Sheffield United: Reda Khadra on football, his family's flight from Lebanon and the toughest time of his career
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The 21-year-old, who earlier this week became Sheffield United’s fourth new signing of the summer after leaving Brighton and Hove Albion on loan, makes no secret of the fact he prefers playing expressive football rather than following suffocating strategies and rigid tactics. As our conversation continues, moving on from his family’s decision to swap the ancient city of Sur for one of western Europe’s most fashionable capitals, it becomes abundantly clear why. Khadra, having experienced some genuinely dark moments at the beginning of his career, is utterly determined to enjoy the good ones now.
“My path here, to where I am, it was hard,” he says, tracing his journey from the amateur game, through Borussia Dortmund’s academy and then onto England; where he first arrived as a teenager two years ago. “I was injured, I broke my collarbone twice and also did my ACL. It wasn’t easy but you should never, ever give up. I always knew I wanted to be a professional footballer and that’s what I’ve become. So that’s why I don’t feel any pressure. And I never feel sad whenever I am doing what I love. I know what it’s like not to be able to do that and I also know how important it is to be focused and try to achieve your goals.”
Khadra, aged 21, emerged as one of the most exciting young talents in the Championship last term; capturing the imagination of rival managers, supporters and of course former Blackburn Rovers head coach Tony Mowbray during a season long placement at Ewood Park. One of the four goals he scored there came against United in November, when his pace, direct running and ability to beat an opponent condemned the visitors to a 3-1 defeat which cost Slavisa Jokanovic his job and precipitated Paul Heckingbottom’s appointment.
Despite his reputation for being something of a showman, however, Khadra also possesses real mental steel. It is a quality he attributes to his time at the Stadion Rote Erde, where Dortmund’s world famous academy is based.
“It is a great club and with a great youth system,” continues Khadra, who took his first steps on the sporting ladder with CFC Hertha 06 and TeBe, another team located in Berlin’s Charlottenburg district. “There were some great players who I was able to work with and I loved every minute. The only bad times I had, to be fair, were the ones when I was injured. Everything else, it was brilliant.
“The thing is there, you are always expected to win. No matter what. That’s one of the biggest lessons I learned during my time with them, and it gave me a lot of mental strength. You have to be able to cope with it. I believe we did because we always won the leagues we were in. Three years in a row I think.”
That determination to always come out on top, which was instilled in Khadra by both Dortmund and his parents - “They had it very tough to begin with, coming to a new country as immigrants” - is one of the reasons why Heckingbottom urged United to continue negotiating with Albion despite, at one stage, fearing they were destined not to bear fruit. Another was his desire to bring a “different dynamic” to his squad’s attack. So what does Khadra believe he can bring to the table, when United begin their latest push for promotion with a trip to Watford on Monday?
“If you ask me to describe myself, I’d say I’m someone who likes to dribble and to use my speed and to try and take people on. Those are my strengths. But football isn’t about individuals, it’s all about the group. So, although I think I can do all of those things, you also need people who can tackle, who can be strong and who can shut down space. Everyone is important and I think we have got people like that here as well. So it’s a good mix, a good combination, to have.”
Despite only arriving in Sheffield on Monday, before completing the second half of his medical 24 hours later, Khadra already feels settled in his new surroundings.
“I have had a walk around the city, I’m not too sure where but it was near the centre and very beautiful. Two people recognised me, no more. But that’s good, because I prefer things nice and relaxed.”
But the sightseeing has temporarily been put on hold as United prepare for what promises to be a tough assignment in Hertfordshire. Relegated from the top-flight last season, Watford have still been able to keep many of their leading names.
“Step by step, week by week, that’s how we need to take it,” Khadra says. “But I believe we can definitely win that one, for sure it’s possible.”
United came within a whisker of leapfrogging Rob Edwards’ side, qualifying for the play-off semi-finals following a strong finish to the campaign before losing to Nottingham Forest on penalties.
One of those victories en route to the City Ground came against Rovers, when Heckingbottom’s men were able to avenge their earlier defeat in Lancashire. Ben Davies, now of Rangers, scored the only goal of the contest after Khadra had seen an attempt from the penalty spot saved by Wes Foderingham.
“I helped Sheffield United to win, when I missed the penalty,” he says. “But I took a lot from my first professional season. It gave me confidence that I can perform at this level. I want to reach my goals and I can do that here.”