His first international goal came in 2011 against Allan Nyom’s Cameroon. He also was part of London 2012, playing at St James’ Park, Hampden Park and Old Trafford as Morocco finished third, below Japan and Honduras but above Spain.
“It was fantastic organisation, everything was so nice,” he says. “Together with Germany, they are two countries who organise everything perfectly. All the stadiums here are good and the fans are positive. The atmosphere here at matches in fantastic. Everything is good. The pitches are fantastic and the organisation is excellent. It is all really professional.”
Amrabat has all the trappings that come from enjoying a career as a professional footballer in this cash-rich era, yet he remains grounded, humbled almost by remembering just where he came from and the fact he was let go by Ajax as a schoolboy.
“I accepted that,” he says. “What can you do? I had the opportunity to join Vitesse Arnhem but I would have had to move away from my family. My father told me it was better to play amateur, do well at school and if I was good enough at football it would happen. I still loved to play but I was focused on my school. When I was 17 I chose to do economics and law. I didn’t know what I wanted to do so it gave me options. I thought I would go on to university after that and then I would specialise in what I wanted to do. I was also working to earn some money.”
Working as what, a football coach or in a family business?
“I started washing dishes when I was 16,” he says. “After a year and a half I was promoted to making desserts. I also had a job at a school where I would spend two hours a morning cleaning the floors with a vacuum cleaner. Although that stopped because it was interfering with school. So two days a week I’d be playing football. Two days I’d be in the restaurant. And I’d also have school. It’s helped me to be a normal person and be happy with what I have. I respect everybody whether they are a cleaner, a doctor or a footballer. You need to respect everyone. So it helped me stay grounded.”
He had to come a couple of steps back to take one forward. He turned out for lower division clubs Huizen, Omniworld and VVV Venlo before being snapped up by PSV in 2008.
“It all happened really fast,” he says. “At 18 I signed for a second division team. The next year I left for the first division. A year later I was signed by the champions, PSV, and was playing in the Champions League. So in two years I went from amateur football to the Champions League against Liverpool at Anfield. If you work hard you never know what can happen. I will work hard and we’ll see where it goes.”
Sanchez Flores loves nothing more than somebody who grafts so the club record signing of Amrabat to Watford looks a perfect fit.