Thomas Pinault swapped the French riviera for the joys of Essex. Maison Urwin grilled Colchester's midfield anchor on his unlikely transition
Welcome to England. We are sure you will enjoy your stay. You will find the general public both friendly and hostile. Abuse will be a part of your professional life but will be kept to a minimum in social situations. You may be applauded for your footballing prowess but do not expect this to exempt you from being harangued for your national origins.
Life is getting better and better for 19-year-old Thomas Pinault and not just because Colchester United – near the bottom of the Third Division in financial terms – have made such a bright start to their fourth consecutive season in the Second. Professional advancement tends to take place at a slower rate in the lower divisions, where a younger player’s annual salary is dwarfed by the weekly wage of most Premiership stars. Working your way up through a youth programme or striving to impress in the reserves is even more difficult when you are in a foreign country.
Pinault has a confident and contented air, having just warmed down from a satisfying home win against Northampton in which he was named as man of the match. While appreciating such recognition, he is quick to admit that living and working in England has not always been a piece of pâtisserie. “Actually, last year I was thinking about going back to France because it didn’t seem like I was going to get the chance to play much here. Things were difficult.”
But all of a sudden staying at Colchester has become an attractive proposition, largely due to United manager Steve Whitton’s brave but inspired decision to leave the control of the centre of midfield to two youngsters, Pinault and Kemal Izzet. It’s a decision which finally seems to have vindicated Pinault’s move from Cannes in 1999. At the time it seemed like a good career opportunity and he became one of a number of young, unknown players shipped in by then-manager Mick Wadsworth, who was instrumental in giving Colchester the reputation of a club where young talent is noticed. As Bobby Robson’s assistant at St James’ Park, he pointed his boss in the direction of Lomana Trésor Lua-Lua, for whom Newcastle paid £2.25 million. It is this kind of deal which will keep United afloat and which could, of course, also launch Pinault into a higher division.
Despite the obvious attractions of the bright lights, however, Pinault seems to have a very level-headed attitude towards his professional future. Asked to com-pare Colchester to Grasse, his home town, he says they are similar in size, but that nearby Cannes offered him a far livelier night-life. This is, he acknowledges, a good reason to stay in Colchester for now: “It’s nice, ideal even, for football because there aren’t too many distractions, too many clubs. It’s good for the mindset of a footballer.” He would like to play for a big club in London one day, but “when I am a bit older, a bit more mature. If I went to London now I’d go out all the time, but I’d like to play there later.”
Pinault is also very aware of his weaknesses and the ways in which he has had to adapt to English football. Fans who saw him given the odd ten-minute sortie from the bench a couple of years ago will remember him as hard-working but, well, a little lightweight. He admits finding it difficult at the beginning, speaking not only of hard tackling but also “physical intimidation” compared to the largely verbal variety prevalent in the south of France.
This physical aspect is the most noticeable change watching Pinault two years on. He still looks very French in his style, sitting deep in midfield and looking to collect the ball and switch the play with a precision pass. But he will now fight when someone tries to muscle him off the ball and push himself to tackle back when it has been lost. “Winning the midfield battles was missing from my game, but now I’ve begun to acquire those skills, things are going better.”
So well, in fact, that perhaps Pinault envisages a future in English football? Understandably, he is not so sure about the long term, but for now he is content in a country where interest outside the top division is unusually great. “In France it’s only really the first division which is given any great importance, whereas here the interest stretches to the Fourth Division. The newspapers write about it, people come to watch it, so I’m enjoying it here and I want to stay.” Since Wadsworth’s other French imports left, he has had no choice but to improve his English, thus integrating himself more with his colleagues. This is another factor in his contentedness but, even now he feels settled, there are still obvious downsides to living here.
Pinault is no different to most young people working in a foreign country, listing the absence of family and friends as a negative factor in his life. Inevitably the weather is mentioned, too, but it is the third and final disadvantage of life in England which is most disturbing. “I find that there are often people who make references – I wouldn’t perhaps say racist exactly – and that’s what pisses me off. Once when I had some friends over we were in a bar talking and you could hear people saying ‘French cunts, French pricks’. Even if it’s not really malicious, it’s annoying.” Shamefully, this is a part of life for a young player working hard to establish a career for himself in England.
There is no doubt that Pinault has talent. Since it has taken him two years of hard work a long way from home to become a first-team regular at a Second Division club, there can be no doubting his determination either. He has also shown both the ability to adapt to a different style of football and also the level-headedness to accept that progress to a higher level of football will only materialise with patience and hard work. Fortunately, he also has the strength of character to persevere in a society where he is asked to endure abuse simply for not being English.
The irony is that the the attitudes of English people, while providing a good reason to want to leave, also offer a major attraction to young footballers from the Continent. They support their local lower division team in their thousands. This popularity is a phenomenon which helps us to attract foreign talent which, in turn, provides lower division clubs with the chance to remain solvent. It also gives players like Thomas Pinault the chance to please the crowd, make a name for himself and move on to that bigger team in London or elsewhere. Let’s hope, for our sakes, that he is allowed to enjoy his stay.
From WSC 177 November 2001. What was happening this month