As with many foreign players moving into English football, Isaac Mbenza didn’t find it easy when he made the switch from Montpellier in Ligue 1 to the Premier League with Huddersfield. Relegated in 2019, shipped out on loan back to France in 2020, and struggling with his form, many players would have let their head drop and thought about moving on. But with the support of a new manager and a resolve to adapt and prove himself, Isaac has emerged as one of the Terriers’ most influential players...
It’s fair to say you struggled during your first spell at Huddersfield but since you returned from a brief loan spell at Amiens, you’ve revelled in your second chance. What changed?
For a start, I am now playing regularly while the previous season I didn’t play too many games. That happens to a lot of players when a new coach comes in and unfortunately for me, Danny Cowley didn’t really want me. It was his choice. This is not just in football but life also – sometimes, your face does not fit. At the beginning of that season I didn’t start particularly well and very soon I was out of the team, wondering what the future would hold for me. For me personally, maybe it was good when Carlos Corberan came in.
But you weren’t immediately convinced that you’d be part of his plans at Huddersfield?
Yes, absolutely. I sat down with him and we had a good chat and what he said to me sounded very encouraging. He told me I was a good player and would be very important to the team. Of course, that is what you want to hear but the last coach said exactly the same things to me and look what happened. So you can’t always trust everything you are told. Trust has to be earned and, of course, now I realise what Carlos said, he really meant. Looking back, however, I was quite impressed from the outset because he talks with so much ambition and passion and I liked the way he wanted to play the game.
It’s quite an admission to say that at first you did not trust what the new coach was saying to you...
It is true. You have to understand how I was feeling after a season when I was not playing much football. Twelve months earlier a different coach was saying the same things so it was not easy to believe him. They were only words. I needed more than that.
You were very determined to succeed weren’t you?
Yes, I came back early – two weeks before pre-season training – to ensure I would be in the best possible condition. I knew I had to make the most of this opportunity. When I joined Amiens on loan at the start of 2019 I never thought I would kick another ball for Huddersfield. Why should I think anything else? I liked the club and the people but professional footballers want to be playing and I did not believe there was a way back into the team. So I went to Amiens intending to relaunch my career there. It was only a loan deal but I did not want to go back to Huddersfield and be in the same situation I was in when I left. Then Covid changed everything and I played just three times for Amiens before the French season was halted. There was no sport anywhere but I was under contract at Huddersfield and had to go back.
You’ve shown great mental resolve to bounce back so well after your first spell with the club...
I think I have become a strong character. I am 25 now and done a lot of growing up. It was so hard for me when I first joined Huddersfield from Montpellier in 2018. I was single, did not speak the language, everything was so new to me, so different to what I had been used to. I had to adjust to a new life in football, a new training regime, different ideas, new team-mates. But it was also about having to adapt to a new life outside the game. It wasn’t easy. When I came back last year I was very focussed, concentrating on my own game rather than trying to impress everyone else. I learnt that when you do that, you play better and it helps the team and makes the fans happy. And, of course, when I returned to the club I already spoke English and that makes it so much better.
Let’s talk about that first season in English football where Huddersfield were relegated and you struggled to score goals in a losing side...
I came here on the back of a decent season with Montpellier but it was so different, not just because the team did badly. The whole culture was not what I had been used to. Of course, it would have been different if the team was winning games but the fact we were losing a lot made it tougher. Naturally, I knew I was not playing well. Perhaps I was thinking too much. When I did not score or I missed chances, I would go home and try to work out why it was not happening for me. I had no family with me so would go back to an empty house and replay everything in my mind. It was unbelievably hard for me.I felt so confused. Had I become a bad player? Was I good enough to play here? I think the reason I did not play well that first season was as much a mental thing as anything else.
A nightmare campaign ended on a personal high for you when you scored your one and only Premier League goal against Manchester United...
Oh yes, that was a wonderful day. My English is not good enough to exactly explain just how I felt when that goal went in. Unbelievable! It was the last home game of the season and even though the fans knew we were going down, the atmosphere was incredible. Everyone was in the mood to enjoy themselves and they showed me so much love when I scored. I shall never forget it. The emotions I felt that afternoon are why I am in football.
Not everyone scores their first Premier League goal against one of the most famous clubs in the world but would you have swapped it for five goals spread out over the season?
Yes, definitely. I am a forward and my job is to score goals and I did not score enough goals. I’d scored goals in France against very good teams but this was Manchester United with players like Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford in the team and no one can take that moment away from me. It was a crazy day. We finished the season playing well and drawing at Southampton so what was a very disappointing year ended on a little bit of a high for me and the team.
And now in the Championship, results haven’t always gone Huddersfield’s way but you’re playing well and enjoying your football again?
It certainly helps when you have a coach who believes in you and picks you. I have never felt happier than I do right now. I am settled, feel good about myself and think I am playing well. I have already talked about how much more focussed I am these days but this coach gives me a lot of confidence. I like the way he wants us to play football and I enjoy being on the pitch with my team-mates. People who do not watch Huddersfield regularly may be surprised when I say this but I really believe we are a good team, far better than our position suggests. On the occasions I have not been playing, I have sat in the stands thinking to myself, ‘Wow, this team is looking good.’.
There’s no doubt you had a good season but should you have scored more goals?
Without question. I want to score more goals to help my team but show me a forward who does not want to score lots of goals! I am always looking for more goals, more assists. I hope I will score more goals next season and believe I will.
You turned 25 earlier this year so you’re still relatively young. Do you think you’re improving as a player?
The simple fact is that I need to get better so that means I will get better. Every year you set yourself targets and for me that means becoming a better footballer, improving different aspects standing still. I know what I am capable of and believe that football has not seen the best of me yet – not by a long way. Again, I go back to the fact that I have a manager who likes me and that can only benefit me. Knowing he has faith helps me improve. Ultimately, it is down to me working hard and being driven but there are so many factors and one of them is having the backing of your coach.
It sounds as if you’re optimistic about Huddersfield’s future?
Of course. We have good players and good method. Now we have to manage games a bit better, be more consistent and perhaps a bit luckier. Carlos Corberan has already proved he is a good coach but he needs more time. Football is about margins and there are just small details we need to work on. But I just know we will do a lot better next season.
BEND IT LIKE MBENZA
Another sign of Isaac’s growing influence at Huddersfield is his new status as the go-to man for set pieces. Mbenza proved himself quite a free kick specialist last season. Two goals in particular – at home to Sheffield Wednesday and away at Middlesbrough – were Beckham-esque in their execution. The Belgian is proud of his dead ball quality...
“Yes, it is a speciality of mine but really I should score more goals from those situations. I practice my free kicks a lot, often staying behind after training to improve my technique.
“Whenever Huddersfield are awarded a free-kick around the box, I always fancy my chances of scoring because it is one of the strengths in my game. I do have that ability to bend a ball around a wall and find the net, though maybe I should be scoring more often.”
After playing for Belgium at u21 level, Mbenza is yet to make the breakthrough into the full squad – a big ask when competing with a golden generation of stars...
Isaac Mbenza was born in France but moved to Belgium as a five-year-old and has represented the country at different age levels, winning 16 caps with the U21s.But when Belgium can call upon the likes of world superstars Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, does he hold out much hope of graduating to the seniors? “The competition is certainly tough,” he admits. “This is a golden age of Belgian football with some of the best players in the world representing the country. Any footballer would love to win senior caps for their country but for me it is all about doing well for Huddersfield, helping the team be successful and then we’ll just see what happens. “I don’t really think of being picked for Belgium but of course I am very proud of my country and how well the football team is doing right now. It is an incredible crop of players who have come through and now Belgium are regarded as one of the greatest teams in world football.”