Atdhe Nuhiu interview: Until the track runs out – The highs, the hurt and the heart of Owls frontman
In his first two years in England, Sheffield Wednesday striker Atdhe Nuhiu has displayed the kind of on-pitch spirit that garners respect from his supporters and the personal characteristics to endear him to many, but there has been much more than just footballing development to take in for the towering Austrian since his arrival.
Following a season on loan in Turkey with Eskişehirspor, Atdhe brought an end to his spell back home in Austria with a move to the Championship with Wednesday in July 2013. Under the management of Dave Jones for his first few months (before Stuart Gray began his tenure), he was an interesting proposition for opposing defences naturally drawn to his presence and often surprised at his close control and occasional flashes of terrific technique.
Although markedly different from each other, the past two seasons for The Owls have brought similar mid-table finishes, with Atdhe scoring eight goals in each but adding three more in the cups to his tally this time around. As he will discuss, the Kosovo-born forward has had to adapt in a multitude of ways and there are undoubtedly various depths to his character that have developed since he came to England.
He also explores the music side of his personality, as each player interview on here looks to do, and through this he reveals a little of the emotional edge to the journey his relatively young career continues to take. For the highs and lows, artists and songs are always there to turn to and it is a big reason why the 25-year-old keeps them close by.
“Music is definitely important,” he began. “For example, you see a lot of times in football everyone has his headphones on listening to his own music.”
“It’s a motivation thing, for sure, but I also think some music can bring you the happiness back when you feel a bit sad. I think music is a very good thing.
“With music, I listen to every kind, but I listen also to Albanian music, German rap, and obviously the English r&b songs and house. Not really a specialised thing, just everything that is on.
“For example, the German rap I listen to is Bushido; I listen quite often to his songs. We are not listening to this music (in the dressing room) anyway, but maybe something too rock or deep English rap, I wouldn’t listen to.”
In many respects, it was a Sheffield Wednesday that was ready for change that Atdhe came into. Manager Dave Jones departed at the beginning of December 2013, his previous coach Stuart Gray subsequently led an upturn in fortunes, and last summer brought the ‘confirmed’ takeover by Azerbaijani businessman Hafiz Mammadov that eventually fell through, before Dejphon Chansiri’s Thai consortium completed a deal early this year.
Under the stewardship of current boss Gray, The Owls clambered out of the drop zone in 2013/14 to ultimately finish nine points clear of relegation and he harnessed a positive atmosphere within the group that appeared to give a level of freedom to the players. This season, there was a dramatic increase in clean sheets for the side, buoyed at the back by goalkeeper and recently-named Player of the Year Keiren Westwood joining from Sunderland, as well as defender Tom Lees’ arrival from Leeds United.
Although goals have been particularly tough to come by, especially in the home matches, Wednesday stayed clear of trouble throughout the campaign and despite any frustrations as a collective the team spirit has seemed to remain. The club has recently announced its list of released players, including two down the left side whose departures from S6 also free up the dressing room DJ roles, as Atdhe explains.
“Normally it’s DJ (Joe) Mattock or (Jacques) Maghoma. Before the game it’s normally motivation music like house and they have some really good songs.
“I think Joe is like a hobby DJ. I have maybe been the DJ once or twice but they have the better hits, especially Joe; I think he really mixes it up before a game.”
Following his 2010 move to Rapid Vienna, a personal highlight of Atdhe’s stint with the 32-time Austrian champions was his goal in the 3-2 win at Aston Villa in the 2010/11 Europa League play-off round. He had glanced an effort beyond Brad Guzan in the first leg and he beat the American keeper with another header to bring The Green-Whites level on the night in the second leg before they went on to eliminate their English opponents.
One of his fellow goalscorers that night was a defender who remains at Ernst Happel Stadium and Atdhe tells how the 28-year-old would take charge of the team’s sound system. He also thinks back to team DJs from his Austria Under-21 days when asked about a former colleague in Stoke City forward Marko Arnautovic, also mentioning a certain Bayern Munich left-back.
“Arnautovic, yeah, (David) Alaba. I think it was more Alaba, but in the national team it was a little bit difficult because we didn’t have a real set team.
“At Rapid Vienna, it was Mario Sonnleitner and he also played house. He was the main man there and I think he still is because he’s still playing there.
“He’s a very good friend of mine and we’re still in touch. Rapid Vienna was a very, very good time.”
Leaving Kosovo as an infant with his mother, brother and sister, Atdhe grew up in Austria but has been back to his birthplace on occasions since and his leisure time there has included taking in live music. He goes back to his first ever CD, giving a glimpse into the kind of English lyrics he often heard when he was younger, while also picking out some of his holidays that had a strong connection with lively beats and party atmospheres.
“I think the first I bought was from 2Pac; I don’t think it was a real album, just the best songs from him in there. I think that was the first one because at the time I was listening to a lot of music from 2Pac.
“I’ve been to (watch) Drake here in England. In Kosovo I have been (to a music gig) but that’s not so famous.
“I’ve been to Ibiza, I’ve been to Miami, Turkey, Italy, but obviously in Ibiza and Miami the music is 24/7 and these are different kinds of holidays.”
Spending time training with Ian Holloway’s Crystal Palace and playing two friendlies for the club, Atdhe signed a three-year contract at Wednesday that summer but was undoubtedly much of an unknown quantity to most in England at the time. Although goals were sparse in his first few months, he announced himself to Owls fans with a superb one at Queens Park Rangers, showing brilliant footwork to elude defenders and bury a left-footer into the bottom corner of Robert Green’s goal.
Your application and output on the pitch do a lot of talking for you as a player but one way to jump straight into the team environment is through the widely popular singing initiation. Even with the fun element, it can bring on the nerves as you put yourself out there for new teammates, so Atdhe stuck to what he knew!
“In Europe this is not a really big thing, just when I came to England. I think I sang and it was an Albanian song, because I know the lyrics!
“I don’t know if they enjoyed it but you have to do it for one minute, so it’s alright for a laugh.”
The singing initiation is one of the lighter ways to keep spirits up within the squad and assistant boss Lee Bullen is often the one to post the videos for supporters to see. The revered former club captain was one of the early interviews on here, back in July 2011, and he recalled how promotion-winning manager Paul Sturrock would hijack the team’s pre-match music by throwing on Wheatus’ ‘Teenage Dirtbag’!
However, Atdhe has not yet been blessed with such musical curveballs from his fellow Owls.
“Not really, but for some of the lads I never hear what they’re listening to. I don’t know for example what Chris Kirkland is listening to!
“I cannot tell, but until now I haven’t heard something really bad.”
Although he freely admits he is working on becoming more prolific, Atdhe has showcased his ability in impressive fashion with moments such as: his controlled half-volley which cannoned in off the post against Charlton last season, the skill to deceive Huddersfield keeper Alex Smithies at Hillsborough last month before a goal-line clearance denied him, and some marvellous interplay with Jacques Maghoma before he scored at Millwall in February. Strikers are likely to always be primarily judged on goals but there is also a bigger picture from a team perspective and the Wednesday fans have shown their understanding of that with Atdhe on numerous occasions.
One of those times was in the 3-0 win over promotion-bound Queens Park Rangers at Hillsborough in March 2014, when Atdhe was the last Owls player to leave the field at half-time, receiving a particularly warm ovation from the home crowd for his efforts. Stuart Gray’s side took their much more expensively assembled opponents apart that night and a French full-back was in great form in the blue and white.
It was this former Manchester City youngster who Atdhe would have alongside him to record a cover of a song with, although his choice comes more from a mischievous standpoint rather than for any vocal ability the lightning-quick left-sider has.
“I would choose Jeremy Helan – any song, no problem! He never sang and he hates it, so that’s why if I could choose I would take him!”
Audio: Atdhe picks his SWFC teammate for a song cover
Football continues to change and, in truth, it is difficult for many followers of the game to feel a sense of empathy with players in and around the highest levels, due largely to the high salaries. As Atdhe began his English football journey he was very much an unproven player in the Championship and was out to show what he could do, but he was in very different surroundings as he was about to turn 24 and even with a good understanding of English it required some getting used to.
In challenging circumstances we all need someone to help us along and Atdhe found some common ground with a couple of his teammates, with a former Dutch international then arriving in December 2013 and striking up a swift understanding with him.
“To be honest, it was very difficult because the football mentality and philosophy is completely different to the Europe mentality. It doesn’t mean that it’s better but you have to adapt.
“A lot of things are different and you have to adapt, but 100% it’s not easy. When I first came here, to be honest, Giles Coke, he’s not here now, but he helped me a lot.
“I was on my own here and we did a lot of things together, also with (Jacques) Maghoma. Then Glenn (Loovens) came and obviously he speaks Dutch, which is a little bit similar to German, and it’s normal for the foreign players to stick together a bit.”
Understanding differences in people and their respective backgrounds in relation to your own is infinitely valuable and the world would be far less intriguing if everyone’s minds and ways of living were the same. It can also be said of football and sometimes you don’t even have to cross international borders to appreciate that, although Atdhe has witnessed first-hand how countries’ ideals and philosophies on the game vary.
Finishing 8th in the Turkish Süper Lig with Eskişehirspor two seasons ago, one of his teammates was ex-West Bromwich Albion and Fulham forward Diomansy Kamara. While with the ‘Red Lightnings’, Atdhe lived in the northwest of Turkey and prior to that had worked his way up in Austria to represent the biggest name in the country in Rapid Vienna, so it was quite a contrast for him when he came to play on these shores.
“In England the supporters are different from (the rest of) Europe. I don’t want to say they are not as fanatic as them but just the fan culture is different.
“For Rapid Vienna, you have ultras, real ultras. They sing for 90 minutes non-stop; you win, you lose, they sing.
“When we played at home, you couldn’t even talk to your own teammate because you don’t hear them; it’s that loud, but for 90 minutes. In England, the stadiums are quieter sometimes; (the fans) come and they watch.
“It doesn’t mean they don’t love the club; it’s just the difference, different culture. Sometimes if there’s nothing happening in the game or it’s in the midfield, maybe it looks like a friendly game, and in Rapid Vienna and in Turkey it’s not like this.”
As his colourful quote in his post-match Radio Sheffield interview last season said, Atdhe is not the kind of player who doesn’t care when he misses a chance. Those who play with heart have a way of striking up a connection with supporters and Wednesdayites have found plenty to like about the man some refer to as ‘Dave’.
The nickname, which was also given to the club’s former striker Guylain Ndumbu-Nsungu, comes from the difficulty a few people have in pronouncing Atdhe’s full or last name. It is a small thing but has seemed to give some enjoyment to fans, so did word of this ever reach the man himself?
“Yeah, I heard about it but I don’t like it, to be honest, just because it’s not my name. I have a name for a reason and if I would call you another name would you be happy?
“It’s everybody’s choice, but I don’t think it’s nice.”
Audio: Atdhe’s thoughts on his ‘Dave’ nickname
As arguably any Sheffielders will concur with, there is a distinctive charm about the Steel City and it has struck a chord with numerous Wednesday players who have come from overseas, as the likes of Niclas Alexandersson, John Harkes and Frankie Simek have discussed on here before. Speaking as we glanced around us at the glorious spring weather, Atdhe described how he likes the ‘more quiet’ charm of Sheffield and gave some thoughts on meeting Owls fans in his free time around the city.
“Yeah, of course I’m a big person so maybe they recognise me quicker but I haven’t got any problem with that and I appreciate this. Of course it’s a nice feeling when you can see that you have done something good.
“Sheffield – when the sun shines it looks even better!”
As touched upon, Atdhe moved to Austria with his mother and siblings when he was particularly young, while the rest of his family remained in his birthplace of Kosovo. They were there as the near-16-month Kosovo War broke out in 1998, keeping in contact with Atdhe and the others by phone on a daily basis and assuring them they were safe, despite the terrifying television footage that suggested otherwise.
He is proud of his heritage and where he was born but wants to represent Austria at senior international level due to growing up there and going on to play for the country from Under-17s through to Under-21 level. Offering some insight into what matters most to him, he shares his affection for the Austrian capital and his former home city.
“I wouldn’t change Vienna for one city in Europe because it’s really, really nice for me. It has a lot of history, a lot of things to do, and you see a lot of tourists there.
“Most of the time when we are off I go to see my family because that’s priority number one for me. Family, they like you in good or in bad times and they don’t care if you have a good or bad game because they see you in a different way, so they are the most important thing in life.
“Other than that, not really much because when I go on holiday I have to really relax and not think too much about football because I think the season is long enough.”
Audio: Atdhe on what SWFC means to him, differences in fans and what he’s learned in England
Keeping his composure from the penalty spot in two successive home victories over Middlesbrough, as well as doing the same to knock Burnley out of the Capital One Cup, Atdhe has also come up with some decisive goals from open play. His second of the day against Blackburn at Hillsborough last season rescued a 3-3 draw in stoppage time, while he netted a late winner at Wigan in December and a 93rd-minute equaliser at Rotherham in March before Kieran Lee’s dramatic clincher.
He was at it again in injury time in the season finale at Watford, giving Wednesdayites a big moment to end the season on and becoming a hero to Bournemouth fans as he handed the Championship title to the Cherries at the expense of the already-promoted home side. At 6 foot 6, Atdhe is understandably looked upon as someone to come up with headed goals and although an increase in this area of his output is a target for next season he did manage to score five this way in 2014/15.
His goal at 2014 Premier League champions Manchester City in the FA Cup in January would have earned a replay if not for James Milner’s crushing last-gasp winner after his earlier leveller, but he gave the thousands of Owls supporters at the Etihad a moment to savour regardless. Although still just 25, he is acutely aware of the pace at which the picture changes in football and the successes and struggles from his time in England so far have shaped him into a much more enlightened person in that respect.
“It’s not easy to come from abroad somewhere and when you are on your own. You have to fight for yourself, but in a positive way, and that makes you wiser and also stronger.
“In a positive way, now I’m in the third year away from Austria and I think I changed 180 degrees as a person, or maybe more. I think in a better way; more ruthless maybe, but it’s what you need in this sport.
“Sometimes in football, it can go quickly, up and down. When you’re down, it’s hard to find somebody.”
A player with spirit in abundance, his charge from the sideline to celebrate Chris Maguire’s 97th-minute winner against Barnsley with the whole team last February made many smile. There was also the frenetic celebratory scene in the aforementioned Rotherham victory that he (and of course, physio Paul Smith) was right in amongst and these kinds of memories won’t fade for Atdhe.
“Sheffield Wednesday gave me the opportunity to play in England and this is my first club here so this will always be in my heart. That’s the way I play; I always give the maximum I have and I wear this shirt with pride.
“This is for me the most important thing because I see it as an opportunity here. That’s why I try to give everything always for them and for myself as well of course.
“Especially, I just want to win a game. It doesn’t matter how, whoever scores, whatever, I just want to go off the pitch as a winner.
“I think maybe this is what they appreciate about me and this is how I am and how my personality is. I will not change wherever I am; I will always be the same.”
As a fan, Atdhe is someone you can really root for. You want him to succeed that bit more because he gives it everything, doesn’t take his position as a player for granted and has some genuine footballing quality in his armoury. When he arrived at Wednesday in 2013 he talked about promotion, and although it’s been a protracted progression since, there is a feeling of a much better chance for the club ahead of his third season as an Owl.
As we wrap up, Atdhe is the latest to take on the concluding question that players from around the world have answered on here in recent years. He looks back on his time in the game and names the career teammates who would be alongside him in his 5-a-side line-up, giving himself even more goalkeeping riches than Wednesday boss Stuart Gray has at his disposal!
“The goalkeeper, to be honest I played with three very good ones – (Keiren) Westwood and (Chris) Kirkland here, and (Ruud) Boffin at Eskişehirspor. I’ll tell you the defender – Diego Angelo from Eskişehirspor.
“He’s a Brazilian central defender, can play out from the back, never tries to shoot the ball away and always tries to find the midfield player. If he changes his style he’s not as good, so if he comes here he needs to come to a team who plays football, like Bournemouth; they are at the top of the table and obviously they are playing the best football.
“For a small-sided game, I will take Jacques Maghoma. He’s our best assist (provider); he has eight or nine and is in the top five in the league I think.
“Out of these assists I think he’s given me eight. I understand what he’s like and I think he knows me also; I think we played some great football this season, linking up.
“In a small-sided game, I will choose him always in my team. For a striker, I think I will put René Gartler, who I played with at Rapid Vienna and he scored the winner against Aston Villa (Europa League, August 2010).
“Now he’s in Germany playing (at SV Sandhausen) and he’s a very close friend of mine. I choose him just because his technique is very good and he plays good in a small-sided game.
“The goalkeeper is still missing? I think it’s a very hard decision for our manager to choose between our two goalkeepers but Westy (Keiren Westwood) had an unbelievable season.
“I’ll switch between the three for each game!”
To catch each of these interviews, you can follow me on Twitter: @chris_brookes