Florent Hadergjonaj: ‘This Is My Dream. I Want To Play These Teams Regularly’

Florent Hadergjonaj: ‘This Is My Dream. I Want To Play These Teams Regularly’

Sunday, 25 February, 2018 - 09:30
Florent Hadergjonaj says he is probably the only footballer to come from the Swiss town of Langnau, an ice-hockey stronghold. Photograph: Gary Calton for the Guardian
London - Paul Doyle
The first time Florent Hadergjonaj played against a Premier League team could have been his last. Romelu Lukaku made sure that thought occurred to the Swiss right-back after Hadergjonaj’s team, Young Boys, were dismantled 4-1 at home by Everton in the knockout stages of the 2014-15 Europa League, Lukaku blasting in a hat-trick. Hadergjonaj, then aged 20, was left on the bench a week later when Everton completed the demolition at Goodison Park, Lukaku helping himself to another two goals to complete a 7-2 aggregate win.

“Lukaku was just too strong,” recalls Hadergjonaj. “We had come through a hard group, with Napoli and Sparta Prague, and it was amazing to play against an English team. But every one of them was really strong and so much faster. Especially Lukaku. Afterwards I thought: ‘Maybe it’s too hard at this level.’ But then you think: ‘No, this is my dream, I want to play these teams regularly.’”

And now here Hadergjonaj is, aged 23, at Huddersfield and fighting valiantly for the right to continue calling Premier League teams his peers. Lukaku tormented his team again last Saturday, scoring twice at the John Smith’s Stadium as Manchester United advanced to the sixth round of the FA Cup, but this time neither Hadergjonaj nor his team-mates felt outclassed. With better finishing they could have beaten United, as they did in October in what remains the most memorable victory of the club’s first campaign in the top flight since 1972, long before Hadergjonaj was born.

Hadergjonaj was born in Langnau, Switzerland, to parents who had emigrated from Kosovo a decade earlier to work in a meat-packing plant. When he won his first cap in a friendly against Belarus last June it brought nearer the possibility of him pitting his skills against Neymar at this summer’s World Cup, where Switzerland begin their campaign against Brazil. But a lot of people were disappointed – the ones who wanted Hadergjonaj to declare for Kosovo.

“It was a hard decision, like it was for other players such as Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka,” he says. “They all had pressure on them too. For me, my family is from Kosovo and I go there once or twice a year to see relations. It’s a hard situation because you have some people saying: ‘All your family is from Kosovo, you should play for them’ and others say: ‘You were born in Switzerland, you must play for them.’ It’s always hard for players in that position. My thinking was Switzerland gave me the opportunity to grow up to be, I would say, a good guy; and I came through Swiss football; and Switzerland gave the chance to my parents to create something good for themselves, to build something.”

Hadergjonaj began building a career for himself at the age of 12, when the Berne-based FC Thun invited him to join them from Langnau, a town 16 miles east of the Swiss capital. “I think I’m the only footballer to come from Langnau, it’s an ice-hockey town,” he says. “But in my house it was all about football, we watched matches with our father every day. My younger brother became an Arsenal fan because of Thierry Henry but I supported Bayern Munich because my favourite player was Michael Ballack. I wanted to be a central midfielder like him.”

Instead he became a speedy right-back. He progressed through Thun’s ranks with similar speed, attracting the attention of FC Lucerne and then earning a move to Berne’s biggest club, Young Boys, for whom he was voted young player of the year in 2015. Soon he aroused interest in Germany. He joined Ingolstadt in the summer of 2016 and immediately showed his ability to adapt fast.

“It was a big jump from the Swiss league,” he says. “I made my debut at Dortmund, in front of 80,000 people. [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang was playing and I was marking [Ousmane] Dembélé, who was unbelievable. But I did well and even got an assist as we drew 3-3. Dembélé was the best player I’d faced until then. I later played against Bayern, for whom Franck Ribéry was amazing. We did well against them and it was 0-0 after 90 minutes. But then they scored two goals in stoppage time to win 2-0. That’s Bayern.”

Ingolstadt ended up being relegated but two of their players had shone enough to convince Premier League clubs they belonged at a higher level. Brighton bought Pascal Gross while Huddersfield came calling for Hadergjonaj, signing him on loan with an option to buy at the end of this season. “A few Bundesliga clubs made contact but once Huddersfield got in touch the move happened quickly,” he says. “I had watched their play-off final win against Reading while I was on holiday because two of their players, Elias Kachunga and Colin Quaner, had also played for Ingolstadt. And when I spoke to David Wagner it was clear I wanted to play for Huddersfield.”

As Huddersfield prepare for Saturday’s critical encounter at West Bromwich Albion, whose manager, Alan Pardew, may be sacked in the event of an away win, Hadergjonaj reflected on Wagner’s job security. He believes that Huddersfield’s chairman, Dean Hoyle, was shrewd to declare before the season that the manager would not be dismissed this season no matter how results panned out. “For sure that stability helps,” he says. “If you are a club that likes to sack managers, you put a lot of pressure on players. You lose two or three matches and you start to worry: ‘Maybe they will change everything.’ But not here. What David Wagner has done for this club is really special. And we know what we are doing. As soon as I signed I knew it’s not going to be easy and maybe we are aiming for 17th position. We know we have to fight until the end and that is what we’ll do.”

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