Sunday 25 February 2018

Mercurial maestro finds calm in eye of the storm

QPR's Adel Taarabt insists that he has matured as a player, writes Jason Burt

So what goes on in the mercurial mind of Adel Taarabt when he is out on the football pitch? "Before I get the ball, I know what's going on," he says. "So when I receive it, I know someone is 'on' and I can pass it. I know already if I'm going to shoot or turn or dribble. I know that before I get the ball. I know exactly what I'm going to do and I feel very calm. All the time I feel calm when I have the ball. In football, it's important that your first touch is good because, then, nothing bad can happen to you."

Calmness has not always been a quality associated with Taarabt, whose career has, at times, been as volatile as the club he now plays for – QPR. He has played under eight managers at Loftus Road and, aged just 23 and having joined less than four years ago, he is now the longest serving first-team player.

There is more. Taarabt has often divided opinion, and drawn some colourful and bold descriptions and comparisons – from Zinedine Zidane to Paolo Di Canio. Genius or fruitcake (Harry Redknapp has called Taarabt both), wizard (as Martin Jol declared him), or simply not up to it (as Juande Ramos flatly observed before refusing to give him a squad number). No one has doubted the Moroccan's ability but several have seriously doubted whether they, or he, can properly harness it.

Taarabt himself is clear – even if he looks momentarily confused when reminded that Redknapp, when he was Tottenham Hotspur manager, labelled him a "complete fruitcake" as a teenager at White Hart Lane. "What's a fruitcake?" Taarabt says. "Ah, I've got a strong character and if I'm not happy, I say things. Maybe some other players will keep it to themselves. But me, I don't like injustice. If I see something that's not good, with a manager or a player, I tell them. I can't just say 'Okay, tomorrow is another day, I will leave it'. I'd rather have it out there, face to face. It's simple."

Taarabt has already had "face-to-face" conversations with Redknapp, now in charge at QPR, and a man he deeply admires. "He has something that not a lot of managers have," Taarabt says . "A lot of managers can organise the team and so on but Harry wants a player to feel he is the best."

Taarabt gives a simple example – before last weekend's 2-1 victory at home to Fulham, QPR's first win of the season in the Premier League, at the 17th attempt. Taarabt scored both goals. "He came to see me and said, 'I think you've nothing to learn from Berbatov because I think you can be better than him'. So I'm thinking, 'If he thinks that then I'm going to show him he's right and that I am better'. And this is Harry.

"I saw it at Tottenham also. Modric was there and Juande Ramos didn't play him. We played at Stoke and Luka was put on the floor. He wanted a free-kick and Ramos turned and said, 'He's not a player for English football'. Harry arrived and just said 'fantastic player'. And after that Luka, game after game, wow."

Taarabt also has that 'wow' factor, which was honed on the streets from the age of four. Born in Morocco, his family moved to Berre-l'Etang near Marseille in the south of France as his father, a builder, pursued work. "I didn't learn my skills in a football academy," he says. "They taught me to turn this way, that way, control. But they didn't teach me step-overs, nutmegs. They were natural. They came from God, I think."

Balls were improvised, scrounged – and sometimes stolen. Taarabt and his friends would stand outside the wall of the local football club and any wayward shot meant a ball was lost, and taken to the nearby high rises where the boys played four v four, day after day. "Five or six teams, three goals and you stayed on," Taarabt says. "You hated to lose. When you went out you knew it would be 20, 30 minutes before you played again. You would go crazy."

From Lens, his first club, he went to Spurs in January 2007. There, after Jol and Ramos, Redknapp encouraged Taarabt to go on loan to QPR, who he helped finally raise from the Championship and save from relegation last season.

The situation had appeared dire and although it appears even more perilous this campaign, Taarabt says he would not swap the scenarios.

"Last year with the last 10 games you saw the teams we were going to play, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester City, and everyone thought 'no chance'. But now we have more than 20 games left and I prefer that," he says, drawing hope from last weekend's win.

Taarabt explains his frustration at the team's mistakes this campaign. "You are playing, lose a goal and then you are watching the time, 75 minutes, 80 minutes and, it's hard," he says. "When you are winning 1-0 you control the game, you are calm."

That run of matches without a victory added to the pressure he felt to make a difference. "Everyone is waiting for you to do something but it's not easy to go past three or four players and score," Taarabt says. "And sometimes it's not 'on' and you should not do it but you try to do it because you are thinking 'but I have to do something'. It means you end up 'forcing' your game and you should never do that."

That, he says, is changing. Maturity means he is more aware of when and when not to run with the ball. "I think I've improved a lot," Taarabt says. "When I was 17 it was dribble, dribble, dribble. Now I'm mixing it much more. I think I've improved a lot and that's normal. I'm getting older."

There is frustration that QPR have given away "too many cheap goals". "It's been too easy for the opponent and it's been like that all season," he says. "If you play against Man United and Rooney or Van Persie put one in the top corner then fair enough but if you concede two goals at set-pieces then that's not acceptable. Concede to a piece of magic but not a set-piece."

Taarabt feels a crucial part of QPR. He has been continually linked with moves away, Paris St-Germain and more recently Manchester United, but states emphatically: "I've given to this club but this club gives me a lot. Every season people say 'he's going to leave' but I am still here. For me, coming here was the best decision I've made in my career and I hope, I think, I can do more for the club I feel important and want to continue to be so – to score goals, win games.

"It's been a very difficult season but we're still in there with a chance. Everyone was thinking we were maybe out of it but I think we can do it."


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