It’s all come down to this, their 46th game of a marathon season. Beat Leeds United at home in their biggest game in years at lunchtime today and Watford will have come up on the rails and into the Premier League, providing faltering Hull City do not beat champions Cardiff City. It promises to be a desperately tense afternoon, given the stakes and the fear that Hull could find some late life and snatch Watford’s dream of automatic promotion away at any moment.
But Joel Ekstrand gives no impression of being fazed. The Sweden defender is as cool and thoughtful off the pitch as he is on it, and while many nerves will be frayed at Vicarage Road today, you suspect that Ekstrand’s will not.
After all, Watford’s prospects could be a lot worse. Just two weeks ago, they were seven points behind Hull, not one, had just lost 1-0 at Millwall and looked set for the play-offs, but even that was not an unattractive prospect.
“Nobody would have expected we’d be in this position, so we should enjoy the moment,” shrugs Ekstrand as we sit down at Watford’s training ground canteen. “If it comes to the play-offs, we will enjoy the games, obviously there is a lot at stake but that’s football. These are the types of games you want to play, not being down at the bottom fighting for survival. These are all big games, every one is a final. We have been working all season to get to this moment.”
His coolness is not to be confused with ambivalence. Ekstrand has been desperate to play in the Premier League for years, having grown up in Sweden watching it.
“I’ve supported Arsenal all my life,” the 24-year-old reveals, “and I’ve watched the Premier League every weekend since I was a little kid, so I’m a big fan of English football.” Ekstrand points not just to Freddie Ljungberg, his fellow Swede, as an inspiration, but Thierry Henry, his “idol”, and Dennis Bergkamp for forming that early attachment.
“For me it was the dream team,” he says. “It has always been a dream for me to come to England and play and try the football and the mentality of the game here, so of course it has been a dream.”
Ekstrand, like so many of his team-mates, arrived on loan from Udinese last summer. He is best friends with fellow loanee Almen Abdi, living five minutes away from him in Belsize Park. Ekstrand loves life in London. “It’s an amazing city, the biggest contrast to Udine.” He has adjusted quickly to the football, too.
“It’s the physical part,” he says of the most distinctive aspect of Championship football. “The physical game in England and the tempo of the game, for me that is the biggest difference. It’s a higher tempo and more physical but it’s more like the Swedish game than the Italian game, so for me it has been easier to come here and adapt than it was for me to go to Italy and adapt to Italian football.”
Since making his first start in early November after a couple of substitute appearances, Ekstrand has missed just two games and is revelling in his regular role for his new team.
“I had a tough time in Italy, played some games but not a lot,” he remembers. “I felt that I needed to get my career going again, I needed to play regularly, I was looking for options and then Watford came up. I was very happy to get the chance to come here and play every week, I’m really grateful and I’m happy to be a part of the team.”
Ekstrand’s career feels back on track now after a promising start with Helsingborgs in Sweden, where he developed before leaving for Italy at 21. At Helsingborgs, he was taken under the wing of Swedish legend Henrik Larsson, whose influence he still wears.
“It was unbelievable,” Ekstrand recalls. “I’ve seen him all my youth and learned many, many things in the game and outside, about the growing up part of football. In the dressing room we used to ask him how it was at Celtic and Barcelona, he had some good stories but none that I’m going to share. He taught me to believe in myself and go and take what I can, and not be afraid of taking a place in the team or space in the field. He used to tell me that I can be a very good footballer if I go and take it and not be afraid.”
Ekstrand certainly is a very good player, and his form for Watford was acknowledged by his selection in the Sweden squad in February, for a friendly against Argentina. He has been capped before but that was his first call-up for 18 months. Unfortunately the intensity of the Championship schedule kept Ekstrand at home.
“I remember we played three games in a short period just before the national game and I picked up a knee injury. Of course I was very angry and disappointed but in the end what can you do? You have to listen to your body.”
Ekstrand did not go to Euro 2012, but admits that he “had it coming” having not been involved much for Udinese. “If you’re not fresh in your club team, I don’t think you’re up for playing in the national team.”
But if Ekstrand continues his form, and, with good fortune, does so in the Premier League next season, he could well go to the 2014 World Cup with Sweden. “Of course that’s the dream,” he says, “but for now I’m only focussed on here.” Watford do have a big day today after all.
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