Wealdstone FC

Wealdstone’s summer addition of Nikola Tavares marks the capture of a young player with everything in front of him, but he links up with the National League side carrying some significant pedigree already. Turning professional at Crystal Palace, he was named in the matchday squad by Roy Hodgson on multiple occasions, and has also featured internationally at youth level.

The 22-year-old is back at the Stones this season on a full deal, having initially signed on loan back in March, though his overall path to Grosvenor Vale has encompassed far more than a hop across the capital. As his first name suggests, there is Balkan heritage, and his Under-19 and 20 involvements for Croatia brought no shortage of pride. As for the surname, that is Portuguese, but it is South Africa where he was born and raised.

With the new National League campaign nudging ever closer, Nik took some time out here from his Stones pre-season to share some more of his background, together with insight into his time in the game so far, and his current outlook and aspirations…

 

Firstly Nik, to get this right, Croatian mother, Portuguese father, and born in Cape Town?

Yeah, that’s correct.

So growing up, would you just speak English, or Croatian and/or Portuguese as well?

Mainly English, because growing up in South Africa, that was the language everybody spoke. I wish my parents taught me more, but it almost wasn’t necessary as I was growing up.

Which area of Cape Town did you grow up in, where’s home?

Sort of the Table View area. That was actually the first club I played for, Table View Football Club. We were ten minutes from the coast. It was pretty amazing, growing up, to be fair.

Why was it ultimately football and not cricket or rugby, or another sport? Were Bafana Bafana (South African national team) an inspiration, or even the Croatian or Portuguese national team?

I actually played cricket, rugby and football, in school days. I wasn’t the greatest at cricket, if I’m being honest, so that one kind of fell away, but I actually had quite a big decision to make when I was around 13, because I was quite good at rugby as well as football; almost just as good at rugby. I had to choose because the schedules at that age meant that it became impossible to do both at a high level. I just enjoyed my football more, so that’s why I went with that, and it’s just flourished since.

Which team did you grow up supporting?

Growing up, it was Chelsea. I found that, over the years, as I became a professional and it became more of a job essentially, I fell out of supporting Chelsea, so it was more when I was younger, and I was playing in the youth teams. I’m kind of neutral now.

With Wealdstone, you joined late last season, with the absence of matchday income having affected so many clubs. That meant a more experimental team being fielded towards the end of the season, which the club spoke about. In that period, was there a need for the management to keep spirits up, with some of those difficult results, or was there a shared realisation that it was about something longer term?

From when I joined, the message was always that we need to try and avoid relegation as if there were things at stake (with no relegation in the division last season). So that message was definitely ever-present, and the boys were still giving 100 per cent and doing whatever they could, and actually achieved that by beating Woking on the last day of the season, so in terms of that, it was a success.

How challenging was it to come in, play once and get injured, because it hurts nobody more than the player when they’re injured, which some fans in football seem to forget?

Yeah, it was difficult. It was unexpected, because I was feeling really good physically, so that’s why it was probably a little bit harder to take, but I think in terms of timing, it was perfect really, if you were ever going to have an injury, because it gave me ‘pre-pre-season’ to prepare properly. That got me right for pre-season, and when the lads all came back, because I was working when they were off, it kind of came together really nicely. I actually joined the team training just as they arrived back. In that sense, I was prepared, and the timing was okay, but obviously you’re devastated when you get injured, especially in your first game. I had ambitions for the last few games of the season, and you just have to set new goals when something like that happens. Mine was to get back as soon as possible and make pre-season, which I did, so I’m happy about that.

At Palace, you were part of the matchday squad on a few occasions, but in terms of other clubs, is it right you spent time with each of these: Brentford, Middlesbrough, Brighton and Wolves?

Okay, so, I don’t know why that it says that on the Internet! I played for Brentford until just before my pro, after my scholarship, and they closed the academy, so a lot of the younger players were just forced to go and find new clubs, essentially. That’s when I then went on trial at Middlesbrough, Wolves and Brighton, but I think the fact that I played games whilst being on trial, people might have been confused and thought that I was signed at all three clubs. I went to Crystal Palace as a fourth club on trial and signed my pro contract for them.

Were there any younger players coming through with you at Palace that you were close with?

I would say the boys I’ve known the longest were Tyrick Mitchell and Giovanni McGregor, because they were both with me at Brentford; we all ended up signing for Palace, at different stages. I’ve known those boys since Under-14 days, so it’s pretty surreal to see Tyrick doing so well now and getting the experience he’s getting. I’m happy for him, he deserves it.

Did any senior players particularly help or mentor you? As a defender, would someone like Gary Cahill or Scott Dann take you aside or be there to offer advice?

Yeah, I would say the person you said there, Scott Dann, was probably the most helpful. During training sessions, and even after, he would sort of coach you. If he noticed something that he could help you with, he’s not shy to tell you, and he tells you in a good way; he pulls you aside and explains to you why this is better than that. It’s not easy for the senior players, because obviously they’re focused on their game on the weekend and their training, so it was unselfish of him, and I appreciate that he took the time to help us, because he doesn’t need to do that. Andros Townsend was always friendly, always made the younger players feel welcome, when we trained with the first team.

There’s so much talent in south London, and that has been represented brilliantly at Palace over the years, though that doesn’t always mean they make it as first team players. Was there anyone that you saw in training as a youngster and thought ‘wow, that’s some ability’?

The obvious one is Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who’s now at Man United; you could see that he was good enough to play for the first team, it was just a matter of time. So that one wasn’t surprising, I think he deserves where he’s at now. There’s a lot of players; one of my close friends is Kian Flanagan, who’s actually just signed for Barnet on a two-year deal. He’s got something different, he’s skilful and I think he’ll be a player to watch in our league this season, for sure.

I want to ask about just settling in England when you first arrived. Firstly, is it correct you came on trial to Reading, and that was when you had your dad staying with you?

Yeah, I had two trials, Reading and Brentford. From what I remember, Brentford were the first to make an official offer and said ‘we’ll give you a scholarship’. Me and my dad actually stayed in a Premier Inn for a month, going on trials, and then when Brentford offered the scholarship, it was like ‘alright, let’s go for it’. Me and my dad went back, packed our bags, and then me, my mum and my brother flew out to the UK, settled down and my dad was closing the business in South Africa, and then he joined us shortly after.

That obviously helps massively, but in terms of just adapting to a different country and culture, even if the language is familiar, how did you find that in the initial stages?

I think it went pretty smoothly because I joined a school; I was in Year 10. That really helped, because you’re amongst kids of this culture every day, so I found myself with an English accent almost in six months. You just learn how it is, whereas if you heard my parents speak now, strong South African accents! So it just shows you how much easier it was for me to adapt. In that sense, it was pretty smooth, to be fair.

What kind of approach from a manager do you think gets the best from you?

I would say, it might sound obvious, but a manager who believes in you, who fills you with confidence, and I’d say freedom on the pitch to express yourself. For me personally, if I do give away a pass or make one mistake, the last thing I want to hear is how bad that was of me; I want to be encouraged to try that again. I feel like I don’t need a manager who’s going to get super-angry and rip me to shreds, because I’m already so critical of myself, so I think about my mistakes over and over again, and want to put them right. So, just someone who supports me and backs me, I would say.

Have there been any coaches/managers who have especially stood out in your time in the game up to now, for personal impact on you?

I’ve had a few good coaches. My first coach when I joined Brentford was Danny Buck, who’s actually now back at Arsenal in the youth system. In terms of developing my skill, that was definitely one of the most important periods of my life, because he was very heavily based on technical attributes and skills. I think I improved dramatically over those two or three years working under him.

So, when you stepped up to being around the first team at Palace, did you have anything to do for initiation, like singing on an away trip?

There was no initiation actually, so that made it a lot easier! At Wealdstone, I’m sure you saw on Twitter the other day, all the new boys had to sing straight after each other on the chair, which is never nice!

What stands out as the happiest moment or time in football so far for you?

I would say two moments. The first time I received a call-up for Croatia, seeing that paperwork in front of me, that it was official and I was going made me feel part of something and really lucky, and just grateful. Then also, the first time I made the bench for Palace against Bournemouth at Selhurst Park, because seeing that many people and feeling that atmosphere, and warming up on the side knowing there’s a legitimate chance you could come on, that was pretty special.

On the flipside, what about the most difficult?

I would say there was a period a few years ago where I just had a few muscle injuries straight after one another. Luckily, I’ve seen someone and got that sorted now, but there was a period where I was getting a repetitive muscle strain, and you feel a little bit lost, a little bit helpless when it keeps reoccurring. Getting through that patch, seeing the right people, designing the right programmes and strengthening my body, was very important, because you can get a bit lost and think ‘how do I improve this’? But sometimes it’s not down to you, you need to find the right people around you, so that was important.

When you’re not playing or training, what else do you enjoy away from football, aside from the obvious of family time?

There’s a few books I like to read. I like to read books about mindset, spirituality and different sorts of things that open the mind up to things you haven’t thought about before. I love going for a nice dinner with the missus, that’s always good! Otherwise, just relaxing at home really and looking forward to the next game.

Finally, as you look ahead now, do you have specific targets set out, or do you think in smaller goals, one at a time? What is important to you as we speak now, in terms of priorities?

In terms of priorities, I would say helping the team finish as high as possible. I don’t know what position that would be yet, but doing well as a team, and over-performing. Then for me personally, getting as much game time as possible, as many games under my belt as I can. That would be really important this season.

Interview by @chris_brookes

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