21-year-old attacker Levi Lumeka lit up Ligue 2 for his first league appearance in gameweek 1, scoring a double on his debut for ESTAC Troyes – he sits down with Get French Football News for an extensive, exclusive interview and talks about life, death and everything in between.
N.B. This interview was conducted before the Ligue 2 campaign commenced.
So how’ve you been settling in?
Yeah it’s been fine. Obviously I speak French, so it’s not been too hard, and everyone in the team is kind. It’s like a family team, so it’s been quite easy for me to settle in. It’s only been around two weeks, but it’s been very welcoming. Everyone is nice; they really talk to me, it feels like I’ve been here for a long time, so it’s good in that way. It helps when you come from one country to another country.
It’s obviously not easy at times, you know, but I feel like they’ve made it so easy to fit in, and it helps on the pitch as you’re more comfortable. And the players are all calm, and if you make a mistake… it’s not like England. In England it’s a bit different. Like at Palace, in training, if you make a mistake, someone’s shouting at you. But here it’s like “go again, it doesn’t matter.” It’s been good.
Good, I’m glad to hear it. And that was a nice goal you scored in the friendly last week! (against Sedan)
Yeah, and I could’ve got another one on Saturday! But you know, good save from the keeper.
A good pre-season win for the team though against a side (Amiens) who are going to be a big rival this season.
Yeah, literally. Our first game of the season is on Monday, so that was a good start for us, for a pre-season game.
Ok, so going back to the beginning. What are your earliest football-related memories?
So, in terms of watching, obviously I always used to watch football. But from what I really remember, it was mostly the 2006/7 season when I really started actually focusing, and watching even more. I used to see a few games here and there, but what I really properly remember is the 2007 Champions League final… the 2006 [final] I don’t really remember. I’m an Arsenal fan, so obviously I’ve tried not to remember as much as I can! So it was 2007 when, I’d say, I started really watching football.
In terms of playing, I was at the David Beckham Academy (football school founded by David Beckham) at the start, and there are a few people from there that I’m still in contact with. They worked with the Brixton Recreation Centre, and they had connections with the likes of Chelsea and Fulham. I used to go there on a regular basis, and one time we had a game against Chelsea. I was pretty young, 8-9, and obviously I played well that game because, when I think about it…
I was actually playing against older players! But I didn’t realise it until one time someone said “oh yeah, he’s 13,” and I was 9! And I didn’t really take it in at the time, I was just playing. So I scored that game, and after the game Jim Fraser (assistant head of recruitment for Chelsea’s academy), spoke to my dad, and told me to come in the next day. And my dad was like “ahh, that’s going to be difficult because on Sundays we normally go to Church!”
But Jim told him, “look, this would be a good opportunity for him.” So I went to Chelsea the next day, and from then I started my trials, and that’s when I really started playing football, and went straight into the academy. But apart from the David Beckham Academy, and in terms of properly being in a team, I went straight into an academy at Chelsea at 9.
I guess that’s quite an unusual approach, to go from not really playing, to taking part in the David Beckham Academy, to then joining a club academy, and that being the first time that you really start playing in a team?
Yeah, it’s quite unusual. Luckily, I started early, because I’ve seen when players come from non-league, or not a full-time team, they come to a team in the Premier League, and it’s hard for them to adapt. Because it’s been years when they haven’t been in the system. But as for me, I was in the system early, and luckily for me, my first team was Chelsea, and as we know, Chelsea are a big club with a lot of coaches. So it was obviously good for me to start off my young career there.
Was there anyone else you played with at the David Beckham Academy who went on to make a career as a pro? Or were you the only one?
I don’t really remember anyone… One of my friends is still playing football, and was there with me, but other than that, I don’t really remember anyone else.
When you were growing up, who was your biggest influence as a player? Was there anyone you tried to imitate on the pitch, or aspired to be like? And who was your biggest influence off it?
The biggest influence was definitely my dad. He tried quite hard… whether it was for me to go to the David Beckham Academy… because the thing for me was, I liked playing football. But then, I remember one time, coming home from school, and there was football kit out, and my dad was like, “yeah, you’re going to go to David Beckham Academy.”
So he was the one who sorted all the stuff for me. He was bringing me to Brixton, and then to Chelsea. So I would definitely say it was my dad, he was the biggest influence. He was giving me advice from the age of 9. And sometimes, I never really understood it, because at 9 years old all you’re doing is thinking about playing! He was giving me advice that I was a bit too young to understand at that time, that I now understand.
And in terms of the pitch… I used to watch the likes of Ronaldinho, Ronaldo… and many great players. I tried to watch many good players, and learn every single thing from every good player, whether that would be Zidane, or Ronaldo… Zidane didn’t play in my position, but you could still learn something from him, you know. I used to watch quite a lot of different players on YouTube.
I actually read in an interview that you still watch a lot of videos of players, to learn from them. Is there anyone nowadays that you watch in particular?
Yeah. I watch [Eden] Hazard… I like the way he plays, and how he links up play – I’ve added that to my game now. When I was younger, I was more direct, but as I’ve got older, the game’s changed a bit, and I’ve tried to adapt. So now I’m adding more link-up play… [Raheem] Sterling as well, for his pace. So there are a lot of players that I look up to.
So moving to your time at Chelsea, speaking of looking up to those kind of players…
I know you were released from the academy at 14, so I’m assuming you weren’t that involved with the first team, but what was it like being around some of the biggest names in football? Going from the David Beckham Academy to being around that calibre of international? Did you get to speak to anyone much?
Ok, in terms of being involved, we used to be ball boys: the players used to pass us the ball, and we’d pass it back to them. I remember doing one with Lampard and Drogba! It was me, Eddie Nketiah and Declan Rice, we were ball boys that day. So that’s the only thing I can remember in terms of involvement.
But in terms of being around the Chelsea training ground… When I got there, they were just finishing off the new building that they built in like 2010. So they had the new training centre, and obviously the quality of players, the training, the pitches, the food, the coaching… Being around it, you could tell that you were in an environment where it was very serious. Even at the age of 9 or 10, it’s not a joke. We’re here to actually try and get somewhere. Normally at a young age, you’re mostly focused on playing and having fun. But the coaches we had, and how strict they were… Funnily enough, even the likes of the academy directors… It’s obviously normal for them to be integrating with the young players, but it was quite surprising just how much they did integrate with the young players.
When you’re an academy director, you’re mostly focused on the older players… Obviously I wasn’t sure what their roles were, but you’d expect them to focus on the ones that are coming up next. I was 9 years old, and Jim Fraser spoke to my parents, spoke to my dad, Darren Grace (head of local recruitment) as well. So they were good people, very good people. They made me feel comfortable, they knew our names…
Even stuff like, they knew that Chelsea was far for some people. It was an hour and a half from me, and whatever we spent on tickets and petrol, they used to give it back to us. So they were very good with us. They knew that we spent a lot of money to go there, and some people lived really far… Like Mason Mount, he lived in Portsmouth. So he had to travel there and back every day!
That’s nice, I guess, because you hear a lot about Premier League academies, about how competitive the environment is, so it’s reassuring to hear that at somewhere like Chelsea, they are taking the measures to look after the academy players, especially the young kids.
Given that you were talking about how intense it was, with the quality of the facilities and the coaching, did you feel that there was a lot of pressure on you to succeed there as a young player?
I wouldn’t say pressure, but the competition was there… Obviously we were young, and I never really used to know about how the contract stuff worked. Obviously I did as I got older. But they used to send a letter home saying, “you’ve got another year,” and it was like “oh… okay!” I wasn’t aware of the duration of the contract, when you sign and you’re 9 years old… They used to do it quite often! I remember I signed for the U9s one year, and then got another one year, then another. Then when you’re in the U12s, they give you either two or four years, and I got another two. As I got older, I realised how it worked.
But in terms of pressure… I would say a little bit, obviously because it’s Chelsea, the quality they have, and they’re winning titles in the first team. So for you to get into that first team, which is the aim at the end of the day, from when you’re 9 or 10, you know that there will be pressure. I remember one of my coaches, he was telling me that only a minority can actually play first-team football, and I think he said it was 1%!
Yeah, and me obviously being confident in myself, I knew that if it wasn’t at Chelsea, then it would be somewhere else. So I wouldn’t really say pressure, but it was good for all of us to be together. From a young age, we went to quite a lot of tournaments in different countries, whether it was Holland, Belgium, Italy… I remember with the U12s, I left school for five days to go to a tournament in Italy, with the likes of Roma and Inter, and obviously that helped to build us up as players. So a bit of pressure at times. Even though we were young, they were still expecting us to perform, and do well.
You mention a couple of the guys there, like Declan Rice and Eddie Nketiah who you came up through the Chelsea academy with, and then at the moment there are guys like Mason Mount who playing with the first team now.
What did you make of those guys at the time? Could you tell that they had a little bit of extra quality compared to others?
Yeah, for sure. They had the qualities from a young age. They were technically gifted, and performed quite well. There were quite a few talented players in that age group who made it out. A lot of us did perform. In terms of attackers, me and Eddie were some of the top goalscorers throughout our whole time there together. Our return for goals was pretty good! I remember I was scoring 50+ goals a year when I was with the U12s and U13s. I was constantly scoring goals. So I think we all knew our ability, but from a young age we showed that we all had a bit of quality in us, which was good!
Which of those guys impressed you most, and who do you back for the biggest things in terms of their career?
I can’t really specifically say who, but with the majority of them, you can tell that they’re in a good situation already, playing in the Premier League. So I think a lot of them have good chances, and all the best to them to get as far as they can, and win trophies and do well.
So then you went on to be released at 14. What was that like to deal with as a teenager?
It was tough. Obviously, me being there from a very young age… And obviously, as I was getting older… I wouldn’t say turning into a man, but getting older, and realising that I wasn’t going to get a contract there, that was upsetting, of course. So it was kind of hard for me.
When I found out… I do remember that I wasn’t too stressed, I knew my ability and I knew what I could do, so I knew that this was just a stepping stone for me, how the situation had turned out. I knew my ability, I knew I was capable of doing something, and I was confident that I would get another team.
And how long was it then before Palace came calling?
It was the same year… I think it was in March that they told us that we weren’t getting new contracts, and I went to Palace in April, so just like two months. I had a few clubs I could have gone to, and I went on trial to a few clubs: I went to Tottenham, to Arsenal… at Arsenal I scored in my first game there, against West Ham, and I remember them saying “we want you to come back,” but obviously there are quite a lot of players.
So me being realistic, I knew I didn’t have the time to wait, and I’m trying to be at a club as soon as possible. My dad had contact from Palace… so from there, we went to Palace. I played two games, I scored against Charlton and against Tottenham, got a few assists… So I really performed at a high level.
That must have helped with settling in?
Definitely. When you’re younger, you play against everyone. You play against Palace, Arsenal, everyone… so when you do go to these clubs, you know people a bit. So me going there was good, knowing one or two players, to a club that we liked with young players like me. They were easy-going at that time, so it was good.
So over the years at Palace, as you were coming through, there was a decent French contingent at the club.
Did you ever speak much with any of the French senior pros who were there around the time you made your debut for the first team? You had the likes of Yohan Cabaye, Mamadou Sakho, Loïc Rémy, Steve Mandanda…
I spoke mostly with Yohan. I had never had a conversation like that… one of my teammates did as he was a natural French speaker, and he’d grown up in Belgium. I understood French, but in terms of talking at that time, my French wasn’t too great. So I ended up speaking to Yohan. Pape Souaré too. He obviously isn’t from France, but spoke French, and we spoke a lot. But we spoke in training, and they were helping me while I was playing.
What was it like when you finally made your first team debut in the Premier League under Frank de Boer? What was that experience and the feeling like?
It was crazy to be honest! During pre-season, I wasn’t really with the first-team as much. I didn’t go on tour, or play in the majority of games… I didn’t play one game! So in the beginning it was upsetting, because during my time there I was the top goalscorer for the whole time, whether for the U15s, U16s… every year I was top goalscorer. So for me, knowing that normally, if you’re top scorer in the team… I’m not saying you’re gonna be first choice, but you have a strong chance of being with the first team. And so not being with the first team during pre-season, at first it was upsetting.
We played a matcdh against the first team, 11 vs 11, and they must have won like 10-0! But I had one of my best training sessions against them. I was going past players, they were calling me Speedy Gonzales! They were calling me stuff like that, because I was going past everyone. Even though we lost 10-0, I was causing them problems.
Normally, foreign managers can see talent from early. They see talent, and they take advantage. Frank de Boer only needed to see me for one training session, maybe two, for him to be like, “yeah, I’ll take him.” After that, the following week, I had a game with the 23s. So when I did come back the following week, and they were saying “Levi, you’re with the first team,” and I’m thinking “oh, okay!” And obviously me going there, not expecting anything, to playing against Pat van Aanholt, and playing quite well against him… from then, I was told that I was travelling for the game against Burnley.
So during the game, before I came on, Frank de Boer was telling me, “look, you played well against Pat in training, you’ve obviously done well, so that’s the reason I took you.” So it only took me two training sessions to show Frank de Boer what I can do. He’s a manager who has faith in young players, because he has the ability and the patience to take you on, and try to help you succeed.
But it was a weird feeling, because like I told you, I didn’t expect anything. I didn’t expect to travel, so me travelling already was a good sign, and being on the bench was a bonus. But for me to be the first sub to come on… It was like, “I’m coming on to change the game!” So for me, it was a bit like, “wow!”
When he told me to go and warm up, I was like, “me!?” He pointed at me, and I was shocked, because I didn’t expect him to pick me. There were other players there, Christian Benteke, and all the more experienced players… obviously he brought me on… after the game, it was a wonderful feeling. But me coming on was just like, “wow, I’m really playing in the Premier League!” It was something I’d been waiting for my entire life.
I’ve seen some footage from that game. You looked fairly comfortable, you were putting in some good crosses, so it seems like a decent debut!
Yeah, to be fair, a lot of players and a lot of fans have said I was decent for my first 30 minutes. I was a bit shocked! But obviously because of how quickly it came, I didn’t really have time to process everything. I think maybe if I’d had time to process the whole situation, maybe I could have had a better game… a way better game than I did, because I know what I can do.
And I guess it was a tough time for the team as well, because the first team were having some bad results, and were in a rough patch of form, which then meant that de Boer ended up getting sacked, which must have been a huge blow for your chances.
Because, as you say, he’s a manager who has a track record of bringing through young players, and clearly he’d seen something in you… and then Hodgson comes in who doesn’t have the best track record of bringing through young players.
Was that tough to accept? How did you deal with that in the aftermath?
Before the Burnley game, people were saying “good luck!” And all that, because if he doesn’t win this game, he’s gone. And when Hodgson came in, I was training with them in the beginning, and I played one cup game… but that period was kind of frustrating, because I literally finished top goal scorer again that year, with 14 goals… and he used to come and watch the games and be like, “well done, you’ve done well today.”
I think he said that to me around three or four times, not even on the same day, but on the next day when he’d see me. So in my head I was thinking, “okay, I’m doing well for myself. So if I’m not gonna get a chance now, I have to get out of this situation.” I was thinking, “I need to travel, or something, for you to back your talk.” But that wasn’t really the case.
This season, he’s given a few players a chance, but at that time, he didn’t really give a lot of players a chance. For me personally, it was frustrating. I had a track record of scoring goals and being effective. There are managers who know that, with me, you have to… I wouldn’t say give me time, but just let me get myself going.
Give me three games, and I’ll show you what I can do. At the end of the day, if you can see the potential, you can at least say to yourself, “okay, you might not cut it in the first game, but in the second or third, you might get yourself going.” So it was frustrating at that time, obviously being with the first team, but not travelling again after that, despite finishing as top goal scorer.
I’ll be honest, a lot of young players who were on the bench, and with the U23s at that time were telling me “you’ve got to get a shot,” because that season especially, I was one of the standout players, in terms of me scoring, assisting and playing well. So kind of frustrating, but you have to live and learn, and accept certain things.
It’s difficult to comprehend that you went from that, to the club loaning you out to Leyton Orient, who at the time were playing in the National League.
You would expect one of the best players for a Premier League U23 side to be going on loan at a higher level than that. Was it challenging for you personally to go from making your Premier League debut, to then be playing in the fifth tier, within a year?
When I didn’t go on (pre-season) tour with the first team at Palace, that was frustrating for me. I had made two first team appearances, scored 14 goals (for the U23s), and they only brought two (U23) players on tour! So for me, it was like, “how can you only bring two players on tour? We just one the title last year! You should at least bring a few youngsters on tour!” And with me being one of the top goal scorers every season, for me that was a bit shocking, in terms of like, “what’s really going on there?”
Some of the players, obviously we talk amongst ourselves, and we do say, “we just won a title, more of us should have gone on tour,” but that wasn’t the case. So that was quite frustrating for me, and I told my agent at that time, “look, just find me a loan move.” I had every reason to think that I could go to League One after the year that I’d had. I would say that the Championship was maybe a bit too soon, but I knew League One minimum was a league where I could play. In January, Shrewsbury had come to look at me for a bit, and they were in League One at that time. For me, going to League One in January would have been good for me, but it didn’t happen.
But the whole summer transfer period was quite frustrating. I wanted to go on loan as soon as possible, but that wasn’t really the case. Then, on one of the final days, Mark Bright (academy coach) came up to me and said, “look, my good friend Justin Edinburgh (may he so rest in peace), he needs some players,” or something along those lines. And Mark Bright knew him, and said, “let’s go to Leyton and meet him.”
For me personally, out of everything, that was probably the poorest part [of my career]. Me going into non-league, first of all, at that time… I wouldn’t have said that would have benefitted my career. I was 19 at that time, and you want me to be going to a team in the national league? Yeah, fair enough, they started well… I think they were top of the table at that time.
But the whole point is, for a young player… I already had all of the physical attributes; I already work hard off the ball. So maybe you should bring me to a level where I can learn the other side, or the technical side. So for me personally, I wasn’t really happy about it, but I still wanted to go on loan and experience more first team football. Last season, experiencing two games… I wanted more.
When I went to the meeting, he [Edinburgh] was like, “yeah, you’ll be in the 16,” and all of that. But I realised after, that he just needed me because one of his players had a red card, so was out for a couple of games, and another winger was out injured for a while, and he had a youngster, an 18 year-old, on the bench. So I think he literally just wanted more power, more experience or quality on the pitch, just in case.
And me going there, even for the first game against Chesterfield, I was on the bench, which is normal. But I wasn’t even one of the first subs to come on! He was bringing on other players, other attackers. And not being arrogant, not to be like, “oh, I’m coming from Crystal Palace, I have to play,” but it was like, “okay, that’s a bit shocking.” Me going to the National League, I wasn’t going there to be on the bench.
So I understood for the first game. But for the second, I only came on for like 5 or 10 minutes. So after a while, training, and with me getting frustrated and wondering “what’s going on, why aren’t I even in the squad?” And when that player came back from his suspension, he went straight to the bench, and I went out… and literally this was within two weeks. So at that time, I was like “wait a minute, I’m not even on the bench!” And obviously when you go to a new team, you’re going to give 100%, and I was giving 100%. I was training, showing my quality. And at that time, the loan deal was for free, and even the manager was like, “wow, how did we get this guy for free?”… I think I must have done a good finish or something, and I was training well, so I guess they were trying to say, “we’ve got him for free, but clearly, he’s not for free,” in terms of the way I was actually playing, and the quality I had.
So at that time, I was a bit frustrated. But mentally, I didn’t let it get to me; mentally, I was kind of strong. So I said, “let me just go again the next day, work hard, I can show my quality,” which I was doing on a regular basis. One time, the players were like, “wow, he was one of the best at training today, he was brilliant.” I was pressing… I was doing everything. And when they were saying that, I was thinking, “okay, let me carry on again the next day, and carry on again…” But when it came to the weekend, I wasn’t in the squad. Then I remember, one of the players was injured, so I was thinking, “okay, I have a chance.”
And I think that same week, we were playing against Barnet in a friendly, and I scored two goals… and it wasn’t tap-ins, it was a 25-yard left-foot screamer! And the other was with my left-foot as well. And now I was thinking, “okay, if I’m not in the squad this time, there’s definitely something going on.” So the weekend comes, and I’m not on the bench… and the players who got on the bench, they’d played in the friendly as well! So for me, I was like, “that makes no sense at all! How can I score two goals, and the players that made the bench, they didn’t even affect the game… and I’m here scoring two goals but not getting picked!”
So, at the end of the day, he obviously just needed me at that time, because of the red card and the injury. As soon as the players came back, he didn’t really care what I’d done in training. He had his team, and that was how it was going to be.
At the end of the day, managers have their players. But if I’m performing at a level where I’m showing you what I can do, and I’m doing better than some of the players who are starting, and not even making the bench, what more can you do. But towards the end, around November or December, I was at ease, I would say. Because I realised that it wasn’t me, it wasn’t what I was doing on the pitch, it was just that the manager had his players, his favourites.
Listen, some of them were friends off the pitch, because in non-league that’s how it is. You wouldn’t see that at a higher level, the manager being with you and your wife going out somewhere. There’s a possibility, but I highly doubt it! But that’s how it is in non-league.
Everyone is friends, everyone talks, it’s not really like coaches and players, but more like friends. So that’s how it was, and that’s how I realised how it was around there. It was frustrating, but towards the end, I was at ease, as it was more a case of the manager having his players.
I had wanted to go back early [to Palace], after October, but it wasn’t possible. I talked to the academy director… But to be fair, if I wasn’t in the squad with Leyton, I was going back anyway to play with the U23s. And I still ended up joint-top goal scorer that season!
So I think that period helped me mentally. It made me realise that you can never really doubt yourself, and I started feeling more confident in myself. Because when the manager doesn’t pick you, you can reflect and think “am I doing something wrong?” But at that time I realised that I wasn’t, and was like “okay, I can really do this, because it’s not really me. It’s the managers choice of players, and how it is, and people are more friends than colleagues.” I think I travelled once more with the first team, and went back for what was my final time at Palace.
I mean it must be immensely frustrating when it’s completely out of your control. Even there, you talk about taking positives from that, and how it helped you grow mentally.
I’ve seen interviews from your coaches at Palace where they constantly praise your attitude, and clips from you where it’s clear just how much you love playing football.
But given that difficult spell, was there ever a moment where you questioned where you were at, and when you started to fall out of love with the game in any way?
I wouldn’t say that. I feel like I have a lot of self-belief, and I’m a strong believer in God, so obviously that helps me mentally and spiritually. There will be times where you go for a period, when you’re young, when you might not score goals… and for me, when I was so used to scoring goals, we’d go a couple of games without scoring, I’d go into like a panic attack.
But it just happens in football, when you have your periods where you might not score, and you have to think, “okay, I just need to play my best, and play how I normally play.” If you don’t score, it doesn’t matter. You just have to play well and help the team.
But for me, me not scoring was so draining, so mentally draining, it was like, “I have to score!” Scoring was what I’d done all my life. But I never really doubted myself. I would say maybe sometimes, when you’re young, you might doubt yourself, and think, “why am I not doing this right?” But you’re just young, and not really thinking straight.
More times, I take the positives out of the negatives nowadays, so if I’m not doing something right, I pick the positives, and just keep working. Honestly, I don’t really doubt myself. Even if a coach may shout, or anything like that, I know what I can do.
Well I think that’s an admirable quality to have, and probably why you’ve been able to move on from periods like your time in non-league, which I think a lot of young players would struggle to do.
So you go back to Palace, having spent your whole life in London… and then this opportunity to move abroad comes with Varzim in Portugal.
How did that come about? And was playing abroad something you’d ever considered before? Because moving to the Portuguese second division is certainly a road less travelled for young English players! What was that process like?
So with me leaving Palace… I still had a year left, but we were talking, and they were saying, “you can go if you want.” They weren’t really patient, in terms of one failed loan move, which hadn’t gone well for them. So they came and told me, “look, you can leave as well.”
I was talking to my agent at that time anyway, saying that I wanted to leave anyway as I wanted to start something fresh. And that was from January , saying that I needed something new for myself, something fresh.
I wanted to go abroad, I felt like England wasn’t really the place for me at that time. So during that period, I changed agents, and the opportunity came… I had a few offers from France and Italy, but he was saying, “look, this team [Varzim] is a good platform for you to go to.” And at that time I didn’t really know, but literally 80% or 90% of the team was new – literally the whole squad was new! It was like… the year before, they had just survived relegation, and only like four or five players stayed from the year before, everyone else moved or came to the end of their contracts.
So because of that, they brought in so many players. It was a new start for me and for everyone; a new coach, new team, everyone was new. How much better could it get? The aim was to play first team football, and for me to go to a team where it was all brand new, in terms of coaching staff and players, that made it easy for me. Obviously at that time, I didn’t really understand, but it was a new team, so I said, “okay, this is an opportunity for me to show what I can do.”
I knew it was a big downgrade for me to go to Portugal, but I knew what I wanted to do. I was a man on a mission, and me and my agent knew what we wanted to do, we spoke multiple times about how it was a good place for me to go, a good platform to play games, as I was 2020/21 at that time, and 21 during the season. So for me to try to get 30 games in my locker, for me that was the most important thing. You can’t be like, “oh, I’m 21 and only playing in 2 games.” I have to say, “I’m 21, I’ve got to be playing at least 30 games.”
So my agent got the move for me. Their facilities, and everything there was completely different. It wasn’t like it was at Crystal Palace or Chelsea. At that time, even the facilities at Palace weren’t that great, as we moved into Goals (a recreational 5-a-side football centre). When I was in the U21s, we were at the training ground, and had better facilities. But as the team went into Goals, the facilities weren’t as good. I knew what I had to do. I wasn’t really bothered about whether I was in Portugal, Italy, Spain or whatever. I just knew I had to do a job. So I went there and started playing in the Portuguese second division… which turned out very good for me!
Focusing on that move, now more and more young English players are making moves abroad. There have been more and more moves to Germany, Italy and now to countries like France and Portugal.
Was it challenging moving abroad at such a young age, and as someone who had spent their entire life in London?
It was kind of exciting, because I wanted to go abroad. I think it’s different if you haven’t got a choice, but me, I was keen to go abroad, it was one of the things I wanted to do: go abroad and start fresh. And me being young… I would say I miss London, because Palace was only half an hour from my house, I’d go to training, come back, and go out with my friends after.
So me going to Portugal, that wasn’t really the case; I was by myself, literally by myself, even during the quarantine – I was by myself! Some players obviously went home, but they advised me not to go home, saying “look, you might have to come back, so you should stay,” and so I said, “you know what, let me just stay.” Also, in Portugal it was much safer!
But in terms of me going abroad… I was keen. I knew I had to get out of my comfort zone, I knew what I had to do. I could have taken the easy route and maybe stayed in England and probably… no disrespect, but probably gone to League 2 or… I don’t know where! But me going abroad is much better for my career, and that’s what my agent advised. I’m lucky enough that my agent advised me well, and told me to go abroad and start afresh again.
Do you think there’s a particular reason why more and more young English players seem to be making the move abroad, do you think there’s a reason for that increase?
Is it just a case of trying to find that platform, and first-team playing time? What do you think?
I wouldn’t really know exactly… but if I had to say, I’d probably say that… a lot of clubs in England buy players from abroad, and so it’s harder for some of us [academy players] to even do well, I mean, to even play first team football! So some players decide to go abroad because they decide that it’s another opportunity, to go and then maybe come back.
I think every young English player dreams of playing in the Premier League, but I feel like for them to do that, they have to go somewhere to show their ability, and for them to have the trust and faith… because I think in Europe there’s more faith and trust put in young players than in England. That’s what I think. And some of the players who do go move to big teams. Who would say no to a German team, or a Dutch team, you know. And it’s good for their development as well, learning a different type of game.
What you’ve said there kind of goes into what you were saying earlier about Frank de Boer, and that maybe foreign coaches have a different perspective, and do rely a bit more on instinct, and put their faith in young players a little more quickly than some of the managers in England do.
Yeah, I’d definitely say that’s true. Like I say, the stats talk for themselves, you know, in terms of how many home grown players play in the Premier League, and how many minutes they get compared to other countries… for English players it’s very low. German U19/20s will play plenty of minutes, and in England that’s not the case. So maybe that’s why more English players are going abroad, when we have some of the best academies in the world, the players want to go and show their abilities abroad.
As you mentioned earlier on, it definitely ended up being the right choice for your career. It seems like you settled in very quickly, and with 9 goals and 4 assists in the first team, it was your best season personally.
What do you think were the factors that enabled you to have such a good first season out there?
I think… obviously I knew what I had to do. That was the main thing. My aim was never really to go and stay at Varzim. I have aspirations, and I knew that I could go there, play my game and score goals.. and I had an adjective. Some of the players would be like “let’s go to Porto!” Because obviously there’s a lot of stuff in Porto. But I didn’t want to go.
Literally, all I did in Portugal was train, go home, train, go home, and then get a haircut! That was it. I never really went out. I probably only went out once or twice, and the one time I did go out was when my friends came from England to watch the game against Porto in the cup, and that was one of my best games as well! So we went out the next day. We weren’t gonna stay in the apartment the whole day! So I probably went out twice in my whole time there.
So I was literally a man on a mission. I knew what I had to do. The manager had a lot of faith and trust in me. In the beginning he had trust and faith, but it took me a few weeks during pre-season to get myself going. The intensity… everything is completely different, and I had to get the hang of it.
So for the first couple of games I was on the bench, but I was coming on and being very effective, creating chances… so as I was playing well, I made my first start, and from then, I never looked back. I took full advantage, scored my goals, and played every role necessary.
The manager had a lot of trust and faith in me. During training sessions, if I made a mistake, it didn’t matter. He knew that, come to match day, I was going to perform. Usually I was training well, I train how I play. But with me, if I make a mistake, I used to get angry with myself, I used to get frustrated and be like “come on, you can do better!”
But even if I made a couple of mistakes, he would be like “don’t worry! We’re only training, I know you’ll do well in the match.” I’m hard on myself, and try to achieve… not perfection, but a good level very single time. But it was because they had a lot of trust and faith in me, regardless of whether I made one or two mistakes in training. So the manager had good faith in me, and I have a lot of self-confidence, which helped as well.
Also, a lot of the players who were there were French speaking, so that helped me as well. It was a good environment, it was good vibes for us.
That makes total sense, and it was a great season for you obviously in terms of numbers and performances, and also for the club. You finished well in the league, and went on that great cup run that you alluded to, where you ran Porto quite close [in the quarter-finals] in the end.
And you had some highlights in that, I’ve seen that goal you scored against Loures in the 95th minute [in the fourth round], when you cut inside from the left and get the shot away with your right foot.
Is that the typical Levi Lumeka goal?
Yeah! I mean, during my Crystal Palace days I scored quite a few goals like that, cutting in onto my right foot. Some of them were from the outside, shooting with my left across the keeper. But I score a variety of different goals, coming in onto my right, or with my left, just tap-ins, being in the right place at the right time, in the penalty area. I haven’t really got a speciality yet.
Maybe you’ll develop your trademark one day. You’ve got the “Robben” so perhaps there will be a “Lumeka!”
Yeah hopefully! Hopefully I can have my little trademark.
So as we mentioned, great season for you obviously, but then COVID-19 comes along, and cuts your season short.
Was that difficult, not only because it cut off your momentum, having enjoyed such a good season, but also personally, as you ended up staying in Portugal by yourself for lockdown?
I think for my momentum, definitely. I was eager to try and get another Player of the Month before the season ended. At the beginning of March, I scored two goals and got an assist, and that was exactly what I’d got for when I won POTM in December. So I wanted to win that again, and I was on a roll, so it was kind of frustrating when the virus came along. And I knew that I could definitely get double digits, but it wasn’t the case. So that was quite upsetting.
In terms of the lockdown, that was a bit frustrating. I wanted to go back, but I wasn’t able to. They wanted me to stay there, and it was safer in Portugal as well. So it was frustrating at one period. In the beginning it wasn’t too hard, but then as time went by, it started getting to me a bit. I wasn’t really communicating with anyone… me living by myself isn’t really a problem, if it’s not during lockdown, because I did want to see my teammates and socialise.
But at that time, it was literally, if I had to go and get some food from the shopping mall – go there, get food, come home, or play PlayStation and talk to friends online. But other than that, I wasn’t really socialising face to face. As time went by, it did get to me a bit. But by that time, I went back, at the beginning of May.
So moving on to where you’re at now in Troyes, how did the move come about? Your plan was to stay at Varzim in the short term, so how did that end up happening, and why Troyes?
So I actually knew I was going to leave, but I wasn’t going to say too much at that time in an interview! My agent was telling me there were a few clubs around Europe that I could’ve gone to, and I spoke to the coach [Laurent Batlles]… I think me speaking to the coach and sporting director [Luis de Sousa] really helped. They were contacting me frequently… I think I spoke to the Sporting Director probably three or four times, I spoke with the coach once for quite a long time. So it wasn’t really too tough, and they convinced me quite easily, just from that conversation.
Speaking to them really convinced me… even though I was planning on going to a first division league, whether that was in Portugal or Holland at that time… but just talking to them made me realise, this is still a massive stepping stone, and the coach had the objective, what he wants to do this season, which is to go to Ligue 1, and that’s something I aspire to. And I like to challenge myself; I know that we’ll be fighting for something this season.
I think when you’re playing and not really fighting for anything… when I was at Varzim, what really got me going was that we were near the top of the table… even like third at one point! So that got me going… I like to be motivated, I like to have an objective.
At the beginning, we were just playing, because last year they had only just survived relegation, but this year, they’re probably gonna try and do the exact same thing! But at least at Troyes they have an objective of trying to go up, and that helped me, along with speaking to the coach, which makes a massive difference, and the sporting director.
What are your thoughts on Troyes so far as a place? Have you got to explore the town?
Yeah, the place is very peaceful and calm. I stroll around at times around Troyes, the city’s calm. And everything’s local, I’m only 10 minutes away from the training centre and the stadium, so yeah, it’s really good, and peaceful, and good because me speaking French obviously helps.
A lot more peaceful than South London!
Oh yeah, definitely!
You’ve signed a four-year contract, so clearly they see you as a big part of their plans going forward. Did they make that clear to you when you were having those initial conversations?
Yeah, they said they have big plans for me. They know what I can do with my ability, so it’s just down for me to show them on a constant level. So that’s my aim, my job to show what I can do.
Sure. So you say you’ve spoken a fair amount to Laurent Batlles – what’s he like as a coach, and how does he compare to other coaches you’ve had so far in your career?
Obviously it’s only been a couple of weeks, but he’s quite motivated. He likes us to never give up, to keep working hard. The training sessions have been good, and he likes the players to be very clean, in everything we do technically. He demands a lot from us.
He has a lot of expectations, and obviously having been a player himself, playing at the highest level, so he expects a lot from us. It’s good! For me, I like that, being on my toes, knowing that there’s not a day where you can come in and say “do you lot want to slack it off?” He’s a coach where you’re gonna have to be on your A game every day.
Has he made it clear what kind of role you’ll play in the team? I know you’re quite a versatile player…
In the two games I’ve played in, I’ve played on the left, but he knows that I can play on the right as well. I wouldn’t know specifically if I’ll be one of the players he’ll pick on a regular basis, but that’s down to me to show what I can do. So that’s what I’m doing. He knows I’m a winger who can play wherever. Coming through the ranks, I was a striker as well. I doubt he’ll play me there, but if they need me to play there, make the runs, cause some problems, then I can do that as well. But yeah, I’ll probably be playing on the wing.
I know you’ve only been there for a couple of weeks, but are there any players you get on particularly well with off the pitch, or anyone you’re looking forward to linking up with on it?
I think literally everyone! Normally you wouldn’t really say that, you can easily pick someone out, but mostly everyone is good, you can have a conversation with players about literally anything, we’ll just talk… even if I don’t have time to speak to everyone, I know that when we do have time, we can have a natural conversation. So I think everyone is calm, we can just talk about everything we can. So it’s good!
So you’ve said the aim for this season is promotion – what are your personal aims, alongside that?
For this season, it’s for me to help the team as much as I can, and to get to Ligue 1 – that’s definitely one of the aims. Another aim is also to score a lot of goals, and help them score goals. That’s my job, scoring goals and assisting, and hopefully I can do that this season and help the team as much as I can.
Ligue 2 is developing a reputation as a place for young players to cut their teeth and really develop their game, if you think of guys like Riyad Mahrez, Tanguy Ndombele, and then guys like Neal Maupay, Saïd Benrahma who has been tearing up the Championship this season, and of course, Bryan Mbeumo, a former Troyes winger who is also a key man at Brentford.
Was that part of your decision making at all? And do you hope to follow a similar kind of path?
Yeah. The aim is to play at the highest level possible, regardless of where you’re at right now, me being in Ligue 2. I know the platform it has, and the players that have come out, and done well and gone onto bigger things. So for me, coming here, it’s obviously to try to help the team go into Ligue 1, and imagine if my whole career I’m playing in Ligue 1 after this season – why not! I’m gonna try and do what I need to do to score the goals, and go onto good things in the future.
It’s a very physical league, and you obviously have experience playing in the Premier League and the National League in England, but as a goal-scoring winger, are you worried about having to adapt to that level of physicality? Or is that something you’re already used to?
I think coming from England… you’re always ready for the physicality! In England, naturally it’s going to be physical, they’re going to kick you, so… I think here, I’m not really too sure how it is, but physically and fitness wise, I’m naturally fit. If it’s more of a ball game, that would be good, but if it gets physical, I think I’ll be able to hack it. I was in England for quite a long time for me not to be able to hack the physicality element, whether in France or in Portugal.
Because you’re eligible to play for DR Congo through your parents, would you ever consider doing so, should you get the call up?
Probably, I can never say no! They have a lot of good young players, coming out of the DRC. I wouldn’t mind doing that, and I don’t want to shut anything down, whether now or in a few years. I still have England, they’ve got a lot of good young players coming through as well, but I know myself and I know my ability, and I know that if I keep on going and get as high as possible, there’s always a chance.
Jamie Vardy obviously gives a lot of hope for a lot of people, he wasn’t in the picture for all those years and then played in the Euros for England, so anything’s possible! For me personally, I still have England and the DRC, and hopefully I’ll be able to play for one of them one day.
Based on your experiences, do you have any advice for young players trying to break into top-flight sides? Or for young English players moving abroad?
I think, as long as you believe in yourself, that’s the biggest thing. You can go through a lot of tribulations, a lot of things in life… maybe a manager, with whom you may not be playing as much. But as long as you know that you’re a good player, all you need is a chance, an opportunity, and you may have to go somewhere else to get game time. Then, you can come back… but for me personally, what I’ve done… I would say believe in yourself.
If you know you’re a good player, don’t let a manager or anyone else tell you otherwise. If you’re not playing, don’t doubt yourself. A manager may have his preference or his players, and if you want to go abroad, just know that you have to do what you have to do to get to the top. If you really want it, you’re gonna make sure nothing stops you from getting there.
Did you watch many of the Champions’ League matches?
Yeah, I’ve been watching every game. I watch football quite a lot, I watch those matches, and that’s definitely something I want to be in one day. Last season, I had the opportunity to go to a club in Europe (European competition), and it may not be the time yet, but me watching the Champions League, that’s something I aspire to be in in a few years.
And I guess, to finish on that note, what do you ultimately want to achieve in football?
I think definitely playing at the highest level, whether that’s me being in the Premier League, Ligue 1 or anything. But the top five European leagues definitely, and the Champions League… but I’m not just trying to play in the Champions League, I’m going to try to win the Champions League!
So obviously playing in the Champions League or the Europa League, and winning a European trophy, that’s on my mind, and winning a domestic title, whether that’s in England or in France, wherever. So that’s my aim, to win titles, to retire with a lot of trophies to my name. High-class trophies!