Not really. When you’re on the pitch you think about the match and all the technical and tactical work you’ve done during the week. You think about implementing your coach’s instructions. I also had in mind the words of some supporters who told us earlier in the week that we could create the exploit. I may come back from afar and have experienced tragic events, but I was only focused on the meeting.
“My arm was almost dislocated from the body and the connection between my shoulder and my arm was very fragile. »
Among these “tragic events” , there’s this car accident that could have taken you completely away from it all 20 years ago…
I was 15 years old. I was with friends of mine in Corbeil-Essonnes. We were in the street, quiet, and we saw the bus go by. We absolutely had to take him and to try to nab him I ran. Unfortunately when I crossed, there is a car which arrived on the other side. I did not see her and the accident happened quickly. I was violently hit. Then I remember being on the ground, on the road. My shoulder was completely dislocated. At the time, I wasn’t really in pain. But that was because no one touched me yet. I was shocked at what had happened to me and my friends called the ambulance. When they got me into the truck, there were several of them to hold my arm. It was almost dislocated from the body and the connection between my shoulder and my arm was very fragile. I arrive at the hospital and during the whole journey they pay attention to my arm. When he puts me on the emergency bed and drops it, it was horrible. I have never had so much pain in my life.
At that moment, it seems to me that you are at the Paris Saint-Germain training center…
(He cuts me) So that’s crazy! I have never played at PSG (Laughs.). It has already been pointed out to me, but yes, I do not understand why on all the sites it is stated that I was trained there. It’s very strange, but, for example, it’s written in black on white on my Wikipedia page. Each time it makes me laugh a lot. Before coming to England, I played in Évry. I also went through Brétigny and Corbeil. Well I did a few tries right to left in French clubs, but it was never in Paris.
How do you find the grounds after such an accident?
It’s complicated, it’s long, but in fact, I have always been determined to play football. Always. I had rage and it made me want to come back more. Physically, it was better after four months. When psychologically I moved completely on to something else – even if you never completely recovered from that – I was on my way again. Five months later I was on the field. I loved football too much. In my hospital room, at home, all this time, the only thing I thought about was kicking the ball.
Did you come out stronger?
Yes. Greatly. In fact, I learned a lesson. Today, for example, I am very careful when I cross with my children. I come out with more mental, stronger. As soon as I leave the hospital, only a few months have passed and I have gone to Watford. I didn’t have time to panic.
How did your transfer go?
Watford had organized trials in Les Ulis, with all the best U16 and U18 players in the region. I was on the list, but the organizers didn’t know where I lived, how to contact me, so I was on the verge of not participating in this selection. In the Watford scout team, there was a Frenchman. One day, he goes to the hairdresser, a little before the detection day. A friend of mine was in the living room, by chance. The guy talks to the barber and says: “Damn, I have everyone, but I still have one guy to find, it’s Toumani Diagouraga” . My friend, he said straight away that he knew me. The recruiter turned around and said: “No, mind you?” » . And finally my buddy calls me and I went to the trials without mail, without email, without anything. By word of mouth.
And so you take the direction of Ulis.
It was a Saturday. I remember it. Me, I was selected to play in the category of under 16. And after twenty minutes, they tell me to go out. At the time, I did not understand why, but, in fact, they wanted to play with the under 18s. So I played with the older ones, that went very well. In the back, they asked for my contact details – they had to have them one day – and a little later in the year, they sent me a summons by post to do a test in England. There, we play two friendly matches. One against the young people of Fulham, and another against those of Arsenal, and I was a hit. The contract arrived several months later.
At that moment, you say to yourself, have you just realized one of your biggest dreams?
In truth, I expected it. Actually, I’m not sure how to explain it, but a lot of my family members played football. I have an uncle who played in Italy for a good ten years. Another played for a long time in France in National. On the one hand, I had to go on my own adventure and achieve this feat, but on the other, I felt like I was following in the footsteps of my family. Everyone knew I was good, but I don’t think they expected me to go to England at that age. I was so happy, my mother too.
How is your debut in England going?
Initially fine. But it didn’t last very long. I was 16-17 years old and Ray Lewington, Roy Hodgson’s former assistant at Crystal Palace and in the selection, was the first team coach. I started traveling with them and ended up playing my first Championship game, it was away. I was the only one of the group not yet to have a pro contract. Sean Dyche, today the coach of Burnley, comes to see me. He was still playing at that time, central defender. He tells me : “Toums are you going to play? » . I answer yes and he adds: “But if we win, you won’t get the bonus…” He went to the coach to tell him to do something. Eventually we won and I got the small bonus of £500. My first.
“When I go on loan to Swindon Town in League One, it didn’t bother me at all. Whether in France or elsewhere, I prefer and I greatly preferred to play at this level at 18, than in reserve or in the young team of a big club. »
It goes bad a few weeks later, when Ray Lewington is sacked and Aidy Boothroyd replaces him.
Yeah, he didn’t trust me. At the same time I was very young. I then go on loan to Swindon Town in League One. It didn’t bother me at all. All I wanted was to play football. And then whether in France or elsewhere, I prefer and I greatly preferred to play at this level at 18, than in the reserve or in the young team of a big club. Everyone thinks that English football, especially in the lower leagues, is kick and rush, where the supporters are all drunk, where football is just a hobby, not professional… But it’s the complete opposite. Once you’re in the bath, you’re bound to change your mind. A simple example: in pre-season we played Nice, their A team, and we beat them. The image we have of these championships is not the right one.
Then, it’s fifteen years of backpacking between Rotherham, Hereford, Peterborough or Portsmouth. It was only in Brentford that you were able to really put your backpack down (246 games between 2010 and 2016). What do you like in this world?
At first I was very quickly surprised. At 18 years old, I did not expect the stadiums to be so crowded, that the fervor to be so immense. English culture took me by the guts. Today, I’m completely crazy about it. Today, it takes me two hours to drive to and from training. I live in Harrogate, not far from Leeds, and to get to Morecambe I have to go through many small villages. Sometimes it even takes longer when there are tractors or cows on the road. Finally, the cows, it hasn’t happened yet, but, the last time, I barely avoided them so it shouldn’t be long (Laughs.). I have become a pro in overtaking tractors on very small roads. Sometimes I even call my wife while I’m driving and it cuts out all the time with the rotten network of certain villages. Sometimes it’s complicated, but I wouldn’t change that for the world.
“I have become a pro in overtaking tractors on very small roads. Sometimes I even call my wife while I’m driving and it cuts out all the time with the rotten network of certain villages. »
Although you’ve never played in the Premier League?
I will always have this little regret. But every time I went to lower divisions, it was to be seen, for recruiters to watch me. It is useless to be in a big club not to play. Visibility is important and I had more in front of thousands of supporters and lots of cameras in League Two with Hereford United (club disappeared in 2014 following a financial bankruptcy, editor’s note) than on the Watford bench in the Championship. With Brentford in 2015, I lost the play-offs to play in the English top flight. It’s a shame, but I’m happy when I look at my journey.
What is the best memory of your career?
I have a lot, a lot, but I remember a match against Leeds, at home, with Hereford in 2009. It was one of the last matches of the League Two championship. We were first and in the weekend, all our direct competitors had lost. In the event of a victory, we would officially go up even though we didn’t have too many resources. To tell you how much: the day before the game, we had no place to train, so we ended up in a parking lot. The coach had put on cups while cars were still circulating. Some of my teammates came close to injury when they fell on the concrete. Finally, the next day we won 3-0 and moved up to the top division.
You never had the opportunity to come back to France?
Never. Never has a French club knocked on the door. I would have liked to come back for the family, but especially because I am French. But it never happened, as if I was destined to spend my entire career in England since a club from another country never contacted me. My greatest adventure is in Brentford. I was playing in front of almost 18,000 supporters every weekend. That says everything. The project was crazy and it was also a pleasure to become the player of color who played the most matches in the history of the club. I’m so proud of it.
As the years go by, do you feel more English than French?
French ! Although I might have the English passport shortly. My wife asked me because with Brexit, it becomes difficult to return to British territory. My memories are more in England. My children are English, born to an English mother to whom I am married and I have been here for 17 years. That’s why it’s nice to meet French people. Like Tanguy Ndombele whom I saw last weekend when we were at Tottenham. We chatted a bit and he gave me his shirt after the game.
Did you give him yours?
No, he doesn’t need it (Laughs.). Interview by Matthieu Darbas