Speaking exclusively to Football News, Manchester City attacker on loan with Ligue 2 side RC Lens, Thierry Ambrose, discusses his future, Pep Guardiola, Patrick Vieira and much more.
Let’s talk quickly about the 1-0 home defeat to Lorient. It wasn’t ideal for Lens as the battle for the play-offs is so tight. It must have been tough for the team. What was the atmosphere like afterwards in the changing room?
We didn’t have a great match – particularly the beginning – we started badly and Lorient caught us cold [the goal came in the third minute]. But we’re not going to make any excuses and we’re going to keep looking ahead.
So still confident that you’ll qualify for the play-offs?
Yes, definitely. There’s still hope. We’re not going to lay down arms – there’s still three matches left which means there’s still every chance. We won’t give up.
We’ll come back to Lens later but going back to the beginning of your career – you started at Auxerre. So first question and the big debate in France – is it pronounced Au-zerre or Auks-erre?
You were with them from a very young age?
Yes, I started playing football at 5, 6 years old. Then I joined Auxerre at 10, 11, and did all my youth pre-development at AJ Auxerre. I spent some great years there, staying with a family and I learned a lot.
It’s a club that is very well known for its youth development – only this week I was reading about their Coupe Gambardella win with Basile Boli captaining, in the mid-1980s. Did you get the sense when you were there that you were being very well looked after?
Yes, for sure. Auxerre will always be the club of my heart. They came to recruit me from my little local club at a very young age, so I owe them a lot – a lot. It’s the club that I grew up with, following them during the time of the likes of Djibril Cissé, who were real old-school heroes, so they’ll always be the club close to my heart.
Considering they’re your club, when a team like Manchester City comes calling when you’re 15, 16 years old, it must be a very difficult decision to make. So I wanted to know firstly how City spotted you, and secondly how you made the tough decision to leave Auxerre for City?
It all happened quite quickly. The problem was that at Auxerre at that time, the bosses and everything were changing all the time, and I was a little bit lost. So it was not an easy decision to make but I was at a point where I had to leave – when we entered negotiations with Auxerre, the situation didn’t improve at all, we couldn’t agree on anything. So then City came in – and they’d been following me since I was 13, had been watching me when I was playing for the France youth teams, so I thought about it a lot and then came to the decision with my parents.
I’m interested to know – when you say City were following you, how does that work? Is it that you recognise their scouts in the stands? Or do they approach you?
No, it was more personal. They would speak sometimes to my parents, they would send scouts to watch when I played in the France youth teams, that kind of thing.
And leaving your parents, your country – I don’t know if you could speak English at the time – must have been really difficult for you?
I really wasn’t very good at English – although I did have some basics. But when I arrived in England I’d have lessons after training so I put in 100% effort to be able to speak English.
And were you living with a family, or in the youth development set-up?
No, no – my parents moved with me. So I was with them for a year or two, before they returned to Sens.
Funnily enough, looking at your full name – Thierry Winston Jordan Ambrose – Winston is quite an English-sounding name!
Yeah my grandparents have English origins.
I did wonder! So once at City – we said that Auxerre has a well-respected youth set-up – but how was it at City? Was it another world?
Yes, it was another dimension! Auxerre was more a family atmosphere. But once at City you had to put yourself in the mind-set that you were now with the big boys. It was more professional and I learnt loads, I learnt loads with City and I have no regrets about the choice that I made.
And which other players did you play with in your youth teams?
Seko Fofana, Olivier Ntcham, Jason Deneyer who is now at Lyon and Brahim Diaz.
And you played under Patrick Vieira at City. I’m a bit older than you so I remember the great times of 1998 and 2000. As you’re a bit younger, what did Vieira represent for you? Was he a hero or just someone whom you knew to have had a great career?
I knew Vieira as a player from when he was at Arsenal – I used to watch them a lot on TV as Thierry Henry was my favourite player. So I certainly knew him before playing under him, and for me it was honour to play under him, I learned loads and it was one of my best years since I started playing football.
And how was he as a coach? Because as a player he had a fiery temperament, but at Nice and as a coach he comes across as a lot calmer, more reasoned?
As you say – he’s calm, he’s thoughtful, he takes personal responsibility for everything and really – I think that he can become one of the best coaches in the world.
During this time, you’re excelling at every level at City, you’re scoring for fun for them and for France’s youth teams, and you’re representing France alongside players like Ousmane Dembélé, Lucas Tousart, Jean-Kévin Augustin. The atmosphere in the international get-togethers must have been great, with such a talented group of players?
Yes, it was a great generation and a fantastic atmosphere – it was a real pleasure to be in the France squad.
And when you compared yourself with Dembélé, Augustin, Marcus Thuram, did you consider yourself as good as them?
It was a great group and we just had great fun playing together. There was no thinking “I’m better than him” – it was just about looking to do great things all together.
And at the same time, with City, you were now training with the first team and even made the bench?
Yes, as I said I learnt a lot and made the bench once under Pellegrini. I was almost always training with the first team squad – and continued training with them when I returned from Breda last summer.
So you’ve trained under Guardiola too. Can you explain what it is that makes him such a mythical coach? Players who have played under him – even seasoned professionals – say that he teaches them to look at football in a completely different way. I’ve never entirely understood how and why. Can you explain?
Guardiola is someone very special, someone who is very thoughtful and really the best coach in the world, who knows football inside out. There’s not much to say, other than that I have learnt lots with him.
And in terms of players, you’ve talked of Cissé and Henry as being role models. In City terms I assume that it’s Aguero?
Well I think that all the players are role models for their position. I really liked Yaya Touré, but of course Aguero is a role model for all attackers.
We were speaking of your speedy rise through the ranks, but then that was halted by your serious cruciate knee ligament injury, at the moment when you were really about to explode onto the scene and seal a place in the first team squad. How difficult was that to take?
It was a really bad time. I was progressing really well in my career, but that’s football for you. I think it made me stronger, having an injury like that. I was that close to retiring from football as I was out for a year, when usually doing your cruciates means six months out, so I really thought about it. But I’ve come back well – even though I’m not yet at the tip-top of my form – as normally it takes two years to get back to your best.
You were genuinely close to quitting?
I was never in doubt about my abilities, but sometimes – it just took so long and at times I wondered whether I’d be able to come back and play football again, thoughts like that.
Well you did come back well in the end and spent last year with City’s partner club Breda in the Netherlands. How was your experience there?
It was superb! I learned lots, I progressed lots in a year, I played 30 matches. So it was a really successful year football-wise.
Plus 10 goals and five assists. And did I read that you were the first player to score against Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord in one season? Did that make the news in the Netherlands?
Yes that’s right. Yes it made a buzz at the time but you know how it is, football moves quickly, and a week later another big story takes over. But yeah, for a few days everyone was talking about it.
Did you feel that you stepped up to another level during the season, after the doubts caused by the injuries? Playing a full season and scoring a load of goals – it must have been the best season of your career?
And on returning to City did you think you’d get the chance to seal your place at City or did you know that you’d be sent out on loan again?
I didn’t know anything. I thought I’d get my chance but they decided to send me out on loan again. So there’s nothing to say, I went out on loan and I’m doing my year.
During the summer there were rumours about Celtic and particularly about Nice and a reunion with Vieira. Was there any truth to it or was it just rumours?
I can’t really give you an answer, you’d need to speak to my agent. I was just focused on my pre-season with City.
But presumably you would have liked to have played under Vieira again if the opportunity had arisen?
Yes of course. Like I said, I spent my best years with him. But there you go, negotiations didn’t go any further than that.
So you ended up in Lens instead. Your goal and assists stats aren’t as good as last season. But then you’ve been playing more on the flanks this season. How do you assess your year?
I’ve had ups and downs this season. But I’m on loan, I’m here to learn and every year is a learning curve, an apprenticeship for me. So I’m happy because I’ve played another 30 matches, even if I’ve played a little less, so I’m satisfied. And right now we’re in the top 6, so I hope we’ll finish in the top 4, top 5, that would be great.
And when you talk about learning, do you mean tactically? Physically? Playing in another country with different demands?
Yeah that’s it. I played a year in the Netherlands, I’ve been playing for a year in France so you learn, you learn different tactics, different cultures, and it helps you learn about the highest level.
Maybe an unfair question but how do you compare the level of Ligue 2 as against the Eredivisie? Are you able to say you’ve gone up a level?
You can’t compare because they’re different but here in Ligue 2 any team can win, whereas in the Netherlands you have three or four teams who are well ahead of the rest. So it’s a question of competitivity rather than level.
And do you know yet what will happen next year? Or does it depend whether Lens get promoted?
I really don’t know yet. You’ll have to speak to my agent!
And what’s your ideal personal situation? Do you see yourself still playing for City or are you coming to a point where you think that, after being loaned out each year, it’s time to move on permanently?
Well first off I want to finish my season at Lens and help them finish as high as possible. Then as for next season, I’d like to stop being loaned out, but if I am again – with pleasure – I’m here to learn in any case. I don’t know if a transfer would be the best thing, but I’ll return to City, have a good pre-season and then we’ll see. You never know – football moves quickly. So I’ll be patient, and we’ll see.
You talk a lot about learning. What do you see as your strengths, the areas on which you need to improve?
I’m not really one to talk about my strong points. I would say that I need to improve in all areas!
That’s a great attitude! For me you have all the attributes: you’re quick, you can score with both feet, good in the air, a very calm finisher. As we alluded to earlier, it must be hard to see that, because of your injury, some of your peers have had the chance to progress further. Do you still have the confidence that you can succeed in a big club and maybe represent France again?
I am a confident person, I have confidence in my abilities. But sure, when you’re out of the game for a year when you’re 19, it’s going to put the brakes on your progress. But as I said, I’ve now had two full seasons, playing 60 matches or more, I think I’ve reached the stage where I’ve really learnt a lot, and I think and hope that next year will be the season where I really break out.