“Any chance you can get to the Welsh team hotel for about 8pm on Wednesday? Joe can meet you then.”
Wild horses wouldn’t have stopped me from getting there. Unfortunately, wild horses aren’t as head-wobblingly dreadful and stressful as the M6 and M5 motorways, which can make absolute mincemeat of any ideas and plans – especially when you can’t set off from work until 3.30pm!
Thankfully, as we know, God is a Stokie, and the motorways were traffic-free, so I arrived at the Welsh Team hotel in plenty of time.
An absolutely brilliant set-up, the only problem was the name of the place: The Vale Resort! I’m sure Joe wouldn’t have blamed me if I’d got back in my car and headed back to The Potteries there and then, but I braved it, and so in I stepped….
Staying there were the Welsh football and rugby union teams: both with international matches ahead of them at the weekend. The mood was relaxed and jovial, with the football players playing darts, table tennis and (simulation) golf, on the landing above the grand entrance. A handful of hotel guests and fans were milling around, and the players never refused one autograph or photo that night. As it should be.
It was all a bit surreal, to be honest. Ashley Williams holding the door open for me and Joe Ledley sat on the same settee, chatting to his dad…..and then Joe Allen came down the corridor, flanked by Mark Evans from the FAW. Mark’s a great bloke (and an ex-fanzine editor himself!): a sounder bloke you couldn’t wish to meet.
We found a table and started to chat; about the Checkatrade Trophy and the game at West Ham a few days previously…. before we got down to the nitty gritty.
You grew up in Narberth, South Wales ….
Yeah, Narberth is a small town near Carmarthen, in Pembrokeshire. I went to both schools there, and they were really good and really good for sport as well. I was a good kid, I suppose. Well behaved, and I worked hard and was decent in class. I was pretty academic, and I enjoyed it at school and left with some good GCSE’s.
Did your education continue?
I started a Psychology degree, but it’s on hold at the minute and I don’t know yet when I’m going to take it on again.
Were you always sporty? Judging from your displays for Stoke, I bet you were pretty ace at cross country?
Ha, I wasn’t that good at athletics, really. But I played lots of sport, not just football. I enjoyed tennis, but that tailed off when I got to about 13 years old. I also played quite a lot of rugby. Narberth is a pretty big rugby town, but for me it was always football.
My dad played rugby but he also loved his football, too. As I said before, I played quite a bit when I was a kid, but I always loved football. I always had my heart set on being a footballer.
As a youngster you played for Tenby. Was that where Swansea spotted you?
Tenby had a great set up, and I joined them at seven. But I was playing for my school team, at the age of nine, when I got spotted. Ray Evans was the scout that saw me in a school game and called my dad and arranged a six week trial at Swansea. There was a lot of travelling, but I loved the game so much it was never ever a chore. After the trial ended, Swansea wanted to sign me up and I was thrilled to do it.
Did the young Swans teams play Cardiff?
Oh yes, that was the big one: even as kids it was big, especially to the kids from Swansea. It was massive.
I then got offered a deal at 16 and then a YTS contract after that, and made my first team debut in the Welsh Cup at 16.
Let’s fast-forward almost a decade later…….. you’re still only 26, but you’ve played at The Olympics; have over 40 caps; were picked in the Team of the Tournament at the recent Euros; have nearly 150 Premier League games under your belt; won numerous awards; captained Wales – that’s a lot for 26. Ever think “WOW!”?
Ha, Ha, yeah, when you put it like that, it does seem a lot. Thank you, ha, ha!
In my most challenging or pensive moments I do think, “yeah I’ve done alright, I suppose”. I’ve had some great experiences in a short space of time. But for the last two years I’ve been wary – when I was at Liverpool – of my age, and the need to be playing regular first team football. I didn’t want to be a bit-part, rotation player at the age of 26.
Er, thanks for making me feel really old, Joe!
This is not a criticism, but this Welsh team reminds me a bit of Stoke City under Tony Pulis….
How do you mean?
…..a siege mentality; 100% commitment to the cause; organisation; belief…..
Yes, I can see where you are coming from – we are very organised squad and team, and we all put in a huge shift. Good point. Yeah, I do see it as a big compliment what you are saying with regards to Stoke under Tony Pulis.
A massive reason for our success is that we are a bunch of lads with no issues, no egos, we all get on great, and all accept our role. We implement game plans and strategies down to a tee, and we have a mentality of being together as a team the whole time. It is like a club environment.
The manager gets the very best out of us, too. Perhaps in the past Wales had lots of good individuals but not as big a team spirit as we now have? I don’t know, but I do know the whole vibe and set up now is fantastic!
You were down in the Olympic Games programme as being English. Ever get a reprint done?
Ha ha, no I never did!
We’ve touched on you playing against Stoke City. Were we as bad as everyone made out back then?
It was tough, yeah, of course it was. Stoke were very organised, very physical…but they had some really good players as well; a real mix, different types of players…… I’m not one to criticise any styles of play at all, and never would. There’s no right or wrong way to play football, it’s all about the end result. It’s not for me to comment on how others play. It’s up to a team to combat it and find ways of winning.
I’ve played in both Swansea and Liverpool teams who have gone to Stoke and got beaten. I’ve never had an easy game there. At the end of the day, you play matches to win with what you have at your disposal.
So why join Stoke City, and how did it come about?
I was on holiday in Ibiza at the time. The first I heard about it was on Sky Sports News saying that Liverpool had accepted an offer for me. It was a bit of a strange way to find out, but I was excited. I think other clubs were in for me too, but I don’t think anyone else agreed a fee or anything like that. It was Stoke who made the move, and it happened pretty quickly.
As I said before, I was genuinely excited. After that, it was just about agreeing personal terms and getting ready for pre-season.
Mark Hughes. Was he a big factor in coming?
Yeah, a big factor. He’s changed the style of the team a lot in recent years, and they’ve impressed me when we’ve played against Stoke teams. The players he’s brought in has shown how he wants to play, and we have a lot of excellent footballers at the football club. They’re a good bunch, too.
The manager showed me that the club had ambition, didn’t want to stand still, and despite a poor start to the season, we’re showing what we’re about now.
But you broke our hearts ten months ago, you know that don’t you?
The winning penalty in the semi final? Ha, ha sorry!
I thought I did well in those two games, especially the first game when I played a bit further forward than I usually did at Liverpool. It was my first start for a while, as I’d not had a run in side, and really wanted to take my chance. We had a few injuries that night at Stoke, so it was probably a bit by default I was playing, to be honest.
We pressed well that game. I was straining to play and so I charged around from the off. My fitness was good and I was raring to go, especially in a semi final.
If I’m honest, Liverpool deserved to win the first leg and Stoke deserved to win the second leg. Then it went to penalties, and it’s anyone’s game then….
The last five months: the best form of your career so far?
Yeah, I would say so. As a combination, how things have worked out with Wales and at club level, then yes, I have to say it is. I obviously wasn’t getting too much time on the pitch at Liverpool, so, yeah, I feel I’m playing quite well both in the league and at international level. It’s all about getting a chance to play regularly…..
Positionally – where do you prefer to play? Where you do for Stoke or for Wales? Oh, and you are definitely not allowed to say “Wherever the gaffer wants me to play”!
At Swansea, Leon Britton always played in front of the back four as the holding midfielder, with two advanced midfielders in front of him: so it would usually be me and Gylfi Sigurdsson in front of him. It suited me. That was always my position for Swansea. For Wales and Liverpool, I’ve been asked to play deeper.
I’m not sitting on the fence here, but I genuinely don’t know 100% what my best position is, although my preference is anywhere as long as it’s somewhere in central midfield. I am genuinely happy to play anywhere the manager wants me to.
It’s taken me by surprise how well I’ve done in terms of goals this season – 4 in 3 is unheard of for me, really! I thought that if I got the chance to play further forward regularly, that I would be getting chances and be able to score a few and also add a few assists. It’s gone really well so far, and over the course of the season I’m ambitious enough to say I’d want to be getting a few more goals if I continue playing there.
Thing is, there are lots of excellent players in all positions at Stoke. We have a really good squad, with several options, and so if you lose your place it’s hard to get it back again.
Does competition for places drive you on?
Definitely. It always keeps me striving to play well and striving to keep my standards high. I’ve said this before: you simply can’t get complacent or stand still in the Premier League. You’ll get overtaken. We have that drive at Stoke, and we also have a squad of excellent, technical players, who are a great bunch. I’m not just saying that, either.
Who are your best mates at Stoke?
I obviously knew the ex-Liverpool lads well from my time there, but we all get along great to be honest.
The start of the season was slow for the team, but you personally got the furthest in the Euros and yet have been our best player so far. That doesn’t tally up?
Ha, ha, you’ve got me there, ha, ha.
It’s difficult to comment on really, as I came into the squad a bit later in pre-season. The lads were never overly worried though, as we have got stronger in previous seasons as the season has worn on.
I felt the game where we let ourselves down was Palace away, which was just a really bad day at the office for us. But we worked hard to put things right and you can see now we are hopefully back on track. We gave away two early goals at Palace, and they’re a hard team to play against, but we didn’t give ourselves a foothold in that game at all. I can assure people that our bad run was not down to a lack of effort. Hopefully, we’ve turned the corner now.
Is the training at Stoke different than at other clubs, such as Liverpool?
No, not really. Every manager has a different model or way of working. People may think that there’s a big difference between the two clubs in the little things that they do, but I can assure you that there isn’t at all. I’ve been really impressed by Stoke City, but I knew I would be. The staff there are great, and are always pushing us forward.
The Xavi/Pirlo comparisons and comments – embarrassing?
The whole TV programme documentary (Being: Liverpool) was everything I don’t really like to be involved in, to be honest. I was up there one day to finalise a move to Liverpool and was followed around by a documentary camera crew. That’s not what I’m about, and didn’t enjoy it. I like being under radars and not in the spotlight. I thought, “What on earth is going on here!”
I suppose it was what it was. But I didn’t enjoy it, but I suppose that’s how the game has changed. I don’t think it worked out well for me. The ‘Welsh Xavi’ tag was a harmless throwaway comment at the time, but it got taken way out of context and I suffered a bit as a result. It was a nightmare.
Ever find out the names in Brendan Rodgers’ three envelopes?
Ha, ha, no!
You have a young lad – does he watch you and come to Stoke games?
Yes, Alfie comes to the home games, and as he’s now four he has really started to like coming to watch.
Not too cold in that ground for him is it?
Ha, ha, no, he loves wearing his little Stoke kit. The only problem was when we played Swansea and he got a bit confused on who to support! I’ve got a brother and two sisters who also love coming to games, too. They watch my Welsh games and come to watch my Stoke home matches whenever they can.
You also like your music?
Yeah, I like my guitar music to be honest, but it seems like I’m in a minority in the football world now, ha, ha. We’re really clinging on now, ha, ha!
And finally…..Swansea City, Stoke City….you’ve just got Stockport County to go for all the SCFC’s….
Ha, ha, yeah…but not for a few years yet!
footnote 1: Huge thanks, part one
To Joe, for taking the time to chat to me. As you’d probably expect, he’s an absolutely lovely bloke: softly spoken, bright, articulate, and an absolutely brilliant ambassador for our football club. He also took some good-natured stick during the interview from various Welsh teammates who popped their heads around the door, too!
footnote 2: Huge thanks, part two.
I was driving back to Stoke straight after the interview. Or so I thought.
“No need, we’ve booked you a room in the hotel, so you can stay over if you want to”, said Mark from the FAW.
I was staggered. This was absolutely different class, and something that he really didn’t need to do at all. A past-his-sell-by-date fanzine editor from Stoke, stopping in the Welsh team’s hotel? Can you seriously imagine that happening where other teams are concerned!!???!!
When people ask just why Wales have done so superbly well over the last few years, why they have an amazing spirit about them, and why they have a positive relationship with the media – it’s because of the small things, the forward thinking, the personal touches, the caring: The human side of football. Wales get all that right, as they so obviously did with their training camp in France this summer, too.
Not only was it an honour to stay at the team hotel, but it was very much needed and appreciated, too. Seven hours or so on the road in half a day wouldn’t have killed me, but I was so glad to be able to travel back the next morning, instead of getting back at daft o’clock.
I was hugely grateful just for the interview, but this was something else.
Absolute class acts, Joe, Mark and Wales. Class acts.
COPYRIGHT: NONE OF THIS INTERVIEW, EITHER WHOLE OR PART, IS TO BE USED BY ANY OTHER PERSON OR PARTIES WITHOUT PRIOR PERMISSION FIRST FROM US DIRECTLY.