Photo: Whitehawk FC

Early last month saw the announcement of a number of new signings at Whitehawk, with the addition of one name in particular instantly eye-catching. Confirmed as player-assistant manager was Adam El-Abd, a defender with over 500 professional games behind him and still most keenly associated with nearby Brighton & Hove Albion.

A promotion-winning captain at Wycombe Wanderers, the Brighton-born, seven-cap Egypt international joins Jude Macdonald’s Whitehawk having worked with the club’s Under-18s last season as part of his UEFA A Licence. Far from a local lad looking for a convenient place to quietly play out his final seasons, the vocal centre-half is out to help players and club alike make some real noise…

 

You’ve been involved in these pre-season games for Whitehawk. After such a break for everyone, and a good few months since you last played competitively for Stevenage, how have you been easing back into it?

To be honest, I think like most people during lockdown, I used it as a chance to really get myself as fit as I could. So, even though I hadn’t been football training for a long time, I used it to really concentrate on my health and fitness. It wasn’t too much of a shock to the system, although the football fitness is slightly different, with the twisting and turning. I got myself in the best possible condition I could have got myself in really and it’s held me in good stead. Last couple of games I’ve felt good, so it’s been a good pre-season and I’m looking forward to the season ahead.

The locality’s obviously great with this move, how close by are you to the club? What else specifically appealed about joining?

It’s probably a 15-20-minute drive to training and the home games, so it couldn’t be any more on my doorstep. I’ve always been quite close to the club; I’ve known the owners for a long time now, my brother (Sami) used to play, so I used to go down and watch during my time at Brighton. I’ve always liked the idea of finishing my career here and giving something back to the town, and it sounds ambitious now, but trying to get Whitehawk on the map. It’s an ambitious aim, but I’m gonna say it: trying to get two professional clubs in Brighton. The city’s big enough for two pro clubs; we’ve got one and there’s no clubs in the vicinity for a good hour’s drive. It seems like a long way off in the league we’re in at the minute (Isthmian South East) but the owners are ambitious. That’s the aim, to come here and have success. Obviously enjoy my football, be at home, so it’s great for my family life that I’m here for my kids. That’s the main thing, because my kids have suffered with me being here, there and everywhere. Now I’m at home, I can chuck myself into this project and really enjoy it, and try and work with some youngsters who wanna achieve something in the game and pass my knowledge on to them. That’s what this role’s all about.

You’re very definitely a Football League name, but you had that early loan at Bognor Regis, and your brother Sami is associated with non-league. Does that help, as opposed to someone who’s maybe dropping down after being at a higher level for years and finds it all too unfamiliar?

I used to go and watch my brother a lot for Whitehawk, a lot for Bognor. He’s at Dorking now in the Conference South and he’s had a good non-league career and I’ve watched a lot of the level. There’s some really good players down in non-league and it’s made me realise there isn’t much difference in the level, in terms of the player, but the facilities and the pitches you play on, there’s a big difference. Obviously that’s gonna be an obstacle, more a mental thing really, but that’s all part and parcel of it. Football’s football at the end of the day, it’s another challenge. Can you adapt your game if the pitches are terrible? It can only help you be more well-rounded for the future.

At Brighton, you were there through a lot of momentous times for the club. After the stadium move, with players like (ex-Spain international) Vicente coming in, Bruno as well coming from Valencia, and you as a team knocking on the door of the Premier League, what did that feel like to witness after the tougher times you’d been through as a club?

Obviously first of all, playing for Brighton, that’s my club, and very proud to have got promoted with them. We almost did it again and got promoted to the Premier League in my time there, but it was three amazing seasons at The Amex. It was literally a boyhood dream walking out with your hometown club in front of 30,000 fans. It was an incredible experience and I wish I could teleport back to those times. I chose to leave for more game time at Bristol City; it didn’t work out for me. I suppose that’s football, nobody’s got a crystal ball to know how things are gonna work out. I had great memories at Brighton and a great relationship with everybody at the club.

Through your career, you’ve played under a real mix of managers. What sort of approach from a manager have you found gets the best from you personally?

Yeah, it’s an interesting one. First of all, I’ve worked with many good managers. I played my best football under Gus (Poyet). I think I had my peak of my career under Gus, and that was the League One-winning campaign (2010/11), then three years after that at The Amex. He was harsh on me, he knew how to bring me down, but he also gave me confidence. I think maybe being left alone (works best) because I’m quite a harsh critic of myself and I watch my games and my clips back. Gareth (Ainsworth, at Wycombe) did it well. I know if I’ve made a mistake, and I’m looking at myself in the mirror; it ruins my weekend if I’ve had a howler. It still does, and as soon as I lose that, I know it’s time to give up. You’ve still got your pride when you put your shirt on, it doesn’t matter if you’re playing for Brighton, Whitehawk, wherever, you still wanna play and you still wanna compete. I love competing and I’m not ready to retire just yet.

Working with (current LAFC and former United States and Swansea City boss) Bob Bradley for Egypt, did it help to have a native English speaker as your manager? Would he converse that bit more with you as a result, perhaps?

It did actually. It was nice having him speaking English with me, because if it was an Egyptian coach, it would have been very tough. He had to go through an awful lot of obstacles, dealing with the Egyptian FA and the facilities that we had to deal with in Cairo. I had a good relationship with him and my time with Egypt was incredible really. I really enjoyed my football; I didn’t enjoy the downtime. It was a lot of downtime in hotel rooms, and obviously the language barrier was difficult, because I didn’t speak any Arabic. The only Arabic I picked up was very basic, I couldn’t hold a conversation, so I was very isolated, but the two hours of the day that I played football, I mentioned it before, I love competing. The standard of the training was frightening, to be honest. Some really good players there and I enjoyed it, and that’s what I buzzed off every day, trying to get better and trying to reach the standards that were set.

You mentioned not speaking the language, but was the Egyptian side of your heritage a prominent part of life growing up, or more distant?

I’m very much 50-50; I was born in England, mum’s English, but my dad’s Egyptian and I do feel half-Egyptian. My dad’s side of the family are still in Egypt or the Middle East, and I did holiday there frequently or to visit family. When I got a call for the team, the family were proud, and I did feel part of it, but my dad didn’t speak Arabic to me growing up, so it was difficult. That was something that I cursed him for, to be honest! It would have made life a lot easier but it was another obstacle that I had to overcome, not only on the social side but on the football pitch, learning enough Arabic to get by. A lot of my game is communication; being a centre-half, I’m quite vocal, and I had to do that not only in my language but in Arabic. Joining a new team, new environment, needing to learn everyone’s name, and also enough of the language to give them instructions from my point of view, it wasn’t an easy experience, but I was quite proud that I did it, to be honest.

Has a move to a club abroad ever been on the table? You were linked once with a move to MLS.

The opportunity’s never come to me. I’d love to go abroad, and play and compete, and have a different way of life, but I’ve never had that decision to make. I very much doubt that it’s gonna come now at 36 – 35, but 36 at the end of the week – but if it does, I would jump at the chance.

We more than likely hit upon it earlier with the Brighton years under Gus Poyet, but what would be the time in your career so far that you look back on as the most complete period you’ve felt?

Yeah, it was definitely Brighton under Gus. I had a good time at Wycombe for two years, but obviously, that wasn’t my hometown club. I look back at the Wycombe memories and we had some good times, some really good friends in that dressing room, but it had to be playing for Brighton at The Amex. Brighton boy and made my Amex debut against Burnley, and that was a dream come true, because the plans had been there since I was about 14/15. The stadium took an age to come, and thankfully, I was there to play in that stadium for three years. It felt like everyone in the stadium, I knew them on a personal level, and it felt like all my mates were watching me, week in, week out. It was brilliant, to be honest. We were part of a winning team as well and we played some really good football. It was a joy to play that style of football, on a great pitch, great stadium, at my hometown club. I had to travel only 15/20 minutes to training; life was very easy.

In contrast, what about the most difficult, most challenging, where the enjoyment’s maybe been lost, to an extent?

Yeah, I signed for Bristol City, I signed a three-and-a-half-year contract, and a good contract. It was my first time moving away and I fell out with the manager after six weeks of being there. I got told I’d never play for the club again while he’s in charge, and I didn’t. I couldn’t move the family down to Bristol because I knew that I’d been told I’m never gonna play. So I had to do the commute, I was leaving at 5:30, getting into training at 8:30, having breakfast, and I was doing that three times a week. I was going into training and I was basically just a mannequin. Steve Cotterill used to do shape pretty much every day, and the lads that didn’t play are basically standing in the wall, watching the lads that are playing bend free-kicks over their head. It was a tough two years, where the love of football just drained out of me. That’s not what football’s about, football’s about enjoying, running around, having lots of touches of the ball, competing. Not doing a ten-minute warm-up and then standing in the wall watching Joe Bryan and Marlon Pack bend free-kicks over my head for an hour-and-a-half! It wasn’t that enjoyable, I can assure you.

That was a tough two years, and then last year was a tough one as well, spending the majority of the time on the injury table. The key for me that I’ve learned is it needs to be a home; you need to make where you are a home, or a realistic commuting distance. That’s why I’ve moved to Whitehawk, back home, and the outside environment is gonna be nice. I was travelling too far to Stevenage; I ended up on the treatment table because I was spending too long in the car. I was travelling too far to Bristol. It’s not conducive to being settled and being happy. If it’d worked out differently at Bristol, I’d have moved the family down and called the city home. I’m sure it’d have been brilliant but it never materialised like that. I think now that I’m at Whitehawk, although this is the twilight of my career, I still wanna give back to the city and the boys in the dressing room. I wanna help make them better players, I wanna turn two or three of them into professionals, if I can, by doing extra with them and giving them advice, guiding them. Hopefully as well as doing that, have some success. We had a good result at the weekend; we beat Eastleigh, who are a National League team, full-time, albeit pre-season, but they had a strong team. I think the signs are good, we’ve got a good team, and who knows? Maybe we can go and cause one or two upsets this year.

For teammates you’ve had, do any stand out as ones that you had an especially great understanding with on the pitch? Where you feel it just flows naturally when you’re working together.

I think it coincides again with my best period. One of the back fours that I was involved in at Brighton was either with Bruno, Gordon Greer and Wayne Bridge, with Liam Bridcutt in front of us, or it might be Matt Upson as well. It was a back four that was a pleasure to be part of; everyone sang from the same hymn sheet. Matt Upson was an incredible player but I played with him no more than 20 times, but Gordon Greer I played with probably over a hundred times, and we were like telepathic.

Any individual opponents that you particularly enjoyed the battle with?

There’s been many. I think the Brighton/Southampton games when we were chasing League One, and Championship, they were always competitive, because we won League One and then we wanted to get promoted again. They finished second and they ended up getting promoted again, so they were always competitive. It’d be impossible to single out one, there’s been so many.

Have you ever had to sing when you joined a new club, and if so, which song(s) have you gone for?

Yeah, every time. ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’, Proclaimers, because I don’t have to sing, I can just shout, basically.

Away from the game, what kind of things do you enjoy? Whether that’s just something to switch you off or a bigger interest area.

I love spending time with my kids, of course, it goes without saying. I’m a bit of a gym addict, I love the gym, I like keeping fit. I like a round of golf. I like playing a game of poker. I like having a night out with the boys. All the usual things really.

Finally, as you reflect at this point, what have you learned the most from your time in the game? What would you tell the younger Adam El-Abd?

What have I learned the most? Keep your mouth closed and your ears open, I think, at all times. I’d tell that to any young pro. Don’t fall out with managers, because you come off worse. I’ve enjoyed my career, it’s been good. If I can have a few more years left at Whitehawk, playing and passing on my knowledge, I’ll look forward to doing that.

Interview by @chris_brookes

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