As usual during our annual pilgrimage to Amsterdam, Ajax was kind enought to set up some exclusive interviews for Ajax USA. One of the players we were particularly interested in was Julien Escudé, one of Ajax's more prestigious new signings of this season. The left-footed French defender was targeted by many European clubs, but -- and this has become a rare thing in modern football -- chose for the club and the city that simply gave him the best feeling.
Who could do a better job at interviewing the friendly Frenchman than his countryman and Ajax USA's best friend in France, Bertrand Chardon? On Friday, 06 February 2004, two days prior to the critical home fixture versus PSV, Bertrand and Escudé met in the press room of the Amsterdam ArenA and had a pleasant chat in their native tongue. Luckily, Bertrand was also kind enough to translate it into English for us all...
Bertrand Chardon (BC): You were expected to be Chivu's successor in Amsterdam. How did that expectation affect you after your arrival? Was it an extra motivation for you, or did you experience it as extra pressure?
Julien Escudé (JE): Well, before signing my contract I had contact with the two coaches, Ruud Krol and Ronald Koeman. We talked seriously about their expectations of me. Then I thought all of that over and I decided that it was a great goal to try to get a permanent spot in the Ajax defense. But replacing Chivu, who is one the best defenders in Europe, isn't an easy thing to do.
BC: He's doing really well now at AS Roma...
JE: Yeah. He's got many qualities. But I have mine. He is playing at a high level, whereas I was playing at a pretty average level at Stade Rennes... In a way that's why I came here: in order to learn. The staff proposed for me to come because they thought I have certain qualities.
BC: The presence of Krol and Koeman, former Ajax players and club legends, must have been a key factor.
JE: Yes. Those wonderful coaches were a reason for me to join, that's true. I thought: they saw my qualities, they know that I can do a really good job and add something to the squad. I am now really happy to be part of this adventure.
Julien Escudé responds to a question from Ajax USA's Bertrand Chardon. [Photo: Ajax USA]
BC: When you left Rennes for Ajax, did you regard that as a long term objective or rather as a step on your way to a higher level?
JE: In fact, I can totally relate to the club's over-all philosophy. They produce lots of players at this great youth academy. Those players often leave for clubs elsewhere in Europe at a very young age. Players rarely stay with this club for seven or eight years, except for the old Dutch legends from the past... But I know that I'm here to work hard, improve technically and mentally in a team that always plays to win the title and the cup and to perform well in the Champions League. To me this is a higher level than my French experience. In the meantime, I'm only 24 years old and I know that my career will be long and that I'll probably leave for other skies one day.
BC: You're 24. I watched training this morning and noticed that, along with Galásek, O'Brien and Anastasiou, the new Greek player, you were actually one of the oldest players on the pitch.
JE: Yeah, that's incredible... It's interesting. When I tell my former team mates and relatives that, they're all amazed by it. When you see the quality of the players and you realize that they're often younger than 20... I'm a young guy, but on the pitch I'm an old one, so I try to talk to the players, even if it's difficult. Just to reassure them, to give advice and to be respectful, so that they know they can rely on me.
BC: Speaking of language problems... Has your Dutch improved?
JE: (laughs) I'm taking lessons twice a week. The coaches insist on that. I know all the football basics now and I understand Koeman's pre-match speeches fairly well. On the pitch it's mixed: both Dutch and English are spoken. Some players speak French: the Belgians, Trabelsi and also coach Ruud Krol (who played in France for many years, ed.). Thanks to that, my integration in the team went just fine, which really was a good thing.
BC: What were the greatest challenges for you when you arrived?
JE: It was hard to keep up with the rhythm. I tried to adjust to the Ajax style as much as possible. I tried to fit into the club. This club represents so much in Europe. It really is something for a French player to discover that. It's my job now to do my best and to reach the highest level I can.
BC: Has your collaboration with Krol and Koeman had an impact on your style of playing?
JE: Yes. They give me a lot of advice. But in fact, Ajax's play has always been very offensive-minded, so we work a lot on the basics: skill, hard and quick passing, with both feet. When you're playing for a big club you just have to work on your weaknesses, so right now I'm working on my right foot. The coaches are pushing me, yelling: "right foot, right foot" (laughs). So now I try to do stuff with my right.
BC: That's what I saw this morning during training...
JE: It's really important. So is body building. I didn't go to the gym when I played in France. I should have. Now I try to build myself a strong body.
Julien Escudé in action against ADO Den Haag, 01 February 2004 [Photo: ANP]
BC: You said that Ajax style is more about attacking than about defending. So why aren't you more involved in attacks, like you were in both the French U-21 team and at Stade Rennes?
JE: Firstly: I don't play in the same position. At the time I was more of a left fullback. Now I play in central defense. At Ajax a player must be very precise. You can't move all the way out and attack. Koeman sometimes asks me to be more offensive, with good thru-passes or long balls rather than with dribbles. Sometimes I try to sneak forward, but I haven't scored in a long time. Too bad.
BC: Do you perhaps lack confidence, because you've only been here for seven months?
JE: Yeah, maybe... But I feel better now than at the beginning of the season. I feel better since the winter break. Wait and see.
BC: There have been many changes in the back four lately. Did this affect your play?
JE: When you play with the same team all the time it gets easier to learn about specific abilities of your team mates. But our entire squad is so good that you can easily replace two players without any problems. All those youngsters from the youth academy are as good as the first team players. Besides, I can play left fullback and Maxwell can play in midfield, so Koeman has plenty of options. Lately I've been playing most of my matches alongside Johnny Heitinga. He's a really good, young and promising defender.
BC: What are the main differences in club structure and management between the French clubs you've played for and Ajax?
JE: At Cannes there were serious financial problems, which kept us from concentrating on football. The situation at Rennes was quite different: we had the money, but the chairmen were doing nothing with it, buying unknown and inefficient Brazilians for 20 million euros, for example. At Ajax I get the chance to play for a club with a perfect structure, a superb stadium and a very pleasant family spirit, so hey, all you have to do is concentrate on football. The club is really professional. You can feel the respect between all the people working here. So I'm really happy to be here. As for the level of play: it's a treat to be playing with such skilled people.
BC: Finally, what about your personal life in Amsterdam?
JE: That's just great! Me and my girlfriend have grown very attached to living in Amsterdam. We try to visit museums, discover good restaurants. Amsterdam is a very cosmopolitan city and a great capital, with very nice and warm people. We felt at home here really quickly.
Julien Escudé (right) and Ajax USA's Bertrand Chardon. [Photo: Ajax USA]
BC: Thank you for answering our questions and good luck in the remainder of the season.
JE: My pleasure. Thanks to all of the Ajax USA travellers.
- Interview and transcript by Bertrand Chardon.