Hal Robson-kanu: Goal of 2016
The highlight of Wales’ wondrous Euro 2016 was their cult hero flummoxing three Belgians to secure a semi-final spot. FFT meets up with our Goal of the Year winner
Hal Robson-kanu seems slightly puzzled when Fourfourtwo’s photographer shares his vision for our opening shot. “You want me to hold up… a sausage?” the Wales hero asks as our snapper hands over all the ingredients to put together the perfect hot dog. Standing in his pristine-looking apartment in Warwickshire, the 27-year-old takes one look at the ketchup bottle in his right hand, and then another at the cream carpet beneath his feet. A worried expression crosses his face. “My missus isn’t going to be very happy about this – it could ruin my year if we get any on the carpet,” he jokes. Well, half-jokes. After his other-worldly Cruyff turn to score the second of Wales’ three goals in their shock Euro 2016 quarter-final victory against Belgium, social media lit up with people celebrating Robson-kanu for sending three Belgian players for a hot dog. Basically, he sent them all running in completely the wrong direction. It was the crowning moment of an incredible summer, when the forward went from being an out-of-contract Championship player to the toast of Europe – before signing for West Bromwich Albion amid talk of interest from Atletico Madrid. Best of all (probably), his strike is named FFT’S Goal of the Year, which is why he’s squirting sauce on a Frankfurter. It could all have been so different. Having announced that he wouldn’t be renewing his contract at Reading, ending a 12-year association with the club he’d called home since the age of 15, Acton-born Robson-kanu decided he would use the European Championship as a shop window for his talents. But with only weeks before Wales kicked off their campaign against Slovakia, Robson-kanu snapped a tendon in his leg and faced an anxious race to be ready for the jaunt across the Channel. “I was touch and go to be fit,” he says. “It was a tough period, because there wasn’t any guarantee I would be available in time, but I worked hard with the physios and the coaching staff in order to get back. And as history says, I was out there.” As he leans back on a chair in his new living room, Robson-kanu opens up on his regrets at not going all the way in France, whether he opted for Tony Pulis over Diego Simeone and how he humiliated the nation many had touted as the best in Europe.
How happy were you with your form, heading into the summer? I’m always confident in my ability. I’d played at the top level a fair bit previously and performed well, so I knew I could do it at international level. I’d played in all 10 games in the qualifying campaign, so I knew my place in the team. The manager [Chris Coleman], his staff and the players knew what I could bring to the starting XI, so it was nice to feel valued in that sense. It was just about preparing myself as I always do and performing at that level.
What was the situation at Reading? Did they choose not to offer you a new contract, or did you decide that you were moving on? I had been at Reading for 12 years – I’ve given a lot of my career to the club. I was happy with what I’d achieved – we had multiple promotions and some successful years, but I was just at a stage where I felt it was best for my career to move on and find a new challenge. I wanted to go somewhere I would have to push myself further, and that was the decision we made early on in the season.
Did the fact that you were without a club play on your mind as you prepared for Euro 2016? Or did you view it as the perfect chance to put yourself in the shop window during the summer? There was a lot of speculation, but for me it was just a case of letting people know that my future would be decided after the tournament and that my focus would solely be on playing football. Being on a free transfer, I had some offers, but I put all of that on the back burner. It is not every summer that you get the opportunity to head to a major championship on a free, but it’s not something I would advise players to do, either, because there’s some risk involved. But I was confident and I backed my ability, so I knew that there would be options there.
How was the atmosphere in the Welsh camp during preparations? There was a lot of hype around us, and just qualifying was big in itself. The whole nation was behind us and we captured everyone’s hearts. It was a great feeling to be heading out to a major tournament – not many players experience that in their careers. Before the tournament we’d had quite a lot of success internationally, so we were all feeling pretty confident. Leading up to the championship, we knew we were going to do something special and we believed that we could get to the knockout stages, possibly to the quarters, and then who knows?
When you scored a late winner in Wales’ opening match against Slovakia, did you think things could get any better than that? Slovakia was our first game and our first in a major championship for 60-odd years. It was also very important we started the group
well and got the campaign off to a winning start, so to score the winner was a very special feeling. Scoring at international level is special anyway, but to do it at a major championship adds a little bit extra. After we won, we were all just looking at the next game.
How was the mood after losing to England in the circumstances that you did, to Daniel Sturridge’s scruffy goal in stoppage time? We were disappointed because we didn’t play anywhere near our best that day, but we still took them to the wire and gained a lot from that. The way that the England players were celebrating the winning goal made us think, ‘Hang on a minute, they are really relieved to have beaten us.’ That gave us a lot of confidence – it showed us that we could actually be a force to be reckoned with.
You missed out on Wales’ 3-0 win over Russia in the final group game, before being a second-half substitute against Northern Ireland in the second round. Was that frustrating? I entered the tournament having not played that many games, because I had snapped a tendon in my leg a few weeks earlier. I was lacking a bit of match fitness, so they wanted to look after me and protect me as much as possible. In the end it worked out well, because there wasn’t too much of a demand on me. In the games when I did come on, I was able to make a big contribution.
In the build-up to the game in Lille, how did you rate Wales’ chances of success in the quarter-final against Belgium? They were ranked number two in the world, so we knew it was going to be tough. But we had played Belgium four times over the past four years and won one and drawn two, so we had a sense that if we were resilient and showed our quality, then it was all to play for. We knew that they were a world-class team, but we were quietly confident.
What was going through your mind as you wheeled away, having just scored that goal to give Wales a 2-1 advantage in the game? When you’re in the opponents’ box, you want to create half a yard of space and get a shot away. The ball fell to me from a great ball from Rambo [Aaron Ramsey] and I was aware that the momentum of the Belgian players was taking them all in one direction, so it was a good opportunity to put in a Cruyff turn. It’s something I do a lot during training and it will normally get me some space against one opponent, but that was the first time it has freed me up from three! I thought I’d get a bit of space, but not as much as I did: it was a case of me against [Thibaut] Courtois. He’s obviously a world-class keeper and he’s big, so I had to put it into the corner – and that’s what I did.
Was it the best goal you have ever scored during your career? I’ve scored a nice volley against Millwall in the past, and a few with the outside of my foot, but given it was on that stage, and what it meant to everyone, the one against Belgium is probably the best.
What did you make to the reaction after scoring that goal? The goal was great but, to be honest, I didn’t really think about it again for the rest of the game. It was more about thinking we were in a quarter-final and if we won, we’d be in the semis. That was the focus after the game, too, and I didn’t really think about the goal because everyone was absolutely buzzing. It was only during the morning after, when we woke up and noticed all the hysteria on social media, that I realised that it was quite a special moment.
What was the best response you received from fans or players? It was quite mad, the number of former players and idols who were commenting on it – even Pele! It was obviously an amazing feeling to have so many legends talking about the goal. Ian Rush, who is a Welsh legend, named me the Man of the Match after the game, which was a great moment considering the calibre of players that were on the pitch. There was a lot of banter on social media after the goal. As well as all of the jokes that I had ‘sent the Belgian defenders for a hot dog’, people were saying that a few of the defenders had gone missing and been found in certain places.
Just how disappointing was it when Wales’ superb campaign ended with a 2-0 defeat against Portugal in the semi-final? Portugal showed us a massive amount of respect in the way they sat off us. It was a huge compliment to the group that a top nation like Portugal would set up like that against us. After the game, a few of us were saying that we should have beaten them. We knew that we had enough to beat them and it felt like a missed opportunity. To feel like that about not getting to a final shows how far we’ve come.
Do you know if it’s true that Atletico Madrid wanted to sign you? There were quite a lot of negotiations that took place and there were a number of opportunities for me abroad in Spain, Asia, Russia and America. But I had told my agent that I would love to play in the Premier League, so a lot of the interest from other countries got pushed aside. I had a desire to play in the top league in the world.
Did Diego Simeone call you and try and tempt you to Spain? [Laughs] I had my phone turned off all summer because it was going mad – I was getting calls left, right and centre – so even if he had called me up, I’d have missed it! Atletico are a massive football club, but my ambition was to play in the Premier League.
You eventually managed to achieve that goal by signing for West Bromwich Albion on transfer deadline day. So how have you settled back into life, playing in the Premier League? It’s a great club with a good manager [Tony Pulis] who knows the league. I’ve been working hard in training, but I started the season quite late when I arrived, and it’s always difficult when that happens. I’m just waiting for my opportunity and looking forward to taking it. It should be every young footballer’s dream to play in the Premier League, and I’m grateful for the chance.
What are your ambitions for 2017? World Cup qualification? I just want to continue to build on what I have been doing so far. World Cup qualification with Wales is important: it’s a tough group but we certainly back ourselves and we hope that by the end of the campaign, we will have something to cheer about. I work hard year in, year out, and there is a lot of hard graft to come, but I hope there will be more successes. You have to keep wanting to get better – it is not all about achieving something, then sitting back and relaxing.