He had a big-club introduction to English football, arriving at Nottingham Forest as an 18-year-old, and though his breakthrough would not transpire at the City Ground, it is Nottingham where Hamza Bencherif remains, some 15 years later. Save a 2014 stint with Algerian giants JS Kabylie (and Wrexham…), the defender/midfielder’s entire club career has played out in England, continuing in 2021 as Guiseley captain.
For so many clubs, this has been a season that has never lent itself to genuine momentum, or even trust in what one week to the next may bring. Guiseley currently sit just above the relegation zone in the National League North, though here in mid-January, they have also played little over a third of their intended league fixtures.
Along with that, there is a lot more from the Lions skipper in this in-depth conversation, including his French-Algerian background, taking on a new country and language as a teenager, to some of the personalities that have shared a part in a career essentially of self-discovery for the Parisian. In his own words, he is a ‘citoyen du monde’ (citizen of the world), and determined to help others, both in and out of football.
Firstly Hamza, your weekly schedule is a busy one, what is it you do away from playing football?
I’m involved in education, at a secondary school, so I do some teaching cover work in some schools across Nottinghamshire. Normally, I do French and PE, but because of the situation, I’m kind of covering for everything. I’ve been thrown sometimes in Year 11 psychology, or science, things like that! I also give a hand to the academy at Basford United, they’ve got a full-on academy with BTEC course. The manager there is Steve Chettle and the academy head is Josh Law, who I played with for a few years, so I go in and give them a hand and get a bit of experience.
This season so far with Guiseley, obviously some difficult results, and general uncertainty and restrictions to factor in as well, but what has your overall assessment been?
I think 2020 was frustrating for everybody, and put a stop on it especially for the teams who had something built and were doing well after the two thirds of the season. Once we came back, we got things going. There started being more and more cases of COVID, so you had two-week breaks, depending on which club had cases, and that was always a difficult thing. After that, you’ve got to then rebuild the team, re-organise yourself, and adjust to the new way of life that we’ve got, which is also difficult. I think we’ve done well with the situation, and I think a lot of clubs have, but there’s always that feeling of being worried about things stopping at any time; clubs everywhere across the country I think are living game by game. The season hasn’t started the way we wanted, which we knew was always going to be difficult, but again, we’re waiting for that long spell to kick on, where there’s eight/nine games on the bounce without any breaks, with everybody fit. With COVID, it has affected people with mental health, and it has affected people as well with injuries. I don’t think there’s one club who can tell you that players aren’t finding it difficult. Some players keep getting injured, so I don’t think there’s one club who have been lining up with a regular team throughout the season. It’s always difficult to perform like that.
You’re captain at the club, which communication obviously comes into hugely, but what about when you first arrived in England? Joining Forest, was it difficult being able to communicate and to understand what surrounded you at that time, especially being young as well?
Yes, it was, but I was lucky that I fell into a club that was really well organised and already had foreign players coming in. The lucky thing as well was that because I was bilingual growing up, it was probably easier to pick up another language. It helped me as well that I didn’t come into a club where there was a lot of French players and I just spent my time talking with them. I was in digs, in a big house with 12-15 players from Ireland, from across the UK, from Germany, so we kind of lived together 24/7. I managed to pick up quite good English, and music and TV is probably the best way to learn it!
— Lincoln City FC (@LincolnCity_FC) September 9, 2014
So were there any particular ones in English that you remember helping you?
Yeah, so basically, most of the TV shows and music in England are English-speaking, and in France, most of the TV shows that we have are voice-overs. So you know the story, you know the line-up, you know what is happening, and once I came to England, I watched the same stuff that I’d already watched. Because I knew what the story was and what was happening, I kind of managed to put meaning to the words. There were loads of different musicians, like Justin Timberlake, or programmes like My Wife and Kids. With us all being a similar age, even though we were from different countries, we watched the same let’s say American shows. So we watched them together, and even though we may not have understood all of it, it was still enjoyable to watch.
Which area of Paris did you grow up in?
I grew up in the 17th district (arrondissement), so bang on the middle of Paris. I was born there, raised there, until I moved to England, apart from one year away in Brittany, where I was in the academy for Guingamp. Where I’m from, I’m a five-minute walk from the Champs-Élysées and the Eiffel Tower, which sounds a bit crazy for most people but I took it for granted. I never visited the Eiffel Tower until I’d been to England and come back, and thought, ‘Do you know what? I’m gonna have a look about!’
Who was the team you supported growing up, PSG or someone else?
I’ve had some arguments with my friends regarding that! I’d always been into playing football, but the year I got into watching it, probably 97/98, when France won the World Cup, Bordeaux became champions soon after (98/99). I went with Bordeaux, just because they became champions that year, but I had no connection whatsoever to them, apart from a few players that I like. As I’ve grown up, I’ve had a connection with my city’s team, which is obviously PSG.
There are so many different cultures and nationalities in Paris. Were you growing up with friends in your neighbourhood who were French-African, French-Caribbean etc.? Did you have that real mix of cultures around you?
Exactly yes. In France, the mix of cultures is huge, and really big in the way that it creates its own identity for itself, because people kind of stick together. I’m not gonna say there’s no discrimination, but there wasn’t discrimination regarding people living in the same neighbourhood or growing up together. Most French people – Parisian or even from Marseille – that grew up there, the slang will have Ivory Coast language, Senegalese words, Arabic words, Portuguese, and that’s part of the normal language. So that’s how far you can see the mix of cultures, that they’re part of the normal slang. Everybody embraced it.
How much of an Algerian culture was it also for you growing up?
Yes, it was massive. At home, we only spoke Arabic, and my parents made a big effort, even if it was a tremendous financial effort, to take a summer holiday back to Algeria. So most of the time as a kid, we would go for two months to Algeria for the summer holiday every year, so I had a connection from really young. They made sure that we did it every year, to not lose that connection. When I went to the national team, with the 17s for a tournament, it went really well and I stayed for about five years, because of that natural bond I had from when I was young. When sometimes you’ve got other Algerian players that grew up in France and might not have gone for ten or 15 years, or never been, they find it a bit more difficult.
You also went and played in Algeria in 2014, at JS Kabylie. Was that to try and improve your chances of getting in the squad for the World Cup in Brazil that year?
The team that I signed for, JSK, it’s the equivalent in Algeria to a Manchester United or something. They won the African Champions League (twice, plus the African Cup Winners’ Cup, CAF Cup a record three times, and a record 14 Algerian titles), so to me, it was a massive, massive deal. Like you said, when you go there, you might have a different opportunity to get into the national team. Since 2010, the national team got stronger and stronger, and now it’s like you have to be playing top, top level to be able to get in; you’ve got (Riyad) Mahrez, (Saïd) Benrahma. Back then, you might be able to sneak your way in playing for a less popular team. That was probably the best way for me to go, and it was an experience as well that I always wanted to do. It was a big risk but an experience I enjoyed.
— hamza bencherif (@BencherifHamza) January 7, 2014
Just before that, you played for Plymouth, which is nearly as far away as Algeria! How did you find that side of being a Plymouth player?
Yeah, it was, it took me longer to get there! It was a great club and a great place, but for me, it was probably one of the hardest times in football. I’d left Notts County, and I didn’t make my mind up for a long time of what would be the right choice, and I probably missed a few opportunities just by taking too long. I spent the pre-season training with Chesterfield; at the time, it was (Paul) Cook who was the manager. It went really well with them, they offered me a contract, but I’d missed quite a big chunk of the pre-season already. I was taking too long to make my mind up, and Plymouth came in. Plymouth are a big, big club, and I thought that would be a great opportunity, but I think I signed there in September, so I’d already missed a lot of pre-season and the start of the season. I got there, it was like a seven-hour drive! As I was driving down there, I got to Bristol and was like ‘how long before I get to Exeter?’ Past Torquay and I was like ‘I’m never gonna get there!’ It’s like driving to France.
So I went there, and I sort of felt good, but missing out on that fitness, it’s not the same. I played the first few games on adrenaline, did well, but I think the lack of pre-season kicked in, and we were struggling as well. Because it was so far, and a few of the players lived more towards the north of the country, on the Thursday, a few players would travel home, and meet the team coach on the Friday. Most of the away games were nearer ‘our’ side of the country, so we were meeting nearer where we were playing, and then driving back (to Plymouth) on the Monday. I live in Nottingham so it’s like a seven-hour drive to Plymouth on a Thursday, seven hours on a Monday. I was on a short-term contract, so you can’t move all your family, you can’t commit 100 per cent. That was the difficult part, but otherwise, it’s a big club and it was a good experience. That part of the country was new to me, but it was good.
Looking back on everywhere you’ve been so far, what stands out as the time you’ve felt at your best, happiest overall, the most complete time?
The most complete time…it’s a difficult one to say, because most of the dressing rooms I’ve been in, they’ve been really good. All of them have obviously had highs and lows. Probably one that I would say would be Macclesfield, because we were in League Two, and it’s a small budget compared to other teams. We were a squad of young players, we literally fought with what we had, but we had a really, really tight team. Most of the players went on to gain fees for their moves, helping the club, and doing well in their career. The club did everything they could to put us in the best conditions, and most of us were probably on the lowest earnings we’ve had in our career, but we did really well because we had such a bond. We lived together, we spent every day off the pitch together. The managers kind of put that spirit into us and it worked out really well. Plus, going through the tragic events that we did, I don’t think many people have that, going through football. In the first year, we lost (manager) Keith Alexander, and the second year (midfielder) Richard Butcher, and both of those were tragic moments, and we lived them together. Ten years later, it’s probably the group of players, and staff, where we’ve kept the longest relationship, from the different levels of football.
Is there a kind of approach from a manager that tends to get the best from you personally?
It works different for every player, but I’m a player who needs to get fired-up, so I like managers to have a go at me, to point the finger if it needs it. You can easily get sloppy from too much praise. Some players need an arm around the shoulder, that works as well. I think the main thing is to understand that you have the confidence of the manager and the players, and that relationship. Now that I’m coaching and looking into the mental side of managing players, I think the new generation will probably react to a different approach. I’ve worked with really good managers who were misunderstood, and I think responsibility has to be given to the players, but at the same time, players need to take that responsibility.
Is there a manager that stands out for having that approach you described?
The manager that stands out for me is Gary Simpson, because there was a long relationship, and he used me in different ways, but he knew how to get the best out of me. I also thought Gary Mills was a misunderstood manager, because a lot of people considered him an ‘old-school’ manager, in a negative way, but he’s not at all. It’s just because he’s a manager who will give you the responsibility and he trusts you, and if things don’t go well, you’ve got to take responsibility for yourself, and as a changing room, you have to do that. I think with the new generation, it’s harder to give that responsibility.
— hamza bencherif (@BencherifHamza) May 21, 2017
Whether it’s managers, coaches, teammates, who comes to mind for standout characters you’ve been around?
Oh, there’s been a few; if you look at my CV, I’ve had so many clubs! I’ll give you the biggest impression, and it’s probably not gonna be a surprise – Jon Parkin. It’s just because I spent three years in a car school with him (at York City) every single day, and he’s massively misunderstood. He’s actually extremely clever, he knows a lot of stuff, and for example, me being French and having a different background, he’s always wanting to know and understand. He knows a lot more than he lets people see. It’s the same with football, you look at him and think ‘oh yeah, he’s the big target man’, but he’s a really slick, technical footballer.
Have there been any teammates you’ve felt an especially strong understanding with on the pitch?
I had a really good connection with Matt Brown, who’s at York. At Halifax, I had Kevin Roberts and Matt Brown. Matt Brown was a similar type of player to me, regarding the build, but Kevin Roberts was smaller, reading the game, sweeping up. Playing as a back three, I think we complimented each other quite well.
— hamza bencherif (@BencherifHamza) May 22, 2016
Have any individual opponents stood out for the battle you had with them, where they had a lot to say for themselves, you enjoyed the battle, or you came off the pitch thinking ‘wow, that was an experience’?
At the start of my career, I came up against (Adebayo) Akinfenwa, who was at Northampton at the time. I didn’t know anything, and when I was younger, I was not arrogant in a nasty way, but arrogant in the way of ‘it doesn’t matter how strong he is, how big, I’m up for it’. I think I was 19/20 and it was a battle that really put me straight into that spirit of League Two football. I kind of enjoyed it in that way because it was a real battle, and an honest one. It wasn’t a nasty one, because you’ve got some players that can go about their job in a nasty way. The other one, who was the opposite but he was really clever, was Jack Lester. Clever player, and off the ball, he will be absolutely horrible. Once he gets the ball, he only needs a few yards to get into position to shoot, and off the ball, he will talk to you, he will elbow you, pinch you, stamp on you. Just the whole game, it will be exhausting to keep up with everything he’s doing! I played against him, and I know him as well, because I played with him.
Have you ever had to sing when you joined a new team, and if so, which song(s)?
Most of the clubs, I had to do it. I always tried to stay away from English songs, so that if I make a mistake, they won’t realise! So I used to say I’d go with a French song, and I used to do one from The Hunchback of Notre-Dame!
We mentioned your work away from playing, but that and football aside, what other things do you enjoy? What relaxes you, what inspires you?
Sport’s been a big part of my life, but the other main interest that I’ve got is education. I love to find out in what way I can put a message across to someone, in a different way to what someone might have done when I was a child. When you were at school, some of the stuff didn’t get through to you because of the way it was put, so that’s one of my challenges. I really like to learn new things. As soon as I’ve got a bit of spare time, I like to do new qualifications. For example, driving licences. Obviously with being a footballer, you’re not allowed to drive a motorbike, but as soon as I’ve got some time where I’ve not been under contract with a club, I’ve said ‘I’m gonna do my motorbike licence, I’m gonna do my boat licence, I’m gonna do that course and this.’ Not necessarily major, five/six-year courses, but I just like to tick boxes with stuff that when you were a kid, you said ‘I’d love to be able to do that’. When you’re older, there’s no one stopping you, so that’s what I like to do, achieving childhood dreams!
Finally, what has this football life taught you the most up to now, about yourself, about the game, about life?
The first thing I would say, and it’s to any, any player, is that if someone is on your back, constantly on your back and having a go at you, it’s because that person wants good for you. One guy that made my football career, but also as a person, is John Pemberton. He was the academy manager at Forest and he was constantly on my back, but I didn’t realise how much of a strong footballer and strong person he’s made me. That was all for my benefit. The other thing I’ve learned is that people need to understand that the person you might be a year, five years, ten years from now will be totally different. So if one year you are thinking ‘oh yeah, this is the end’, it’s not the end, because two years later, you could be different. I’ve never been an arrogant person but I was an arrogant footballer when I was young, I backed myself massively. Doesn’t matter if I was playing well or bad, in my head I was always playing well. Five, six, seven years later, you play more games and you’ve got more responsibility, so now you’re starting to question yourself; even if you’ve played well, you’re starting to think you haven’t. After you get that balance, that’s like the peak age, where you put everything together. I think what’s most important for players to understand is that what’s happening one year, that’s not the reality for the rest of your career, or your life.
Interview by @chris_brookes