Robert Earnshaw: 'I saw two rockets come across the sky'
Despite being caught up in the recent conflict in Israel, Maccabi's Robert Earnshaw tells Simon Hart in Tel Aviv that the choice of the country to host next summer's European U21 Championship is a good one
Robert Earnshaw stands on the hotel balcony, 11 floors up, and surveys the city spread out before him. On his left is a sparkling sliver of Mediterranean Sea, on his right a sprawl of pastel-coloured apartment blocks. In the mid-distance, he points out the sleek, high-rise tower he currently calls home; some 30 kilometres away, in the hazy backcloth, is the West Bank.
This is Tel Aviv, the place where the Cardiff City and Wales striker came in search of first-team football and where, for a few disquieting days in November, with missiles toing and froing between Gaza and Israel, he gained a taste of the fear that can be a recurring companion in this ancient, troubled corner of the globe.
On the day we meet, though, there is no sign of the recent hostilities that claimed six Israeli and more than 150 Palestinian lives – not here at the Hilton Hotel, with the sun shining and the cappuccinos served. "You look at it now and people don't think of Israel like this," Earnshaw reflects. For all the negative images, this is a place where "you've got the beach, you've got parks, you've got malls – you've got so much to do".
This is the Israel that Uefa hopes we will see at the European Under-21 Championship next June. It was at the Hilton that last Wednesday's draw took place – putting England in the easier group alongside the hosts, Italy and Norway, and away from Spain – and it is Earnshaw's belief that Stuart Pearce's England have nothing to fear off the pitch either from the first major football tournament on Israeli soil.
"This is the normality in Tel Aviv as you see it now. I don't think they've got anything to worry about," he says. "They are big on security [and] when there is a tournament like that here they'll be even stricter. I am sure this is the Tel Aviv that they'll see – the beach, the outgoing people."
The choice of Israel as tournament venue prompted a condemnatory letter last week signed by a cluster of footballers from Europe and beyond, including Chelsea's Eden Hazard, Arsenal's Abou Diaby, five players from Newcastle, and Didier Drogba. The ethical argument may well go on but from a footballing viewpoint, Earnshaw considers Israel fit for purpose.
Maccabi's own Bloomfield Stadium is one of the four venues along with Jerusalem, Netanya and Petah Tikva, and the Welshman says: "Some of the stadiums are not so great but then you've got some really nice ones. The new one in Netanya is a really nice stadium and the thing is the pitches are unbelievable – a really high standard."
Earnshaw has also seen for himself the determination of the Israeli FA to ensure the show goes on next summer. He recounts an aborted trip to watch Maccabi's home match against Bnei Yehuda on Saturday 17 November. "I got on to the motorway and started to hear the sirens go off. All the cars started stopping and I saw two rockets come across the sky. I thought they were missiles but they were actually the intercepters from the Iron Dome. I thought, 'God what am I seeing here in the sky?' My sister and son [two-year-old Silva] were here and they started calling straight away and were a little bit panicky so I went back home."
While Earnshaw, injured at the time, headed home, the fixture went ahead despite the misgivings of the club's Spanish management team, taking place at the behest of IFA president Avraham Luzon who, it has been suggested, did not want Uefa to see the abandonment of a high-profile fixture so close to the draw.
That incident came three days into a conflict in which the air-raid sirens sounded in Tel Aviv for the first time since the 1991 Gulf War. Up to then, the region's tensions had felt "far away" for Earnshaw, but not any longer. "We were training and the siren goes off," he recalls. "The Israeli guys went off towards the building; we were asking, 'Why is there a siren?' I thought it was a drill or a precaution, then about a minute later we heard a big boom, and it was real.
"You take cover for 10 minutes, go under shelter, and then after 10 minutes you come out," he adds. "For about five days, it was every day. The Iron Dome, the defence system here, is very good but it's not 100 per cent, that's the thing, so when you hear all these things going off, it is not a great experience to go through." There was a bus bombing five minutes from his home yet amid it all, he discovered, life went on. "It is rockets, missiles, and then half an hour later everybody is in a restaurant or coffee shop, and I'm thinking, 'Is this the same place I was at half an hour ago?'."
Earnshaw arrived in Israel in September, lured by the promise of regular football denied him at Cardiff and by the "appealing" picture that general manager Jordi Cruyff, once a Manchester United player, sold him of arguably "the biggest club in Israel". The prospect of working with coach Oscar Garcia, previously in charge of Barcelona's youth team, and thus gaining an insight into the methods of La Masia – "all the habits, the football, the small-sided games" – was another persuasive factor.
He continues: "Coming abroad is not for me going off the radar – it is actually getting on the radar. Maccabi Tel Aviv were in the Europa League last year. Playing at Cardiff I wouldn't be looking at the possibility of European football. People have to realise that I could be in the Champions League in six months' time – that was a big factor, to try and get the club into it."
Injuries have limited his contribution for the Ligat ha'Al leaders, though he scored his second goal in a cup tie against Hapoel Haifa last Tuesday. "It is a season-long loan. In January there are possibilities it could carry on till the end of the season or not, but we'll see." Whatever happens, this has been an eye-opening experience for the 31-year-old, whose career began at Cardiff and includes spells at West Bromwich, Norwich, Derby and Nottingham Forest, with 166 league goals.
He is enjoying the buzz of Israel's commercial capital, home to some 400,000 people. "After one game we went to a restaurant, it was about one in the morning and the place was packed. It is always busy, no matter what time of day, and the food is incredible." Sightseeing trips have proved memorable too, not least one to Jerusalem. "We went into the old city where Jesus was taken from the cross and laid out [the Church of the Holy Sepulchre], and the Wailing Wall, where everybody is praying and you get all the different religions together. I'm not really religious but when you go there, you feel the religion.
"The Dead Sea was the craziest thing ever," he adds. "It is so weird when you go in the sea and can't go down and you float – the water keeps you up." Weird is the least of it in Earnshaw's life outside the comfort zone.
My other life
I've always been into clothing and style. My interest started a long time ago, and I've now started to design clothes under the label Mr Msongo, a name from Zambia where I was born, including the grey hoodie I'm wearing (see pic). I work on the clothes myself together with help from a designer, and sell them online.
Up to speed: Spanish lessons in Tel Aviv
Working with Spanish coaches, it's a more thinking game and there's a lot of things I've picked up on which have made me a better player already – very small points that maybe you overlook when you play in England sometimes.
They're very big on movement. A lot of people think you have to run around as much as you can, but sometimes you have to stand still, get the right ball; it's about the movement, where you move, why you're moving there. You're thinking before you move.
When Gary Speed had the Wales job, that's what we started to do and it's good that I had some experience of that and it's great I have it again now. At Wales we improved dramatically under Gary Speed and it has been very similar here. I might become a manager or coach one day and if I do these are the things I'm going to look back on.
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