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Dublin: 5 °C Monday 14 October, 2019

'It's nice that they've shown interest in me... but I feel Irish so that's who I want to play for'

Zack Elbouzedi on representing Ireland instead of Libya, and making a fresh start at club level with Waterford.

AFTER PARTING COMPANY with West Bromwich Albion in the summer of 2017, Zack Elbouzedi headed north in a bid to prevent his career from going south.

Evidence of vindication of that decision was in short supply when he got his first taste of competitive senior football the following January.

Elbouzedi was introduced as a half-time substitute for Elgin City in their Scottish League Two game away to Peterhead. On a rainy Tuesday night in the north-east of Scotland, Peterhead ran out 7-0 winners — a goal for every hundred spectators in attendance.

Zack-Elbouzedi-Signing-Alan-Reynolds-Credit-Noel-Browne Zack Elbouzedi with manager Alan Reynolds after signing for Waterford. Source: Noel Browne/Waterford FC

Granted, Elbouzedi was only there on a one-month loan deal from Inverness Caledonian Thistle, who were two rungs above fourth-tier Elgin on the Scottish football ladder.

Nevertheless, he was soon re-evaluating his prospects. The track record of the Scottish Highlands as a successful launchpad for young Irish footballers is about as extensive as Tipperary’s reputation as a surfer’s paradise.

As he began to recognise the flaw in the sweeping generalisaton that a footballer is always closer to realising the dream once he’s somewhere east of the Irish Sea, a return home became Elbouzedi’s most enticing option.

Halfway through his contract with the Scottish Championship club, the Dubliner negotiated his release from Inverness last August. A few months later, he was announced as one of Waterford’s first additions for the 2019 season. 

“I signed for Inverness on a Friday and on the Saturday I played in a friendly and did my knee, which put me out for five and a half months. When I got back, the team were in a good bit of form and the manager had a settled team, so it was hard to get in,” explains the 20-year-old, who was restricted to five substitute appearances during his season at the Caledonian Stadium.

“Getting injured just after joining a new club, it was just an unfortunate set of circumstances. You’re up in the Highlands as well, where there aren’t that many eyes on you. It’s over three hours away from Glasgow so it’s completely off the radar. You’d have to be doing exceptionally well to be noticed up there.

“The fact that I wasn’t even playing meant my chances of being noticed were really slim. I’m still young but I needed to be playing games to learn my trade in first-team football. With the number of players being signed from the League of Ireland now, it’s getting more and more respect from clubs in England. That’s the way I looked at it.” 

Zachary Elbouzedi with Rick Van Drongelen Challenging for a header with Rick van Drongelen of the Netherlands at the 2015 European U17 Championships, as Matthijs de Ligt looks on. Source: Georgi Dimitrov/INPHO

A versatile attacker who’s capable of operating in advanced roles whether wide or central, Elbouzedi was signed by West Bromwich Albion from Malahide United. Initially he enjoyed the pursuit of a professional career in England, but despite being satisfied with his own development, a breakthrough seemed a remote possibility. 

“I personally thought there was favouritism towards their own local boys over there. After about a year and a half, I didn’t feel like I was going to get a fair crack of the whip,” he says.

“They were in the Premier League at the time too, so with the players they were able to bring in because of the finance they had, it was really tough to push on. I learned a lot — there were some good coaches and some great people — but it was hard to feel like you were progressing. 

“I was playing in centre-midfield then and there were three or four other lads in that position from Birmingham who had come through their academy. I thought I was doing well in training but it was always those lads who got the benefit of the doubt. The coaches seemed to want them to do well, maybe because it looks better if a player comes all the way through their academy from the age of eight or nine. That’s just how I saw it anyway.”

Although Elbouzedi was frustrated by the status quo he perceived at West Brom, he made inroads nevertheless at international level. Born in Dublin to a mother from Kilbarrack and a father from Libya, he has been capped by Ireland at all age grades from U15 to U19, as well as being named in the U21 squad to face Luxembourg later this month.

At the U17 European Championships in 2015, he helped Ireland to earn a draw against a Netherlands side that included Manchester United’s Timothy Fosu-Mensah and in-demand Ajax star Matthijs de Ligt. At U19 level, Elbouzedi was involved in victories against the likes of Italy, Portugal and Belgium. 

Libya have been in touch with a view to convincing him to emulate Eamon Zayed by switching his allegiance to the North African nation. While he was flattered by the interest, Elbouzedi doesn’t intend to relinquish his ambition to represent Ireland at the highest level.

Zach Elbouzedi Playing for a home-based Ireland U21 side against an Irish amateur selection in February. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“People [from Libya] have tried to contact my dad about it a few times but my focus is on Ireland. It’s nice that they’ve shown interest in me and I know it would make my dad happy, but I feel Irish so that’s who I want to play for,” he says.

“My dad is equally happy as well that I’ve played for Ireland. He’s lived here for 30-something years so he’s basically Irish himself. I was born in Ireland so playing for Ireland is what I’m focused on when it comes to international football.”

After his disappointing spell in Scotland, Elbouzedi made his Waterford debut in last month’s season opener against Shamrock Rovers. The Blues were beaten by the last kick of the game in front of a 4,152 crowd at the RSC, but they rebounded in impressive fashion seven days later when he scored the second goal in a 2-0 win at Cork City. 

“It was my first senior goal, which was great,” says Elbouzedi. “My mam and dad were in the crowd as well so it was special, particularly in the derby. They’ve been brilliant to me, supporting me through tough times, so it was a really good feeling to share it with them.” 

Alan Reynolds’ side have been unable to build on that victory at Turner’s Cross, taking just one of the nine points on offer. However, Elbouzedi is confident that a new-look Waterford team will click in time for the start of their Europa League campaign in July.

He says: “I’m enjoying my football again after what was a fairly tough year and a half. I came home to try and play with a smile on my face again. That’s what I’m doing at the moment. Alan Reynolds has given me the freedom and the confidence to play the way I know I can play. The results haven’t been great but I’m enjoying my football.

“The opportunity to play in Europe was another big reason for coming to Waterford. That’s not something that comes around a lot. It’s great for the club and it puts more eyes on everyone. It’s an experience I’m really looking forward to.”

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Paul Dollery

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