Lewis, let’s start by looking at the season generally. It’s been one to remember, right?
We knew we had assembled a good squad, with a good mix of exciting young players and experienced pros, but where we currently are – challenging for a place in Europe – speaks volumes for the way the players have performed this season. We’ve got our highest points tally since coming into the Premier League, reached our highest position, and we’ve done all this despite having a change of manager and playing style during the season, so I couldn’t be prouder of the lads.
To lose Graham Potter and his coaching staff in September couldn’t have been easy…
It came as a shock as none of us saw it coming. One minute we’re preparing for the Bournemouth game, after a good win against Leicester, the next minute he’s gone. It left a bit of a vacuum but that’s where the senior players needed to step up to the plate, to provide some stability and continuity, while reassuring the younger players who had only known Graham at the club. Crofty [Andrew Crofts] also came over from the U21s, which was important because he was totally familiar with our style of play, while Shannon Ruth, Nick Stanley and Adam Lallana, who stepped in despite having his own injury issues at the time, did a great job as well.
That game was postponed due to the sad passing of The Queen, but during that mourning period, Roberto De Zerbi came in. Can you remember your first session with him?
We were so impressed with what he had to say, his passion for the game, and the way he wanted us to play. With the Palace game also postponed and the international break that followed, it gave us a nice bedding-in period together. He got to have a closer look at the players while we began to take on board what he wanted from us. It was different to what we’d been used to with Graham, there was more jeopardy to our game, but the lads all bought into it and we were really enjoying the sessions laid on. We knew the club had appointed a top-quality coach and we were just looking forward to the rest of the season.
It took us six games to get our first win under Roberto. Was that a concern?
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Not really, because we were playing well in those games, playing some really good football, but just not getting it over the line. We knew that with this philosophy Roberto had instilled in the team, the results would come – and we got that first win against Chelsea which was, of course, one of the highlights of the season at the Amex. With Graham and his coaching staff returning, we always knew the atmosphere would be incredible, and we managed to put in a performance to match. It was a win that gave us so much confidence and we never looked back.
Indeed, we won three successive games, but just as you were getting going the World Cup came. Was that a frustration?
It was a strange time to have this extended break just when we were getting into our stride. We had a couple of weeks off with our families, then it was back, putting in some hard work on the training ground before a warm-weather break in Dubai – which was very welcome given how cold it was back in the UK! We took some of the U21s with us and it was good to see them integrate so well into the squad. Whether it’s the young players already in our squad or those who have trained with us from the U21s, it’s clear we’ve got some really talented players coming through, which bodes well for the future.
We were well represented at the World Cup, with Alexis Mac Allister obviously having the time of his life!
It was amazing to see him flourish as the tournament went on. He looked so at home on that stage, performing alongside Messi, and we were all willing him on to go all the way. He was integral to Argentina’s success, and I was absolutely made up to see him lift the trophy. The welcome he received when he returned to the club was so well deserved and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer, more humble guy. It shows how far we have come as a club that we have a World Cup winner in our ranks, with Moises, Pervis, Jeremy, Rob, Kaoru and Leo all representing their countries in Qatar as well.
A season has its low points as well as its highs, so how sad was it to see Enock Mwepu forced to retire?
It came as a big shock and we were absolutely gutted. Not only is Enock a fantastic footballer, he’s also a lovely guy and had become a big part of our dressing room. Sadly, we never got to see him reach his full potential at the club, but health always has to come first, and I just wish him and his young family well for the future. Once things settle down, I’m sure he still has a lot to offer the game and we’re all looking forward to seeing him at the club again soon.
You mentioned the Chelsea win earlier – so what has been your favourite game of the season?
It’s so hard to just pick one this season. We did the double over Chelsea, with that fantastic goal from Julio Enciso at Stamford Bridge the highlight that day, while we’ve also beaten Liverpool and Manchester United twice. The atmosphere when Alexis’s penalty went in at the Amex against United was unreal, up there with the best I’ve heard it, while it was also a sweet moment to win at Old Trafford for the first time on the opening day of the season. That result set the tone for the season ahead – with the momentum carrying over from our good end to last season.
And, of course, there was the win at Arsenal recently…
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I thought our overall performance that afternoon was up there with our very best – and epitomised everything that’s good about our play under the gaffer. We soaked up pressure when we needed to in the first half and then really took the game to Arsenal in the second half. There were some immense performances all over the pitch and it again showed that no matter who the opposition is, we’ll play on the front foot, with bravery and with confidence.
It was also our second win there this season, but our trip to the other half of north London was more frustrating, with the VAR decisions, right?
The Spurs defeat was so tough to take. I made my frustrations clear on the day and we just hope that with Howard Webb now settled in at the PGMOL, we’ll start to see these controversies eradicated. There’s so much at stake in the game at this level, and the fans pay their hard-earned money to watch us play, so we want to see VAR implemented correctly. Hopefully that will be the case moving forward.
How did you enjoy our FA Cup run?
Well, I enjoyed it until the end of extra-time! To see our fans pack out Wembley again for another semi-final, with that sea of blue and white flags, was something I’ll never forget. I don’t think anyone could argue that we deserved our place in the final given the way we played and the chances we created against [Manchester] United, but that’s football – sometimes you don’t always get what you deserve. Penalties are always a lottery; there always has to be that person who misses and that person who scores the winner. It’s just a horrible way to lose, especially on a stage that big.
You were the first to console Solly after his miss…
As I say, someone has to miss and unfortunately on this occasion it was Solly. I felt his pain because we’d been on the same journey together with the club for all these years, but I also told him he had nothing to feel bad about. He has been absolutely fantastic for us this season, clearly his best season for the club, and if it wasn’t for his contribution, we wouldn’t be in the position we are in now.
Manchester City – worthy champions for you?
They are an incredible team, so strong in every position, so fluid in the way they play, and, of course, they have Erling Haaland in attack. While Arsenal did well to push them for so long, they were always going to come through for me. They have the ability, the experience, and the desire to keep winning and keep hitting new heights.
We have qualified for Europe for the first time, how good does that feel?
It feels good! And I think it’s the next logical step for us as a squad and a club. Personally, I’m really looking forward to the experience of playing against different teams, different styles of football in different countries because even at 31, I’m still learning. I’ve already learnt a great deal since Roberto came into the club, but I know there is still more that I can learn. But looking at it more generally, the club has come such a long way in my time here. I would never have thought, when I made my debut, that one day we’d be playing in Europe, so credit must go to the chairman, who has built an incredible club. To have been on this journey has been a pleasure.
Finally, do you have a message for the fans?
I’d just like to thank them for their fantastic support, both at the Amex and on our travels this season. It never ceases to amaze me the numbers we take away, especially on those long trips north, and in a cost-of-living crisis, I’m humbled by their support. At the Amex, I’ve also noticed it’s got even louder this season.
Enjoy the summer and we’ll see you all again in August – or in the United States if you’re joining us for pre-season!