Pablo Fornals: ‘I’m in love with West Ham, the songs, the sign, the bubbles’
It’s a long way from Spain’s east coast to London’s East End but Pablo Fornals doesn’t mind. He crosses his arms, hands as hammers, and smiles. Asked if he knew much about West Ham before signing in July 2019, he replies: “If I’m honest, no. I knew of them, I’d seen them play, but I wasn’t a fan the way I am now.” Now he says he has “completely” fallen in love with them: “The songs, this sign when they see you in the street, the bubbles: it’s something you don’t experience anywhere else.”
That might sound a bit much, but he’s soon reciting the lyrics to “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” in English and Spanish – “Pompas de jabón, lindas pompas de jabón” – and although he has resisted the pie and mash with “that gravy sauce” at the training ground, things turned out nice.
Which didn’t always seem likely. The sporting director who signed Fornals departed less than six months later. The manager he was signed for had gone too, leaving the team one point above relegation. He didn’t seem the kind of player his new manager, David Moyes, would want, and the football was different: stronger, faster, no protection. “It was a bit of a shock because I thought I was a good player,” he admitted. Oh, and there was the pandemic that left him locked up in his London flat, alone.
But here he is, sitting in the sunshine in Madrid talking about home, which London has become. With Moyes leading and Fornals playing an unexpectedly key role, West Ham survived. Then last season they came sixth, their highest finish this century taking them into Europe. Now they’re second and Fornals has scored twice in three games. He’s also back in the Spain squad three years later: he provided an assist at the weekend and on Wednesday faces Kosovo.
It all starts with Mark Noble, the man Fornals says is the most “East End” of all his teammates. “It was half-time at Anfield,” he explains. “There was an injury and there were doubts about what to do because the manager had only just taken over. He [Moyes] asks Mark what would he do? Mark was at that stage of his career where he’s a link [between coach and players] and he looks at me, turns to the coach and says give him the chance. And that day I scored at Anfield. That’s a day in my life that I’ll never forget and shapes what follows.”
It was February 2020 and what followed were two assists against Southampton. Fornals had started just one of the previous five league games; he started the next 11. Then 31 the following season. Transformed, he scored twice against Southampton to take West Ham into Europe.
It wasn’t easy. Lockdown followed not long after Liverpool, although that too might even have helped. It served as an introduction to the city for a start. And as preparation, the chance to literally start again. “They were tough weeks,” Fornals says. “No harder for me than for anyone else, but it’s true I was on my own. I don’t mind being at home a lot but I need to get out. Go for a walk, take the bike, see things. The only thing we could do in London was sport: that was the only way out. So, I’d go for a run each morning. The club sent us things to do at home. I also trained with a fitness coach online. Sixty per cent of my day was dedicated to training.”
Teammates knew he was alone. “Every week, four, five, six teammates would ask how I was getting on, ask me if I needed anything. The captain, especially. The coach would speak to us too,” Fornals says. “I never thought: ‘I want to leave.’ And I used lockdown to reduce the time it took to adapt because I trained so much. I think it cleared our heads too because we were suffering in the league: we came back more determined than ever that we weren’t going down.”
“[With Moyes] it’s a different type of football to what I had been used to, different even to Manuel [Pellegrini]. When results don’t go well there are changes and they can’t change all the players so they usually choose the coach. But I wasn’t Manuel’s player, I was West Ham’s and I knew I had to give everything for the new manager. I want to be on the pitch. And his football is producing good results.”
There’s even the occasional word from Moyes in Spanish, Fornals says. “I’m very happy to learn another way; the more elements to my game, the better. I’m a more complete, more varied player. Recently we’ve been playing out from the back more, maybe having more possession but without losing the essence of our game: rob possession, launch quick attacks and be compact defensively, make life difficult for the opposition.”
Then there’s the relationship with Michail Antonio. “It shows, doesn’t it?” Fornals says with a smile. “It really shows. The understanding is good with everyone but with Micky especially: he knows what I’m going to do, where I’m going to run, and I know what he’s going to do – if he wants it long or to feet. Almost without looking we know where each other are. The England coach will have his ideas and reasons [for not calling him up] but he has the chance with Jamaica now and he’s a player who can really make a difference at any moment with his power and goals.”
Together they’re heading into Europe. “You can’t ever get distracted from the league, but the excitement we all feel at playing the Europa League is immense,” Fornals says. “Fans, club, players: nothing can take that anticipation away.”