Sylvain Distin interview: Distin looks to put cherry on the cake after joining Bournemouth for their Premier League debut

After a distinguished 14-year career with more than 450 appearances, French defender tells Simon Hart that he is up for one final challenge - to keep Bournemouth in the Premier League

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The Independent Football

Sylvain Distin has a confession to make. He may hold the record for the most appearances by a foreign outfield player in Premier League history – 457 and counting – but it turns out that the Frenchman’s long career on this side of the Channel was really just a happy accident. “I didn’t really want to come to England, I thought I was too young and didn’t feel man enough,” remembers Distin – then with just one Ligue 1 season under his belt – of his initial move to Newcastle United from Paris Saint-Germain in 2001. “In the end I thought, ‘It’s only 10 months, it’s a loan – just  go there and go back to  France’. Fourteen years later and I am still here.”

Here, to be precise, is Bournemouth’s Dean Court, where he sits in an executive box contemplating the challenge of his 15th season of Premier League football – and his new side’s first. Eddie Howe’s Championship winners will enter their inaugural top-flight fixture against Aston Villa today trying to defy the odds of dropping straight back down, and in Distin they have a man with his own point to prove. The experience of being frozen out by Roberto Martinez at Everton last term made the central defender consider retiring but, instead, the 37-year-old has embraced one final “amazing challenge” on a one-year deal.

“I didn’t have to play football,” he tells The Independent. “I could be in the south of France, living with my family and with the sun every day. I am here because I am passionate about it. Staying in the Premier League and being part of something that has never been done at this club before – which is playing and remaining in the Premier League – would be amazing.”

Across the corridor from where we meet  is the Bubbles Champagne Lounge but Distin, after 14 seasons with Newcastle, Manchester City, Portsmouth and Everton, has found something endearingly homespun at his new club, where he is one of the Cherries’ nine new signings. “The lads are very humble and for me it is refreshing. The Premier League is amazing but you can get spoiled a bit and they didn’t get to that point yet. It’s a small club, a small stadium, and people feel there is no way we can stay in the Premier League, but among the lads everybody feels pretty confident that if we work hard we’ll get our rewards. I don’t really pay attention to what people say any more – if you do that, I would have retired about 25 years ago.”

Distin is open, engaging company. He is enjoying being back on the sun-blessed south coast, living in his old home from his days at Portsmouth, where he won the FA Cup in 2008. He talks about his boyhood love of basketball – his bedroom wall was covered with posters of NBA stars – and admits to a certain ambivalence about his chosen profession. “I am passionate about the competition – that is my drive. The football itself is lovely and I am aware it helps me live a life I would never have had but there are plenty of sides of football that are not for me. Sometimes I feel, ‘Yeah, you’re a bit old school’ but I am old!”

Although our 30-minute interview ends with his departure for a team meeting, he later returns, sits down with a bowl of fruit and yoghurt and chats some more. What took him downstairs, he explains, was the squad’s weekly “spins” session. Rather than simply issue fines for misdemeanours, Howe has introduced a “wheel of fortune” that players spin to discover their fate, which could be a fine or forfeit, such as having to come to training in fancy dress.

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Eddie Howe sneaks a glance at the Premier League trophy at Southfields Academy in London

 

Distin is impressed by his new manager’s meticulous approach. “You feel there is always something going on in his mind. The training sessions are all different – every exercise is different but each one has a purpose. He is doing it because it will lead to something else and will teach something. He makes the players participate. He asks, ‘Why do you think I’ve done this or what’s the difference with the last session?’. It is challenging mentally as well. And it seems he can sense which player is going through a tough time.”

It is not hard to see why Howe has recruited Distin, who at Everton was considered a father figure for the club’s foreign recruits. Yet the Frenchman plays down the idea of himself as role model for Bournemouth’s players – “the lads are going to build their own experience, game after game” – and cites the example of left-back Tyrone Mings, the club’s £8m record signing from Ipswich, as somebody quite equipped to look after himself. “He is 22, two metres [tall], he runs fast. I had to work hard, but this type of guy is born like that. It is absolutely disgusting!” he laughs.

 

Looking at Distin, it is strange to think that as a new arrival in England, he was too shy to speak to Alan Shearer. “I was calling my dad and saying, ‘Dad, I trained with Shearer’,” he recalls, and it is the former England striker whom he names as his favourite opponent. “In training he was not outjumping me or doing stepovers but every single season he was in the top three scorers. When I played against him I finished the game battered and bruised. This represents what I like in football. He represents a lot of values that are getting lost in football. It is the honest battle, you get a tackle and you stand up – you don’t roll for 25 minutes. You get kicked and you kick back.”

As for those managers who have inspired him, he lists three. “The first one was Bobby Robson – very old school but not afraid to just have a right go at any of the players. I had so much respect for him. I am going to say Harry Redknapp as well because his man-management was amazing. And obviously David Moyes because he made me push myself to a level I didn’t expect at the age I was. When I signed for Everton, I thought I might play the first year and then the second year I’d be on the bench. In the end I played six years.”

With Martinez, Moyes’s successor, it was a different story. Distin says the pair did not speak after deadline day in February, after a proposed move to West Ham broke down, but he prefers to remain discreet about the specifics of what happened. “I would love people to see things how they really are but I have too much respect for this club,” he says. “We had one conversation on deadline day and he gave one interview afterwards saying I was part of the squad and fighting for my place, but from that day I was never in the squad until the last game. We never had a talk [about it].

“I started to come and watch the games, but it was nerve-wracking so I ended up not coming and just checking from time to time on the internet. I trained every day and put myself physically through some really tough weeks. When you go through a tough time like that at my age, you think, ‘That’s enough, I’ll stop next season’ but I wasn’t sure I wanted that. I started to play with the reserves up to the point when I was told it was not possible.”

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Sylvain Distin holds his hands up

 

The popular Distin did play one more time, earning a warm send-off as a late substitute on the final day against Tottenham. “No matter if some people [Martinez] wanted it or not – maybe they were forced, I don’t know – but I was able to be part of that after not being in the squad for four months. That was a very emotional moment for me, it was really intense and I won’t forget that.”

Now, at 37, he is looking to create one final memory in the Premier League with Bournemouth, though he concedes he has no “secret formula” for playing on at his age. “I feel like the harder I work, the better I feel. I don’t like missing a training session. I don’t have a special diet, I try to eat as healthily as possible, but I enjoy a glass of wine, I enjoy pizza, I enjoy going to McDonald’s with my kids. I have got a balanced life.

“I realise the older you get the less you are allowed to make mistakes,” he adds. “Watch any football games at any level and you will see players running past each other. If you are 20, 25, 30 – it is normal. If you are 37 and one player runs past you, that’s it – ‘He’s slow’. I heard that a lot last season. Does it mean you are slow? No. Maybe I was the fastest and I am now just one of the fastest.” Indeed he goes so far as to issue a challenge to the division’s other defenders: “We can take all the centre-backs in the Premier League and do a race and all the ones who finish behind me will retire!”

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