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4 the Player interview: Saido Berahino

Saido Berahino, Stoke City FC

Saido Berahino speaks to 4 the Player.... 

Saido Berahino has crammed a lot into his 23 years. Born and raised in Burundi against the backdrop of a bitter civil war that claimed the life of his father, his mother left him behind to build a better life in England and he set out to join her aged 10 only to end up in a care home as the authorities struggled to locate her. The one constant through this rollercoaster early life was a love of football that enabled him to settle in this country and forge a career with West Brom – ultimately leading to another period of turmoil before his recent move to Stoke City. In a life defined by new starts, he’s determined to make the most of this one…

What are your memories of growing up in Burundi and the journey to start a new life in the UK?

Not a lot really, I left there when I was 10 but the clearest memories are stuff like kicking a ball in the streets with my mates, just having fun really. My dad passed away in 1997 when I was 4 so I don’t really have strong memories of him, we lost him in the civil war that started in the year of my birth and the country was really unsettled at that time. My mum decided to follow my sister over here and she left me with her best friend. It took her a while to get set up, I think it was about two years or so, and then I followed her here. It was a long journey and I remember it being really cold when I got here! But I made it and it completely changed my life.

You didn’t know exactly where your mum was when you arrived here?

I hadn’t spoken to my mum for ages so when I first came here the police took me to a care home because they couldn’t find my mum. Then they managed to track her down and that was the first time I’d seen my mum for a long time. I asked her why she left me but it was only when I grew up that I understood it was to make a better life for me and my sisters.

Was it hard to settle here?

I couldn’t speak any English and it was hard for like the first three months because I was starting primary school in Year 6 not knowing anyone, I had no friends and it was tough trying to cope with such a massive change. It was football that actually made the difference, I remember one of the kids invited me to an after school training course and that’s when I started to make friends and feel at home. Football’s a global sport so it’s something we all had in common.

Did you always have that talent for the game?

Back then I didn’t really think I had any talent, I just played because I loved it. When West Brom came calling for my first trials when I was 11 I didn’t even know who they were or which league they played in. But I went there for about 6 weeks, did my trials and got in.

Immigration’s such a hot topic at the moment, given the opportunities you’ve had what would you say to people who think the door should be closed?

Everyone’s entitled to their opinion but for me, no one wants to be a refugee. You’re put in circumstances where you can’t stay in your home anymore because of war or whatever’s going on, so you’re forced to do your best to try and search for a second life. If you’re a parent you can only imagine how hard it must be to take your kids away from their home and their life and move to a strange country so you can feed your kids and try and keep them safe. It’s not an easy option and I don’t think a lot of people realise how hard it is for refugees to leave their own country and start a new life. I don’t think anyone should turn their backs on refugees because they’ve been through a lot and they can turn out to be great people who work for their country and pay tax just like the people who are born here. We don’t come here as heavy baggage, we come here to work and make a life.

A perfect example is someone like Mo Farah who came to this country as an immigrant and has become a symbol of what can be achieved. Do you feel a similar responsibility to be a role model?

Yeah I do. It maybe hasn’t sunk in yet what a big challenge it is to be a role model. It’s coming with age I think as a lot of experiences come my way and make me realise there’s more to what I do than just being a footballer.

As you worked your way through the youth ranks at West Brom, at what point did you realise you were going to make it?

From the age of 12-14 I didn’t even dream of being a footballer, I was just enjoying kicking a ball around. And then I got to work with a coach called Mark Harrison, who’s the academy manager at West Brom now, and he completely changed the way I viewed football. He was a vocal manager and everything I tried to do was to impress him otherwise you’d hear him shouting from the side! He helped me a lot, he was a father figure almost, and if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have taken football as seriously as I did from a young age.

You parted company with West Brom under a cloud but having been there since you were 11 you must still feel ties to the club, a lot of memories?

Yeah, of course. They’ve done a lot for me and my family and I’ve always thanked them for that. I was there for such a long time and I just felt like I needed a new challenge but they’ve always been great and they’ve helped my family massively. They’ve given us a great life and I’ll always be grateful for that.

Since Spurs first came in for you in August 2015, every transfer window it seemed you might be moving. How difficult was it to handle that uncertainty over such a long period?

The first window was the hardest one. The other two I understood the situation but the first one I hardly had any contact with the club so I didn’t know what was going on with my own career, which was a bit scary and that was why I reacted how I did. But once that first window passed and I didn’t move I was okay.

Stoke were the next club to be linked to you and that move finally went through in the last window. Was it easy for Mark Hughes to sell the club to you?

It was very easy, especially after meeting him. Just speaking to the man himself I knew it was what I needed at this stage of my career – someone to guide me and show me the way and he’s been brilliant since day one. He spoke about my qualities and what I can bring to the team and I felt that he could improve my game. I believed in him and I can’t wait to work with him long term.

Saido Berahino, Stoke City

After all the problems of the last 18 months or so, do you see this as a new start, wiping the slate clean?

I’m seeing this as a great opportunity not just a fresh start. It’s something to kick my career back up, a platform for me to go and enjoy myself again and just play – stress-free and with happiness.

Having spent the first half of this season on the sidelines what’s the mindset of a footballer who isn’t playing – are you just desperate to get out there and show what you can do?

Especially for me, I’ve always loved to just play. I hate the waiting around, I hate the build up to a game, I hate all of that. It’s hard when you’re not playing because you have a lot of time to think and there’s all kinds of things going through your mind. When you’re not playing it’s like you have too much time on your hands and it’s hard to get on with life, but no player likes to sit on the bench. 

How did you stay motivated when you knew you weren’t going to be playing?

The only thing that kept me motivated was I knew there was light at the end of the tunnel. Everything has an ending so I just kept working hard at my game and kept myself motivated by having peace in myself to allow myself to wake up every day and go into training without getting angry or downhearted. Just be a man really, roll up my sleeves and take every day as a challenge. I’m doing what I love and even though I’ve had tough times I never thought ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’.

Do you see yourself as a confidence player – do you need to feel love from the crowd, from your manager and teammates?

Every player loves to be loved, it doesn’t matter how strong you are or how confident you come across, if you don’t feel like you’re loved there’s no way you can put your heart into the game. I think I come across as a confident lad, almost cocky maybe, but deep inside I’m really serious about what I do. I study the game more than people might think, I stay behind after every training session to work on my all-round game and what I love doing most – scoring goals. I go back home and watch clips of my games and stuff that I try to pick up from other players like Samuel Eto’o and Jermain Defoe. There’s a lot of things I do behind closed doors to prepare myself for the next game and make me feel like I’ve given myself the best chance to go into the game as confident as I can be.

With all the controversy that’s surrounded you, you must feel like every move you make is under the spotlight. How do you deal with that scrutiny?

I try to ignore it really. I’ve made my mistakes and I know what the truth is and I know I have to learn from it and try not to get caught up in the opinions that are made about you in the media. You have to listen to your managers and your teammates because they’re the ones that really count the most. It’s very hard for me to get who I really am to the outside world because everything I say gets judged and it’s so easy for people to misread what you do.

You’re still only 23 years old, there’s a lot more football to come, how do you see your game developing at Stoke?

Just being a master of my craft really. I’ve got a long way to go but I just want to maximise my potential. I analyse my game and I can see my weaknesses – if you can’t you’re not being honest with yourself – so I know what I need to work on and where I want to get to.

What did you miss most about playing?

I’ve always loved scoring goals, taking responsibility and putting myself under pressure to try and win games – that’s what I thrive on I think. The crowd’s reaction when you score a goal, hearing them shout or cheer your name, it’s the best feeling.

Having represented England throughout the age groups and starred for Gareth Southgate in the U21s, Berahino is aiming to add to his one call up to the full national squad…

”It’s definitely a goal but it’s a long-term goal. I need a good season and maybe another one after that before I’m knocking on the door again. If I can do what I did back at West Brom in 2014/15 and improve on that then I know I’ve got a chance. There are great strikers in the squad, a lot of competition, but I’ve trained with those guys and played with them and against them so I know what it takes to be out there.

“The fact that I’ve worked with Gareth Southgate in the Under 21s is another advantage for me because he knows my game, but Gareth is a great coach and he’ll pick players on merit not just who he knows. He’s a very easy guy to get on with because he’s been there himself and he knows what you need. His man management is very good.”

Berahino is working with Strength & Conditioning Coach Stuart Niven on a personal fitness programme designed to get him to optimum fitness – and stay there.

What’s the target for Saido?

It’s about improving him and taking him to that next level. It’s never just maintaining a fitness level, like after a pre- season for example, it’s about constantly developing and getting better week on week.

A lot of players will be reading this and thinking, there’s so much staff involved in clubs these days dedicated to looking after player fitness, what more can be done to help?

It’s that one-on-one attention and finding exactly what suits them but it’s also a little bit of thinking outside the box. I know what they do within the club so what is it they need on top of that? Whether that’s explosive movement, resistance training, some fast feet work in the sand for example, which is great for injury prevention. Nutrition is the absolute paramount: if you put the right things into your body, you get the right output. Stretching and cooling down are so important, pilates, yoga – look at what that did for Ryan Giggs in terms of extending his career. It’s making sure you tick all the boxes and get a proper all-round programme.

4 the Player: Saido Berahino