Watford’s José Holebas: ‘At bigger clubs the mentality is different’

José Holebas is not your average Premier League interviewee and it is easy to feel he does not care about whom he offends – even if it is a Watford teammate, especially if it is a Watford teammate.

The German-born former Greece international was underwhelmed on joining the club from Roma in 2015 and he makes no attempt to hide it. He had enjoyed a successful year in Serie A, finishing as a runner-up, while he previously swept all before him at Olympiakos, winning four league titles and two domestic cups in four seasons.

“I played at bigger clubs and there the mentality is different to here,” Holebas says. “I had to work a lot on myself because everything is totally different. You play for Watford. It’s a good club. We do quite well but I know the bigger levels like Olympiakos and Roma. You play with different players, different quality. We have quality here, as well, but in another way.

“I had to adjust my mentality – a lot. To become more forgiving? Yes, when something happened like easy mistakes in the game. That didn’t happen to me when I played at big clubs. They know a little bit better when they can do something or not. It changes your way of football.

“When you bring in good players, it doesn’t mean it will work straight away. The players are as good as your team are. When you come here – a guy who has to be on top – and then you see all these younger guys and they try to build a team … for me, it was really difficult. But the president [Gino Pozzo] is trying to do everything for the club and I think it works now.”

The last line resonates as Watford prepare for Sunday’s home game against Tottenham with three league wins out of three; their opponents also boast a perfect record. But at the same time it is slightly jarring coming from Holebas, a remorselessly demanding competitor who offers the impression that he can never be happy.

He gives this interview at Watford’s training ground and his teammates Daryl Janmaat and Roberto Pereyra wander over to take the mickey. “Has he told you about his goal yet?” Janmaat asks, referring to the intended cross that sailed inside the far post to sink Crystal Palace last Sunday. He and Pereyra listen for a while, nodding and stroking their chins.

Holebas does not smile, which is standard for him, but he does not even acknowledge them. It is a comprehensive blanking. The time spent with him is illuminated by his candour. It is also intense to the point of edgy, pockmarked by abrupt silences.

The 34-year-old left-back has come up the hard way, to put it mildly, and it has shaped him, particularly the leap from having nothing to having everything. He had raw talent as an 18-year-old but was drifting at the foot of Germany’s football pyramid, playing mainly for fun as an amateur, when his life was turned upside down.

Holebas’s girlfriend at the time became pregnant and, faced with having to earn money to support his young family – they would have a daughter – he put his football on the backburner and took a job as a warehouse worker. “You pack the stuff and that’s it,” Holebas says. “Eight hours a day. For everyone who does a job that they don’t love, it’s boring but they have to do it because they have to live.”

José Holebas, in action for Watford against Crystal Palace, made his professional debut 11 years ago at the age of 23. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images

He played part-time for SV Damn in Aschaffenburg – his home town near Frankfurt – and they won a series of promotions from what he describes as the “lowest league in Germany, the 10th division”, before he spent a season at Viktoria Kahl in the fifth tier.

Then things got serious. Aged 22 and having in effect missed what must be considered the crucial formative years in the full‑time game, he was offered a deal by 1860 Munich. He had separated from the mother of his daughter but the transfer to Munich would mean him moving 400km from Aschaffenburg as well as everyone and everything he knew.

Holebas quit his job and took the all-or-nothing plunge. It paid off. After beginning in the second team he made his professional debut for the club as a 23-year-old in the Bundesliga’s second division. At 26 he earned his move to Olympiakos.

“I have had to fight every day for everything in my life and the good thing about my work in the warehouse is that I know how it is with and without money,” Holebas says. “I have seen people change towards me, even family members, and it’s all about money. My uncles have asked me for it. I am not your money pocket, I’ve had to say. I am not in contact with a lot of people now and I have to be really careful.

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“A lot of footballers go bankrupt after their careers because they don’t know how to handle money. It’s risky to give these 18‑ or 19‑year‑olds such crazy amounts and I see how they don’t give the respect to senior players any more. It’s the club’s fault to make them like that but it’s the way, especially in England.”

Holebas does not hold back, either on the field or in conversation. The son of a Greek father and a German‑American mother, it is interesting to hear his view on the Mesut Özil controversy. The Arsenal midfielder, who was born in Germany to parents of a migrant background, cited racism when he announced his retirement from the German national team. Özil was criticised after he was photographed with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

“They go too far now, these boys, always talking about racism,” Holebas says. “I mean, you are born in Germany and you make a picture with the Turkish president. Something must be behind that but I’m not really into it because I’m not interested in stupid stories like this.”

Watford’s Mr Angry is focused purely on upsetting Spurs.

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