Pedro Obiang’s absence for the rest of the season was one of the most depressing issues facing the club in the aftermath of the dramatic defeat to Leicester City but the outstanding midfielder is refusing to let it get him down. He has been pure class on the pitch all season – staking a big claim as Hammer of the Year – and now he is showing quality off it as he faces up to his extended absence.
Aft er being stretchered off in the 3-2 defeat by the Foxes, the 25-yearold thanked the medical staff before adding: “I would like to say to all the fans, friends and teammates to be calm, because I will be working to return as before or better.” It’s the latest twist in Obiang’s dramatic time at West Ham. While the last 18 months have been relatively turbulent for the club, the player can perhaps claim to have had a bumpier ride than anyone.
Obiang was one of Slaven Bilic’s first signings at West Ham two summers ago, arriving on a four-year deal from Sampdoria for an undisclosed fee. Th e Spaniard came to east London as a relative unknown but with a reputation of being a tough tackler and solid passer of the ball from his time in Serie A.
He was a signing that perhaps went a little under the radar at first but Obiang soon made his mark on the side, and indeed the West Ham supporters, aft er a string of impressive performances off the bench.
After completing 20 headers between us as part of Heineken’s HammerHeads competition, before his season-ending injury, I sat down with Obiang at West Ham’s Rush Green training facility, to discuss how he dealt with settling into life in London, his newfound fame as a fan favourite, his continuous belief in his own ability, the English weather and, perhaps most importantly, what he loves most about playing in the famous claret and blue. In his debut season in claret and blue, Obiang made more appearances as a substitute than he did starts.
The team was playing well but it was still widely acknowledged that Obiang’s inclusion in the starting XI would further solidify the side’s midfield. ‘When I’m on the bench, it’s difficult but I’m happy for my teammates,’ Obiang admitted. ‘If you don’t play you come home with your head down and it’s difficult.’ Having moved to London after eight years in Italy, it was always going to be difficult to adapt to a new lifestyle, a different culture and, of course, a new style of football.
But Obiang anticipated that and reveals that he called upon the support of his wife to help him through. ‘I spoke many times with my Mrs when I first arrived. I told her we need to be strong because maybe I don’t play for three or four months but, if she could help me, maybe we can be happy,’ the midfielder said. That happiness eventually arrived, but not without the struggles of adapting to the English weather, too.
‘The weather is bad but we are both happy. I enjoyed eight years of every day being sunny, good weather, but here everything is different. However, I wanted to come to the Premier League, and London is an amazing city.’ So it took some time for Obiang to settle and get used to life in the Premier League, but he was beginning to really shine through as a top midfielder on the biggest stage before his injury. It makes me wonder how and why he has managed to enjoy such contrasting seasons at the club.
he club. ‘I think it’s because now I know the league, I know my teammates better,’ he replies. ‘Last season I arrived after playing for eight years with the same club, the same people and I was with my family, so it was easy then. ‘I came here for new dreams, a new team, a new stadium and everything was different. So the first impact wasn’t very big but now it’s really different.
‘But this season I know everything better, the people know me, my teammates give me space, and it’s because of that I think I’ve become a better player.’ Obiang was one of the first names on Bilic’s team sheet following a string of solid performances in West Ham’s midfield.
His consistency has led to him becoming something of a fans’ favourite at London Stadium, which Obiang puts down to them seeing a lot more of him over anything else. I asked him why he thinks the fans seem to love him so much, and his response pretty much sums up his down to earth, modest nature.
‘I don’t know,’ he said sheepishly. ‘Maybe because I started coming off the bench and then I was a starting player. ‘Maybe it’s for this reason. Maybe for many other things. ‘I have always told myself I am a good player and now many people can tell I’m giving everything on the pitch. Maybe it’s because of this reason that to them, maybe I’m not the best, but I’m close.
He’s not far off. West Ham fans will be in agreement when I say it’s not just Obiang’s performances that have endeared him to the fans’ hearts. It also has a lot to do with the fact he’s rarely seen without a smile on his face, which is exactly what the fans like to see.
The passion and reputation of the club’s fans has not passed him by, either. The midfielder admits that he didn’t quite believe the reputation West Ham supporters had before he signed. ‘When I arrived here my friends would say “the supporters of West Ham are hard [as in passionate]” and I was like no. But now? I feel it!’
But why does he always seem to be happy? Again, Obiang’s modesty shines through with his response as he goes on to explain his struggles before making it as a professional. The fact he is able to do a job millions of people can only dream of is not lost on him at all.
‘I can tell you, not a lot of people have my life,’ he says passionately. ‘Not many can enjoy the same lifestyle as me. ‘I started to play football when I was 14 years old but I was a really bad player then. So I started to work hard when I turned 16 with Sampdoria. ‘Every year I would work harder and I would improve more and more. That is when I started to enjoy it because before I never enjoyed my life.
‘But after I played my first game in Serie A, my life became totally different. The people, my friends, my family and me too because this is the first time I felt I would make it as a footballer. Now I am a footballer! ‘So, I’m always happy for this and I’m happy that I have many chances to train every week, every week I play football.’
After taking some time to settle and then force his way into Bilic’s plans, Obiang registered his first goal in claret and blue on his 55th first team appearance during a 3-1 victory away at Southampton. Goals have not always been part of his game, not even at Sampdoria, but does that bother him at all? ‘It’s always on my mind [scoring goals],’ he admitted.
‘Every week in training at Sampdoria I would score goals but when I arrived here, the football was different. ‘The movement, the space, everything is more defensive than attacking. So this season I know the Premier League better and I’m trying to score more goals.’ It’s an admission that will obviously please West Ham fans, who all came together to congratulate Obiang on scoring his first goal for the club.
The midfielder’s journey from bit-part player to first team regular was not without struggles and hard work, but Obiang was a contender for Hammer of the Year before his injury. Before we go our separate ways and Obiang heads back inside to his teammates, I ask him the most important question of them all. This is the one question I’ve always wanted to ask a West Ham player: What is the best thing about playing for West Ham United?
‘The best thing about playing for West Ham is my teammates. We have a close group,’ he says smiling from ear to ear. It’s at that moment I’m reassured that there is nothing to worry about at the club. The fact the players are close and the results on the pitch are on the up, it’s clear the club is progressing in the right direction. And Pedro Obiang is going to be at the heart of that progression.