‘In my heart I still feel like I am really a West Ham player’

EXCLUSIVE: Julien Faubert on why he loved Sam Allardyce, hated Avram Grant and the day he did not fall asleep on the Real Madrid subs bench

A common criticism levelled at footballers these days is that they don’t care about the club the same way fans do. But in the case of former West Ham defender Julien Faubert, that is anything but the truth.

Although I’m at Bordeaux now, part of me still feels like a West Ham player,’ the 31-yearold French international exclusively revealed to Blowing Bubbles. ‘I’m in touch with fans on Twitter, I follow the club on social media, I watch games when I can and I’d happily have stayed at West Ham for the rest of my career.’

Faubert’s career in claret and blue took an unlikely route, unveiled as a high-profile signing only to be sidelined by serious injury before he had even played a competitive match, via an unlikely short-lived stint with Real Madrid, before ending in triumph at Wembley in the 2012 play-off final, which remains the high point of his time at the club – and, you get the feeling, one of the high points of his entire footballing career

‘I still watch that game on YouTube,’ he admitted. ‘I can never forget just how good it felt.’ Signing off with victory at Wembley was in sharp contrast to how Faubert’s West Ham career began in 2007. ‘I was at Bordeaux and had agreed a move to Rangers, but then right at the end of the transfer window the club told my agent an English club were interested, and they knew I wanted to go there one day, so the club wanted to do something about it. I was just told it was a club in London – I didn’t know which one – but my agent told me it was West Ham, a good traditional club with crazy fans, and that I would like it, so I trusted him.’

When Faubert signed for £6m, chairman Eggert Magnusson said West Ham had beaten off competition from some of the top clubs in Europe for his signature, but within weeks of joining, Faubert’s career was thrown into serious doubt. ‘We were playing a pre-season friendly in Austria, I was running along and then suddenly I heard my Achilles go,’ he said.

‘It wasn’t a challenge, something just snapped and I felt huge pain. It was so loud that Jonathan Spector, who was behind me, heard it and immediately called on the physio. He took one look at it and told me it was ruptured. ‘I was devastated. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before – here I was at a new club, I wanted to start working for them as they had spent so much on me, and now this. But right from the start, the club was incredibly supportive. They said I could go back to France any time I liked, and within 48 hours of the injury I was back there, having surgery

The injury meant Faubert’s attempts to play himself into contention for manager Alan Curbishley were scuppered straight away, but the backing he received at the club made the process of recovery and bedding in much simpler than it could have been. ‘I felt bad as I wanted to be out on the pitch, but whenever I came back, the manager and my team-mates were always really supportive,’ Faubert explained. ‘That made recovery easier than I had expected it to be.

‘As I hadn’t done pre-season, even when I was fit again it was always going to be hard to break into the team that season, but the manager was clever because he gave me a series of short run-outs to make me feel more like part of the team. It was hard work but I knew I was on the way back and that I’d be fit for the following season, so I was happy just to be on the bench.’

Alas for Faubert, though, next season was not to pan out as he had hoped. When Curbishley left the club in September 2008, Gianfranco Zola took over and it soon became clear that he did not have the same opinion of Faubert as his predecessor, who had signed him for the club. ‘I liked Curbishley as a man and as a manager, so when he left and Zola came in and didn’t play me much, it didn’t feel good,’ he explained.

‘I know things change under new managers, and he had his way of doing things, but not being able to show my potential after being out of the side for so long – I was worried. As it turned out, the following season I played for him more than 30 times, so thing worked out in the end, but at the time, after all I’d been through the previous season, I needed to feel wanted – and I wasn’t.’

Just over a year after his arrival at West Ham, with much of the ensuing time spent in the treatment room, there was a big question mark over Faubert’s future. But what happened next was something no-one could have predicted. ‘I was on the coach to a game at Fulham when my phone rang, and it was someone saying he was from Real Madrid, and they wanted to sign me,’ he explained.

‘I said I couldn’t talk now and to call back later. After the game I checked my phone and there were 20 or 30 missed calls, so I realised this was serious. He asked for my agent’s number, that night we went to a Heathrow hotel to talk, and a deal was agreed. The next day I went to Spain.’ The look on the face of Alfredo di Stefano as he handed Faubert his shirt at the traditional Madrid photo call showed he was as confused as anyone else about the Galacticos’ latest new arrival, and even Faubert admits he too was slightly overawed – for one day, at least.

‘Taking it all in on that first day was an amazing experience, like some sort of crazy dream, but after that you have to be a serious worker – Real Madrid don’t sign someone out of charity or for fun,’ he said. ‘You go in and see your picture on the locker, and looking round the dressing room your team-mates are now people like Fabio Cannavaro and Raul, who you’re used to watching in the Champions League – you can be impressed by it all, but you have to prove you’re not a tourist, and you’re there to be part of the team.’

Life in the Bernabeu goldfish bowl was unlike anything he had experienced at West Ham, as his new team-mates were quick to warn him. ‘You’re under 24 hour scrutiny – the other players warned me that the press pounce on anything to try and make a story, which is why you see Real players cover their mouths when they talk to one another on the pitch. There are cameras everywhere, so you have to watch everything you do.

‘One time I went out shopping with my family, and when we came out, the photographers were there because the staff had phoned them to say a Madrid player was in the shop. That’s when you realise what goes with playing for a club like that.’ If that’s what it was like going to the shops, then Faubert should have known it was going to be even more intense closer to the pitch, even on the sub’s bench – and he soon found out the hard way.

Ah yes, that photo,’ he said. ‘I wasn’t asleep. How could I be surrounded by all that noise? I was on the bench, and I shut my eyes for a few seconds – but at Madrid there are even about 10 cameras trained on the bench, in search of anything, so they need something to talk about, they got their picture, and that became the story – that I’d fallen asleep. You have to be very careful at that club.’ Even before that notorious incident, Faubert said he knew his longterm future was not with Madrid, and after just two appearances, at the end of his loan spell he returned to West Ham – happy to have had his chance at one of the world’s greatest clubs, but equally content to be back at Upton Park. ‘I knew fairly soon that I was going to come back but my kids missed England, so I wasn’t too upset,’ Faubert said.

‘Back at West Ham I felt I wanted to make one big season and help the team after they’d invested so much money in me – that first season back was one of my best ever, because I was happy, fit and so motivated.’ Although it was a good one for Faubert, it was one to forget for the team, and also full of boardroom wrangling, culminating in the departure of manager Zola. But if anyone thought new ownership and a new manager would be an end to the troubles, they were oh so wrong. Two words: Avram Grant.

The relegation season – I blame the manager,’ said Faubert, who only seems to have good things to say about everyone else he encountered at West Ham. ‘We had a good enough squad to stay up but he didn’t make the right choices in training or in matches. He wasn’t a good man for the club and because of that it wasn’t a team on or off the pitch. There wasn’t any heart or fighting spirit.

To compound Faubert’s misery, he wasn’t even getting a look in, and he soon began to wonder if his future lay away from West Ham. ‘I don’t know what happened between me and Grant but evidently something did, because even though I was fit and competitive, he just didn’t pick me,’ he explained. ‘My future at the club depended on the manager – if he was still on board, then I decided I had to move.’

When Grant took the club down, enter an unlikely saviour – Sam Allardyce – to herald the final act of Faubert’s West Ham story. ‘When Sam came to the club as the new manager, all my bad feeling under Grant changed,’ he explained. ‘I felt something really strong with him, I thought “I can break my leg for this man,” so if I can, I’ll stay here.’

And he did – but sadly for the player, for just one more season. ‘It was only right at the end of the season that it became clear I was leaving,’ he said. ‘I would have happily stayed at West Ham until the end of my career, so it’s a real shame what happened. There was a new deal offered, but I think it was through my ex-agent so there was a bit of a misunderstanding, and I never got to see it.’ Having endured so many twists and turns during his days at West Ham, fate had one last glorious surprise in store for Faubert – the 2012 Championship play-off final win over Blackpool at Wembley

‘I’ve never known stress like it before the match, but that is definitely my happiest memory of my time at West Ham,’ he said. ‘What happened – with Ricardo Vaz Te’s winner so close to the end – was brilliant. The feeling on the pitch was amazing, and the noise was incredible – I was so happy for everyone associated with the club for what we’d done. I’ll never forget it. That’s why I still watch it.’ With his contract at an end, Faubert spent one season in Turkey before returning to Bordeaux, where he spent three of the formative years of his career.

And whilst in some ways he is now back at home, there is clearly a part of him that still belongs at Upton Park. ‘These are the people who watched me grow up and develop as a player, so it feels like I’ve come back home to Bordeaux,’ he said. ‘I know all these people, I’m in the team and we’re playing really well, so I’m very happy, but I know my family miss England a lot. My wife is French but she absolutely loved London, and my kids are nine and four, and they feel English. I’d go back there straight away if I had the chance.’

Having had such a stop-start career at Upton Park, Faubert could be forgiven for having mixed feelings about his time at West Ham, but – Grant apart – he only has good things to say about his spell at the club. ‘When I went to Real Madrid, people in France laughed at me, but most of the support I got came from England – they were really positive about it,’ he said. ‘There’s a very different mentality in French football – sometimes French players are too soft and are beaten before they go on the pitch, but in England you can laugh and joke before the game, then once it starts people turn into fighters.

‘That’s the kind of person I am, and there was a lot of that at West Ham, with people like Ginge and Mark Noble, so I loved it. ‘They were a really nice friendly bunch of people too, and I’m still in touch with people like Carlton Cole now.

‘I always look to see how the club is doing, and I really like the new signings too – they’ll need some time, but they’ll do well. The future looks good. I’m still part of the West Ham family, and I always will be.’

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