Doucoure On Overcoming Setbacks And Ambition To Be 'Great Player For Everton'

In an interview that first appeared in Everton's matchday programme for the 237th Merseyside derby on 17 October, Abdoulaye Doucoure speaks about shifting perceptions around the Club, overcoming a “big, big blow” following his dream professional debut and the multiple motivations underpinning the midfielder’s ambition to become a “great player”...

Abdoulaye Doucoure was savouring the completion of his transfer to Everton when he was distracted by the buzz of his mobile phone.

A message from an unknown number stared back from the screen.

“I am very happy you have signed,” it read, “you are going to help us a lot”.

The sender, showing tremendous prescience, was Seamus Coleman.

“I was very surprised,” says Doucoure.

“It was the first time I have known the captain of a team do that.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is a great club’.”

Straight after putting pen to paper, Doucoure sat in the media room at Everton’s USM Finch Farm training headquarters and declared he was “at the top of my career… mentally and physically, I feel at my best”.

The Frenchman is 27 and coming to the boil. It is relevant that he believes Everton provides a “great platform” for his ambition to break into the world champion France squad.

Doucoure arrived at Everton last month at the conclusion of a breathless four days, which began with Brazil international Allan coming from Napoli and featured the daring capture of a global superstar with a point to prove in James Rodriguez.

Are Everton under Carlo Ancelotti, then, a far cry from a final bridge to the elite?

More a talented footballer’s final destination?

“Exactly,” sounds Doucoure.

“Previously, maybe people thought, ‘There is a top six, with Everton just behind’.

“But now Everton is in the top six, it is a top club in the league.

“It is signing top, top players like James and Allan and they have come here to achieve something.

“Everton are growing up.

“We have a strong squad with players in great form and we are competing with the biggest teams.”

Abdoulaye Doucoure wore his first two major setbacks lightly.

The third substantial bump in the road, which was a “big, big blow”, came precisely 21 days after scoring a trademark Doucoure goal for Rennes against Stade Brest in April 2013.

Only nobody knew it was trademark Doucoure because this was his senior debut.

He’d long been angling for a playing opportunity and unleashed his pent-up frustration with a driving run through the middle of the field, finishing by skipping past a challenge and rifling the ball left-footed into the roof of the net.

“It was a big, big emotion, a little point to the manager,” says Doucoure.

“He didn’t trust me in the beginning.

“I was raging a bit because he wasn’t selecting me.

“When I scored, it was, ‘Look, I can do that’.

“You don’t know you can do it until you have the chance, it was instinct.

“In training I was good and for six or seven months. I was waiting to just have a place on the bench.

“But I was put straight in the starting XI and it was a big opportunity to show people I could do it.

“It was a great goal.”

Three weeks later – in his fourth match, at AC Ajaccio – the 20-year-old Doucoure damaged the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

The injury prompted a meaningful shift in Doucoure’s approach to his profession and it is fair to surmise he is better off for it.

His response is testament to Doucoure’s character but the player doesn’t hide from the mental battle he encountered.

He suffered the same injury in the same knee three years earlier – soon after going to the European Under-17 Championship with his country but before being tied to professional terms at Rennes.

“The first injury felt big for a young player, especially because I was due to sign my contract,” says Doucoure.

“But the club trusted me and my recovery was very good.

“It helped develop my mental strength and signing a contract after that problem was a real boost.

“But the second injury was a big, big blow.

“The biggest blow of my career.

“One time is hard, two times is very hard.

“Especially when you are young.

“I had started so well and almost straight away had to stop.

“I had to be very strong mentally to stay on top.

“I went to a specialist centre for cruciate ligament repair and it was good for my head to go away.”

Today, Doucoure is back in that USM Finch Farm media auditorium where he spoke his first words as an Everton player.

The angular Frenchman’s pink tracksuit top illuminates the dimly-lit room.

Between his white training socks, pulled high and taut, and the hem of his shorts is twofold visible evidence of Doucoure’s last brush with injury.

The trace of a scar on his knee is surrounded by extraordinary leg muscles, formed and honed after falling under the wing of his cousin, Ladji.

Ladji is 10 years Abdoulaye’s senior and a gold medallist in both the 110m hurdles and 4x100m relay at the 2005 World Athletics Championships.

“I lived with him and his family in Paris [while rehabilitating],” begins Doucoure.

“When he was hurdling, he had lots of injuries.

“He told me I needed to take care of my body and gave me lots of advice.

“I began to notice more about my body and realised I had some weaknesses I needed to correct to avoid more injuries.

“I still do the routines I started with Ladji.

“You need your body to perform, you need to keep doing your gym work and treatment.

“When you are young, you think, ‘No, it is nothing, I won’t do the gym, I will go home’.

“You don’t take it too seriously.

“The two injuries helped me realise how important my body was – and I have had no problems since.”

Doucoure’s first setback?

That came when he was 14 and wasn’t selected from trials to attend the elite academy at France’s Clairefontaine national football centre.

“That was hard,” confirms Doucoure.

“It is the dream of all the young boys in Paris to go there.”

That Doucoure was so close to an invite was remarkable – that he was promptly asked to join the academy at Rennes even more so.

He had been playing 11-a-side football – originally as a striker – for all of three years.

Doucoure was 11 before mum Benta allowed the second youngest of her eight children to join the football team in Les Mureaux, the small town of roughly 33,000 people in the north-western suburbs of Paris where Doucoure was raised.

His Malian parents moved to Paris around 20 years before Abdoulaye was born and visit their homeland annually.

Every summer, Doucoure returns to France for time with his mum and dad and he is “very, very close” to his seven siblings.

“In an African-origin family all brothers and sisters are very close,” explains Doucoure, who visited Mali aged three and is planning a longer trip with his wife and children.

“But we were very competitive,” he laughs.

“I was the guy who would always fight and respond to my brothers and sisters.

“I never agreed with them. But it is okay now!

“I still speak to them for advice.”

Doucoure’s oldest brother was football daft and had posters slapped across his bedroom walls.

“He got me interested in football… and is probably the reason I love football as much as I do,” says Doucoure.

But until mum relented and allowed Abdoulaye to cross the busy road to OFC Les Mureaux, he was limited to “five-a-side matches in school and games in the garden with my friends”.

“People were aware I was good,” says Doucoure.

“They went to my mum and said, ‘Let him play, he can be a professional’.

“When I was playing outside, they were telling me I was a great player.”

Doucoure channelled his athletic prowess into winning cross country races for his school.

“If I kept at it I could have been professional and, maybe, done something in athletics,” he says.

PE teacher Mickael Pellen, however, doubled up as a scout for Ligue 1 Rennes and following Doucoure’s aborted Clairefontaine trial recommended his pupil to the Breton club.

Doucoure was 14 when he moved 285 miles west to Rennes’ training centre where he would combine football with his studies.

He left Les Mureaux with his parents’ counsel ringing in his ears but fuelled by the aim of changing his family’s life.

“You start playing football purely for fun,” says Doucoure.

“But when you start to earn money, you can help your mum and dad and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles.

“It was one of my main goals and I was very happy I could do it.

“I still help them a lot and it is a great thing for me.

“Leaving home was difficult initially but I had friends and good people around me at Rennes. I was very happy.

“The main thing my parents said was to take my studies seriously, in case something stopped me in football.

“There was a school in Rennes’ training centre and gaining my baccalaureate (France’s secondary education qualification, acquired around the age of 18) was my main target.

“I was already professional when I got it but I wanted my ‘bac’ before I started to play football.”

Doucoure is consistently shifting his aims.

“My motivation today is to become a great player,” he continues.

“To play in a top team and to keep helping my family.

“To be professional and stay in the starting XI every week.”

In childhood, Doucoure “dreamt of being on TV with my mum and dad watching me… and playing for a famous club in the Premier League”.

Doucoure is speaking as he prepares for his first Merseyside derby – “You know as soon as you come to Everton what it means, it was one of my favourite games to watch and it will be great to be involved” – and an ongoing flurry of activity is indicative of how he realised both ambitions.

He has spoken to the Premier League’s own television channel and a broadcaster from his homeland.

Additionally, mum and dad will be able to catch their son on screen in Sweden and Poland after interviews with reporters from those countries.

The wall separating Doucoure from a small office is powerless to resist the booming voice and resonant laugh of Duncan Ferguson, talking over Zoom to a national newspaper.

“It is fine,” shrugs Doucoure of his media duties, as he sinks into a chair away from the camera equipment being busily dismantled in the centre of the room.

“I don’t mind it at all.”

He is comfortable saying out loud that Premier League matches often hinge on the confrontation in his domain – the midfield where Doucoure and Everton colleagues Andre Gomes and Allan – along with James and Richarlison – use Spanish to communicate.

Still, the young Doucoure idolised Brazilian goal-machine Ronaldo and silky France striker Thierry Henry.

“I love attacking players, they score goals and… are the players people like to watch,” he says.

At 6ft 4in and cut from granite, Doucoure is not a man with whom you’d rush to take issue.

But every time he steps on the field he contradicts his own view.

There can’t be many sights more joyous in football than that of Doucoure in full flight.

Among an endangered species of box-to-box midfielders, he sources as much joy from throttling opposition attacks as he does unpicking teams at the other end of the pitch.

On debut at Tottenham Hotspur, Doucoure dashed back to dispossess a nonplussed Lucas Moura, who was poised for a run at goal.

Spurs next saw the ball when they were fishing it out of their net.

“Seamus said to me, ‘We scored because of you’,” says Doucoure.

Against Brighton & Hove Albion last time at Goodison, Doucoure’s feather-lite touch from the byline spun the ball across goal for James to score.

When he came to England with Watford in January 2016 – he rejected a move to Vicarage Road the previous summer because his wife was pregnant with the couple’s first child, named after his mother, and “family comes first every time” – Doucoure’s technique, power, intelligence and lung-capacity remained wrapped up and stored away as one of the Premier League’s best-kept secrets.

He was immediately loaned to Granada in Spain, which was “a little bit of a surprise but I accepted it”.

The following season Doucoure waited until New Year’s Day 2017 – his 24th birthday – for a first league start.

A loan move back to France with Lorient collapsed at the eleventh hour of the summer 2016 transfer window.

“It was very hard, to be honest,” confirms Doucoure. “There was a lot of uncertainty.

“We came to a new country and you don’t settle well when you don’t play and don’t feel comfortable.

“Luckily, I had my new child. It was good for me to come home and keep my family safe.

“But mentally it was hard.

“I asked myself if I’d made a good choice.

“I saw the players in front of me and thought, ‘I can do better than them’.

“But I wasn’t disappointed when the move to Lorient didn’t happen.

“I thought, ‘Maybe, God did this for a reason’. And it worked… after my first start, everything changed.”

His 17 goals and 12 assists in 129 Premier League games for Watford added to 75 Ligue 1 matches for Rennes which yielded 12 goals and 13 assists.

Doucoure reached domestic cup finals with both clubs. He won five and drew four of his 15 games with Granada, who survived in La Liga by a solitary point.

“I improved a lot with Watford,” says Doucoure.

“I was the main guy in the middle.

“Javi Gracia [manager from January 2018-September 2019] told me, ‘You are running for the others, run for yourself first’.”

Patrick Vieira and fellow ex-Arsenal midfielder Abou Diaby had superseded Ronaldo and Henry as Doucoure sought references for his new position.

“I watched them go box-to-box and realised I had the capacity to do it as well,” he says.

Back in Les Mureaux, the children want to be Abdoulaye Doucoure.

When the town’s spartan facilities and busy road ganged up on Doucoure to stop him playing football he devoted a school project to proposing new facilities.

Invited to present his ideas to the town’s mayor, he persuaded the official to act.

“When I am home, I train there and help with some events,” says Doucoure.

“I helped them buy more equipment and I meet the kids and give them advice.”

He is already settled in his new city – “It is a great area, the people are really nice and we are very happy” – cherishing time with his young family and exploring Dunham Massey’s deer park.

“At Everton,” he continues, “everyone in the Club is so welcoming, advising me where to live, telling me places to go’.

“It has been a happy surprise.”

Doucoure casts his mind back one more time to that second injury at Rennes more than seven years ago.

“My family helped me a lot, my faith as well,” he says.

“I knew I was going to come back.

“I said, ‘I cannot finish like that, I have too much to give, too much to prove’.

“I started to make an impact immediately after I came back.

“I played a tournament for Under-21 teams at the end of the season and was voted best player.

“Then I just kept going.”

Should Abdoulaye Doucoure keep going the way he is, his Everton captain’s welcome message will soon read like a masterclass in understatement.