Speaking exclusively to Get French Football News, 28-year-old Hearts defender and Frenchman Clevid Dikamona reflected on his journeyman career that now sees him performing for one of Scotland’s biggest sides.
You joined Hearts at the beginning of September. How do you find yourself there?
I signed in Israel (Bnei Sakhnin] for this season, but after the pre-season, my family joined me there and we had a few problems with them settling, for example finding French or English-speaking schools for my daughters, finding somewhere to live, my wife didn’t feel too comfortable there because of the political climate – or at least the image of it in France. So it was complicated to integrate well there and also in terms of the team, even if I got on well with the other players, I had difficulties with the philosophy of the directors and the way they ran the club.
What people don’t know is that I signed initially and ripped up the contract because I wasn’t happy with how it happened. Then they persuaded me that they really wanted to sign me so I re-signed – the coach himself convinced me, and the sporting director who put things in place so it would go well. But when my family joined me it became more complicated. So with my wife we came to the decision to end the contract.
So why Edinburgh, Scotland?
Simply because it happened – it was a miracle. I decided with my wife to end the contract on a Wednesday. I ended it on the Thursday morning. I packed my bags to leave on Thursday evening. During that day I’d asked my agent to look into other options – it was a bit complicated because it was already end of August / beginning of September. But it was a miracle because the offer already came in Thursday evening. So when my agent phoned with good news – offer from Hearts – I accepted without even asking about the salary as I told myself the timing was too perfect to be just a coincidence.
So it was fate?
Exactly. I’m a religious man and the timing was so perfect that I thought only God could arrange for things to happen so well, so quickly. And that’s also why, despite not having been here for long, I appreciate my club hugely. Because I tell myself that I’m very lucky to be at such a club at this stage in my career.
Talking of coincidences, I don’t know how it was sold to you but Berra and Souttar are normally the two starting CBs but both are injured so you’re playing a lot. When you signed, did you expect to be playing so much?
No, I knew that I was signing to be back-up for injured defenders. And Hearts were top, were going well, so I knew that I was joining a group that was already well set and so it would be hard to be a starter straight away. But yes, then fate happened that the two starting CBs got injured at the same time which meant that I had to come straight in and play regularly, I think well too. But no, I had told myself that I was arriving at a big club in Scotland, and that I would have to work extremely hard to get to the level of my team-mates and fight for a place.
But I’ve got to an age where of course I want to play but I’ve stopped thinking from an individualistic point of view, now I think about the collective. I prepared myself to give myself totally to the collective – so if the team needs me to be a starter I’ll do everything to start, and if the team is better with John (Souttar) or Christophe (Berra) on the pitch and me as substitute, that won’t change anything – I’ll still give my best and I know that will be beneficial for the team because I know that by me giving my all it will push my team-mates to give their all to keep their place.
And for me, it won’t affect that the fact that I’ll always be behind the team because I know that at some point, by performing well, I’ll get game time and contribute to the team’s success and I take pleasure from that.
I know that your coach has already experimented with 2 and 3 at the back, so even when the injured guys come back, do you think there is a good chance that you could keep your place?
That’s my objective. I’m a competitor and hope to play as many matches as possible and to help my team. If the team is doing better with me on the pitch that’s great. But I’m not focused on that. What is important to me is working hard every day to help the team perform well whenever I’m called up or on the pitch.
You’re already a fan favourite. There was the famous double-nutmeg vs Rangers and the fans also appreciate your Twitter game. How are you finding your relationship with the Hearts fans?
As I explained, I quickly felt good here because of the circumstances of my arrival at the club. Not all the fans know about it, and have asked themselves why I was immediately so committed to the club, they may have been suspicious about the way I signed for the club, after terminating my contract in Israel and the fact that I signed so soon after.
But all of that meant that I felt comfortable straight away and developed a good relationship with the fans. And I must thank them for that because it wasn’t easy. They didn’t know me, but from the little they’ve seen they’ve “adopted” me, as have my team-mates. So yeah, the supporters are unbelievable and I thank them for all that.
As for my Twitter presence, it’s great to be able to reply to fans’ questions as much as possible. But they are above all fans who support their team, so the main thing is to meet their expectations on the pitch, not just on Twitter.
If only the offside hadn’t been called in the last minute vs Hibernian [Dikamona’s goal was disallowed] you would already be a bona fide Hearts legend. Even before that you had hit the bar. It was of course a controversial match, with Neil Lennon being hit by a coin thrown from the crowd. How did you find the atmosphere, compared to any other derbies that you’ve played it?
The atmosphere was – well I’ve played in derbies before but nothing like that intensity, not of that importance. When I was at Caen we regularly played derbies vs Le Havre, which were important for me because I played for both clubs. But no, I’ve never known such intensity in a derby. And the fact that I’ve had the opportunity to play in that match – yes, it was unbelievable.
The intensity was great, the public played their part – even if there were a couple of incidents – unfortunately it’s the kind of thing that shouldn’t happen but does in derbies. But we behaved well on the pitch, nothing went overboard and we focused on the essential – playing football – and that is what I want to retain from the match, what I really appreciated, along with sharing it with the fans who were behind us till the end. It was really great.
But all that said, I’d have preferred the win! It’s true that we played well, but I would have preferred playing less well and winning, and I’m sure the fans would agree. It’s great to play a derby – it’s better to win it.
And you scoring a last-minute winner would have been the perfect scenario!
I’m a defender. My main role is to defend, even if I’m in a team which has a good scoring record from set-plays – and I should be doing better in that area, and scoring a bit more. But I’m still a defender and if we had won the match with another player scoring, that would have pleased me too. But yeah, I’d have preferred my goal not to have been disallowed!
There are some fans who would love to see you play alongside Berra, as they see him as a pure no-nonsense defender, and you as not only a defender but also someone at ease on the ball, who can begin attacks?
In the last few matches I haven’t fulfilled my responsibilities in terms of the play – the coach has told me too, that I haven’t used the ball well. I think that defensively I’ve done my job, but I need to be able to re-find my serenity on the ball, and take responsibility in terms of play, for the team. I know I’m capable of doing so. If that means Christophe coming back, in order to relieve me of a little defensive responsibility and allowing me to push a little further forward, that’s great, but even without that I should be able to do it.
The whole team is going through a drop in form right now – five matches without a win, including a 5-0 defeat to Celtic. So based on what you just said, are you blaming yourself for that or is it a collective failing?
I’m a defender so, for example, if we concede five vs Celtic, I have to blame myself.
Although I wouldn’t have said that any of those goals were your fault.
No but I don’t think in those terms. I take the view that, say, if I’d used the ball better, then instead of Celtic being able to counter-attack, maybe we could have built an attack and gone forward. In these last few matches, speaking personally, what I’ve lacked is good use of the ball, which has led to loss of possession. Yes there are 11 of us on the pitch, but if I am not performing my job well, then I’m handicapping my team.
It’s up to each player to assess their own performance, but I look to re-assess after every match, and I think that if I do better in my job, it will be beneficial to the team. And as a central defender, I know that I have a big impact on the team’s result – if I perform well (even though I’m not alone in defence), I know that at worst we won’t concede and we’ll get a draw.
Overall though, it’s been a really positive start to the season. Have either you personally or the club set any objectives for the season?
When I arrived we were top of the league. Now we’re third behind Celtic and Rangers. But we knew that it would be hard as they’re two big teams. But in terms of objectives, although we haven’t spoken about it, I don’t think that we should hide: we’ve had a good start to the season, now it’s a bit tougher. But ideally we will take each match as it comes, give our all in each, and see where we are at the end of the season. We’ll get what we deserve to get, but in the meantime we have to give our all every match.
And for you, looking at your career, you’ve changed clubs quite regularly. Would you like to stay longer at Hearts?
Absolutely! I’ve got to an age where, for both myself and my family, I need some stability. Whether it’s my professional life or my family life, I need stability. And here at Hearts I have everything I need to be happy. I’m in an extraordinary club, with extraordinary fans, in an extraordinary city to welcome my family. I have everything I need to feel good, and now it’s up to me to do the necessary work on and off the pitch to persuade the club to keep me. It’s not for me to rest on my laurels.
This is really the first time (apart from feeling it a bit when at Sedan, but it was harder then, because we were in the lower divisions and I wanted to return to professional football), but today I really want to stay at the club. And as you said, throughout my career I’ve been looking for the club where I can be totally happy and I’ve finally found it, so I hope to be able to stay and I need to give everything for that to happen.
I’ll come back to your career but just want to ask how you find the city of Edinburgh?
It’s a beautiful city! For me it’s the perfect city because – I wasn’t brought up in Paris but I know it, and I’ve never liked the big capital cities where there is loads of movement everywhere, I’m not comfortable in cities like that. But in Edinburgh it’s a capital city and there’s everything you need to be happy, there’s greenery, there’s culture, like the castles, there’s the valleys around the city – it’s really a charming city.
And my family have quickly felt comfortable here and yeah, it’s a really pretty city that I’ve taken great pleasure in discovering, because I didn’t know it at all. But as soon as I arrived I quickly took the time to visit it, to find somewhere to stay so that my family could join me. And I was very pleasantly surprised.
You talk of the importance of your family being comfortable and happy. That brings me on to the fact that it seems like throughout your career, some things haven’t worked out and they’ve had nothing to do with the quality of football you were playing – at Le Havre there were differences with the directors, then you almost signed for English clubs – Sheffield Wednesday or Nottingham Forest – and it fell through because clubs couldn’t agree on fees.
Maybe sometimes fans forget that it is not always all about the football. So do you think that – going back to talking about fate – you’ve been the victim of bad luck?
I think that in all things you need luck. But I’m not going to hide behind that because you make your own luck. And maybe in the past I haven’t done the right things to help the luck go in my favour. With experience, things have gone better because I’ve given myself the means to succeed in spite of everything. For example, after playing in the National I had to drop down to the CFA2 (5th division) [with Sedan], and that really hit me hard, dropping so low. But then – and that’s how things have gone during my career – after arriving at Sedan I set the objective to climb the divisions again.
And for three years I had to change clubs each year to go up a level. I was with Sedan in the CFA2, then I had the chance to go back to the National with Le Poiré sur Vie, which I seized, even though I would have liked to have stayed at Sedan (there were internal things going on there which meant that I couldn’t stay – but again I’m not going to hide behind that because I wanted to get back to my best level).
Then off the back of my season at Poiré I had the chance to go to England, even if it was a League 2 team [Dagenham & Redbridge], but it was an opportunity I had to take because every footballer dreams of playing in the English league, especially when you’ve come from a background like mine where you’ve dropped to the French fifth tier. So I was happy to get into English football “through the back door”.
From a sporting point of view it was a difficult season because we were relegated. But as a personal and human experience it was great because I experienced London, I experienced English football and its fans’ enthusiasm, and it was excellent.
Then I had the chance to return to Ligue 2 with Bourg-en-Bresse. That went well because I arrived with a “second rate player” tag because I had come from the English fourth tier and France doesn’t know too much about that level and thinks it’s the equivalent of the CFA, which isn’t the case because it’s professional football.
But I accepted coming to France with that tag, and succeeded in imposing myself and becoming a first team regular, even if it was harder at the end because I lost form and those who came in played better and were better for the team – but that’s part and parcel of a player’s career.
I would have liked to give my family the stability of staying at Bourg for another year. But again I got the opportunity to go up another level by discovering the top flight in Greece [for Platanias]. I’d never played in a top flight and here I was given the chance to play against teams like Olympiakos, AEK Athens and Panathanaikos who are used to playing the great teams in Europe.
So I told myself that if I did well it could be a good thing for my career, and I think I was proven right as I played a lot of matches there. It’s true that it was for a club that knew that we were going to be struggling all season, but I still took that gamble because I was getting to the age where I had to take the opportunity to play in a top flight, I told myself it could be a springboard for me. And today I am at Hearts, which follows the logical progression of what I’ve done in recent years.
I was going to use the word logical too, because despite some incidences of bad luck, you can see a constant upward trajectory throughout your career, and now you’re in a top flight team where there is no danger of relegation, and a great chance for you and your family to put down some roots and be happy in Edinburgh…
That’s exactly right. Before coming here I spoke to the coach and he remarked that during my career I started high, then had some highs and lows, and for a while now I’ve been gradually going up in level, and so the logical progression was to go from a top flight team fighting against relegation to a top flight team fighting at the top of the table. That’s the logical next step and a reward for my hard work. It hasn’t been handed to me on a plate. I know my qualities – I know I’m not Thiago Silva or Marquinhos or the defender of all defenders. But I know that with the strengths that I have and with my hard work, I’ll be rewarded for my efforts.
So even when it’s difficult, like right now, I know it’s hard but I know what needs to be done to get back on track and that’s why I’m not worried. Whether it’s right now or in the future, I rarely worry – and it’s something that those close to me sometimes tell me off for – they say there are sometimes situations that you can’t recover from. But for me, despite the difficult situations in which I’ve found myself, I’ve always been able to tell myself “look what’s happened in the past and how you’ve still been able to get back on your feet and find a solution”.
That’s what has always happened and I know I owe it to my hard work – and to God, because I think that in this world it’s hard to walk alone, but I am lucky enough to be accompanied by my God, my faith, which helps me keep my chin up even in tough moments.
I’m also accompanied by my family, who are amazing, and I think that that is important. If we have solid foundations: a close, loving family and an ability to set yourself rules – not necessarily through religion, though for me, believing in God gives me rules – but trying to do good and be good to those around you – if you have those foundations and an exemplary behaviour and always give your best, then you’ll be rewarded.
So it’s tough right now because our results haven’t been good and our performances maybe don’t bode well, but it doesn’t prevent me having confidence for the future. And people might say “but he’s mad, they’ve just lost five matches”, but I say to those people let’s see where we are at the end of the season, and we’ll see. That’s what’s the most important – what happens in the end – if the ending is good, we forget what happened at the beginning and in the middle!
I just want to go back to the beginning of your international career – you played for France U18s and were also selected for France U19s. You played with the generation of Corchia, M’Vila, Guilavogui, Brahimi, Boudebouz. Did you already know at the time that they would reach the highest level?
Yes, clearly. For me, the best was Yacine Brahimi. I never really understood how come he didn’t become a success quicker and earlier. That’s football – I don’t make the rules! But yes, it was clear that some of them were going to get to the top level, that was for sure.
And at the time did you see yourself at the same level as them, did you see yourself going on to play for Porto, Seville?
Not necessarily. But certainly when you’re regularly being picked with them – because once I was first picked for the U18s, I was called up practically every time and didn’t miss a call-up – the first I missed was the most important, the U19 European Championship, which really hurt me psychologically – it was partly my fault, but also because things weren’t done correctly by my club at the time, Caen – but it’s mainly my fault because if I had been more strict, better performing, I may have been picked despite everything, despite things that should have been done in order for me to be picked, which weren’t… But anyway, that’s the past, it doesn’t matter. But yes, when you spend time alongside these players in the international set-up, and have the chance to play with them, you see yourself getting to the highest level quite quickly.
But at the same time, being called up for France U18s or U19s is not a guarantee of success and that’s what today’s youngsters must understand and what I didn’t understand at the time, and that’s why I fell behind – well not fell behind, everyone progresses at their own pace – but maybe that’s why, for me, instead of improving I regressed, and then had to do twice as much to now have the chance to be able to play alongside top flight players.
So it’s another lesson for young players today to learn?
Of course. When I see a player like Mbappé and what he’s doing at his age, I tell myself that of course he has great qualities, but it’s also an enormous amount of work, and I think you see that in the way he speaks, he has his head on his shoulders and he knows what he needs to do in order to succeed. And I think you have to work on that too – on the mental aspect – not just the physical or technical aspect. You need to be able to tell an 18-year-old: “It’s great that you have these qualities and today you’re at this level. But if you want to reach this level here, you have to prepare yourself mentally and above all you have to work for it. You have to work for it. And that’s where I was lacking when I was younger.”
But better late than never! Today I’m 28 and I’m not yet lost. I’ve still got a few good years in football ahead of me. It’s up to me to keep learning. I think that I can always improve – there are loads of things about my game to improve – and I have confidence in myself. I know what I need to work on and what I will work on, in order to keep progressing upwards.
But today I’m at an age where I’d like to keep progressing without needing to change clubs again, because here everything is in place to reach the heights of top level clubs, and if we finish in the top places this season, then next season we will have the chance to play in Europe and challenge ourselves against the biggest teams. But all of that only comes with hard-work – especially for me, so that I can match the level of my team-mates, and help them to raise their game too.
[Photo: Edinburgh Evening News]