Joel Ekstrand says he needs to play for a club which believes in him as the defender’s time at Watford looks set to end this summer.
The contract of the Swedish centre-back expires in June and we understand talks between the 27-year-old and the Hornets have hit an impasse. Ekstrand, we gather, is looking for salary parity with the other centre-halves. Guaranteed a second season in the Premier League, the recruitment team know they can have the pick of available central defenders in their bid to supplement the trio of Miguel Britos, Craig Cathcart and Sebastian Prodl.
Ekstrand, as a result, looks set to leave on a free transfer at the end of the season, bringing to an end his four-year spell with Watford. He says he is open to staying in England but hints a return to Serie A, where he started his career with Udinese, is his preferred option.
“I feel I need to be somewhere where I have a good chance to play and in which the club believes in me,” he said in a translated interview with Svenskafans.com. “If it is in England, Italy, Germany or any other country I do not know. Italy, however, is special given that this was where I started my pro career. I like life on and off the field there. I have had discussions with the club and will see in the near future what happens. There is so little time left in the season, I no longer have the urgency that everything must be clear, even if you want to know what happens in the future.”
Ekstrand has a fan in Watford’s head coach Quique Sanchez Flores who told us in February he was keen to keep the Sweden international at Vicarage Road. However, with the Spaniard’s future also uncertain it will be down to the club’s hierarchy to make a decision on whether they will make one last effort to keep Ekstrand, who hasn’t played for Watford’s first-team in over a year due to injury.
He damaged his anterior cruciate ligament, his meniscus and fractured a bone in his left knee during a game against Ipswich Town last season. The road to recovery has been a long one. He has worked tirelessly with head of medical Richard Collinge, Ben Dixon and Mike Spanou to work his way back from a career-threatening problem. He has been training for the first team for more than two months and has started five games for the under-21s since the turn of the year. The Premier League game against West Ham United, where Sanchez Flores shuffled his pack, came too soon in his recovery.
Ekstrand, who joined Watford on loan in 2012 before then making the deal permanent a year later, may have been seen for the last time in a first-team shirt.
“The under-21 matches have felt good but they aren’t really a match,” he said. “However, they have been extremely useful for me and my knee. I have regained the confidence I needed to be able to train hard. I can rely on my knee 100 per cent and also invest fully in the different situations on the pitch. I have a very physical style of play and need to be fully healthy in order to play my game.”
Ekstrand had a small taste of life in the top flight when he travelled with the first-team squad to the Emirates stadium for the Hornets’ FA Cup quarter final win over Arsenal. He led the team out for the warm-up that day, a gesture organised by Troy Deeney.
“Obviously it would be fun to make an impression in the Premier League,” Ekstrand said when asked if he would make his Premier League bow before the end of the campaign. “But you never know.”