This feature interview originally appeared exclusively in our official matchday programme and on iPad in The Southampton Way for last weekend’s game against West Bromwich Albion.
Morgan Schneiderlin has spent much of his Southampton career dealing with sceptics.
After a year at the club, at the age of 19, he found himself under pressure from his national team bosses to consider whether this was the right place to be. Having moved from Strasbourg in June 2008, he did not come to England to play in the third division.
A year later, that was the prospect he was faced with after the club’s relegation to League 1. With a ten-point deduction imposed ahead of the new season, the prospect of immediate promotion back to the Championship was seemingly bleak.
For all the skills that regular football had allowed him to nurture during his first season with Saints, Schneiderlin had a decision to make.
“It was a big time,” recalls the midfielder, now 23 and approaching the five-year anniversary of his arrival in England. “Everyone around me in France was telling me that I needed to go.
“But I was the one responsible for the club going down. With the club having paid big money for me, I couldn’t come here for a year and then leave like nothing had happened. I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror.
“I didn’t understand English, but I could imagine what people were saying about me – that maybe I was too light or that I wasn’t able to play in the Championship. I had some good games but not all of them, so I wanted people to have a good opinion of me.”
Schneiderlin says the key factor in his decision to remain with Southampton, though, was the arrival of Nicola Cortese that summer. The club’s new Executive Chairman made keeping the French youth international one of his first priorities.
When another club made an offer for Schneiderlin’s services, Cortese sensed an opportunity. “What Nicola said when he came here was a big part of my choice to stay,” he recalls.
“He had an offer for me from a club but he refused it in front of me and said that he wanted me to be a part of the club. If he can do that, it showed that he didn’t really need the money so I realised I needed to stay.
“Although I was only 19, he told me that I would grow with the club. After that, he bought people like Rickie Lambert, and Adam Lallana told me that he’d decided to stay because he believed in the club. When you see a player like him stay, you know that the club is going to grow.”
Schneiderlin says he still thinks back to that first season in England. His decision to cross the channel was, somewhat bizarrely, influenced by a trip to Hartlepool’s Victoria Park ground with France’s Under-18, when they played a friendly against England there in September 2006.
“There were so many people in the stadium and, although we were aware that the team were in the third or fourth division, the pitch was like a pool table,” he recalls.
“It was amazing. That’s England – in the third division in France, you won’t see a pitch like that. You can tell that people love football here, so it’s a dream for every player in France to play in England. You have the atmosphere that every single player wants to play in.”
Plucked from Strasbourg – where he had already made five first-team appearances despite his tender years – he arrived at a club desperately trying to return to the Premier League, but also one that was beset by financial difficulties.
Unable to speak with his new teammates because of his limited English, Morgan spent much of his time trying to learn the language – albeit in a rather unconventional way.
“When I first came here, I didn’t have a clue,” he says, “so I tried to put myself in an English lifestyle – I had English television, English music and English movies to make sure I learned as quickly as possible.
“You’re also alone at night and you can’t call anyone to do anything, but I was quite lucky to be in a squad where everyone was quite young. They took care of me and they didn’t leave me alone, to be honest.
“But I just couldn’t communicate. It was very hard because you just don’t know what people are saying. You want to joke and to start conversations but you just can’t, so that was very hard.
“You learn English at school, but there are different accents and things so it’s hard. I remember watching Oz – a series about a prison in America – in English with French subtitles in my hotel room in Chilworth. They were long days, so I had to do something.
“People might laugh, but it does help you understand better. I didn’t take any lessons, so it clearly worked. Now I have French TV because I’m allowed to!”
On the pitch, things were not going to plan. “I remember some games when, even if I couldn’t speak English, I could understand what was being said in the dressing room,” he says.
“There were some very big arguments between players because we were fighting for our lives to stay in the league. You have a pay cut when you go down so everyone was thinking about their families and their careers, so it was a big thing.
“When you see the club is struggling, you try your best but you can hear that the fans aren’t very happy. I saw a lot in that year, although I wasn’t really aware of what was happening behind the scenes.
“We had a good manager with good ideas about how to play football but, like me, he was new to the English game. We did everything we could, but we just didn’t have the capacity to stay in the league because we were simply not good enough.
“In the end, it was good for the club. If we didn’t take that step back, maybe we wouldn’t be in the Premier League now. It was a good for me because the bad times you experience make you a better guy, so I’m very happy to have come through them.”
The following season, Saints won the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, though injury prevented Schneiderlin from playing in the final at Wembley.
“I was gutted to miss that,” he admits. “I had a fitness test in the morning and I could have tried to play, but it would have been unfair to Paul Wotton because he trained all week and I didn’t.
“When I walked out onto the pitch, I promised myself that I’d get back there, so hopefully we’ll do that soon. You could see how big this club is when you saw how many fans we had there. Winning the trophy was a good moment for us to take into the next season.”
A return to the Championship would arrive in April 2011, and ambitions of a second successive promotion were quickly and openly spoken about – prompting the return of the cynics he encountered two years earlier.
“I had no doubt that we would be able to get back into the Championship,” says Schneiderlin, “and, once that happened, everyone was asking me whether we’d be able to get into the Premier League.
“Everyone in France was still telling me there was no chance – maybe in two or three years. At the start of the season, people said that we were a good team but we wouldn’t be able to go up.
“I said ‘yeah, you’ll see’. We said that we wanted to get into the Premier League, and people were laughing at us but they saw from our first games that we were better than they thought. It was an unbelievable season once again.
“We had a strong squad and we knew each other. For example, I’d played with Adam for three years so I knew every move he was going to make and exactly where he wanted the ball – and it was becoming the same with Rickie.
“We knew each other so well that it was just a logical thing. Since going down, we had built a chemistry and an understanding.”
Having previously struggled to complete games and to make the impression he’d have liked to, Schneiderlin believes things began to go right on a personal level, too.
“I think the fans began to see the real me at the start of the Championship season,” he says. “I had a very good pre-season, and I put everything in place for me to become a better player and to progress.
“In League 1 I started to understand the game better and how to manage things, but it was in the Championship that I really began. I felt good in my body and, for me, that’s the most important thing.
“I trust in my ability and my skills, so it’s important to feel good physically and to be able to run,” he reasons. “When I first came to the club, I couldn’t do that – I couldn’t finish games because I was tired.
“In England you play such an open game,whereas it’s more tactical in France, and there was my lifestyle as well. When I came here at 18, I was alone so my lifestyle was not the same as it is now. I didn’t know what to do after a game or on my day off, so maybe I didn’t do the right things.
“You know it within yourself – everyone was saying to me that I was technically very good but I needed to do this and that. I spoke to my family and told them my problems, and they told me to put everything in place.
“We had a nutritionist who came to the club for a month or two who had food brought to my house so I would eat properly. After a couple of months, I felt very good.”
After spending the whole season in the top two, promotion to the top flight was sealed with a comfortable final-day victory over Coventry, achieved in the knowledge that failure to win would almost certainly see West Ham jump into second place.
But Schneiderlin insists that there was little doubt about how the day would play out: “I remember, the day before the game at about 8pm, I was at home and I didn’t feel any pressure.
“Everyone was telling me that I was playing the game of my life tomorrow and asking me whether there was something wrong. I just felt very confident because I knew we were very strong.
“I remember in the last ten minutes, when we were four-nil up, I was looking around me thinking how amazing it was. Our dreams were coming true, so you think about everything that happened before.”
Finally, four years after his arrival in England, the opportunity that he craved had arrived. Morgan Schneiderlin was a Premier League player.
“I told myself that it was going to be my year, so I had to be ready,” he says of his attitude in the months leading up to Southampton’s season-opening game at Manchester City last August.
“Since I started playing football, people told me that I’d enjoy myself in the Premier League. I wouldn’t say there was pressure on me, but I needed to show that these people weren’t wrong. People said that the way they play in the Premier League would suit me, so I needed to prove them right.
“The day before the City game was probably the most nervous I’ve been all season. We were wondering whether we could cope against them – they had just won the title the year before, and they’d shown they were one of the strongest teams in the world.
“When we went from League 1 to the Championship, we said we were going to have a good year and that’s what happened. When we went into the Premier League, we said we were going to be the new Swansea and everyone was going to see what we are – but it doesn’t happen like that in the Premier League.
“For the first three-or-four games, we thought a little bit too much about how we were going to play and maybe that’s why we lost those games. The players are better and you get punished for every mistake you make.
“I never thought we’d get relegated but you do question yourself,” he continues. “I remember the game against West Ham that they were quite a few points in front of us after we’d lost four-one to them.
“But we knew we had the quality to do something. We knew from the game against Aston Villa at home (which Saints won four-one) that we were better than them, for example.
“In the second part of the season we have been a lot stronger. Before that, we won some games but we were missing something. Even in games we didn’t win like Wigan and Manchester United away, we’ve shown just how far we have come.
“Look at the game against Swansea last week – if we’d had that storm we faced during the first 15 minutes six-or-seven months ago, we’d have lost. That shows how far we’ve come. You can really see the difference now – I manage a Premier League game just like one in the Championship or in League 1.”
The midfielder’s performances this season have been heavily praised, both by the club’s supporters and by the media – he tops the Premier League’s statistics charts for interceptions, tackles and distance covered.
Morgan is, he admits, pleased with how the campaign has gone for him – but he insists there is plenty more to come.
“I’m happy because I’ve improved in every way,” he says, “but I know that I still have steps to progress, and that will come with matches. I’m only 23 years old so I don’t want to just stop.
“This year I’ve had a good season, but next year I want to be even better. For me, next year is going to be the real thing. I want to prove myself to everyone again, and to get even better. In football, if you stop improving then you’ll automatically go backwards.
“I’m not going to lie and say that I’m not happy that people are speaking about me and my games, but there’s no point in me having a good season and then disappearing the year after. The main thing for me is to keep this going and to be able to be better in every game I play.
“I don’t like to judge myself – that’s down to other people – but I know that I have the capacity to play in the Premier League and I want to spend the rest of my life playing here.”
There are parallels to be drawn between the conversation Schneiderlin had with the chairman in the summer of 2009 and the ones that went on a few months ago, when they entered negotiations over a new contract.
In February the Frenchman signed a new deal to keep him at the club until 2017, and cites the ambitions expressed by Cortese during those talks as a key factor in his decision to do so.
“If everything he said would happen to me when I signed a new contract will come true, then the next few years will be even better than the last,” he smiles.
“I’m sure that big things are going to happen to Southampton, and that next season is going to be a big step once again. Hopefully this season we can finish in the top ten because that’s our target, and next year we can take another step, maybe to reach the top six.
“Maybe people will say there is no chance of us doing that – I’m sure they will think that. I say to them: keep laughing. We’ll see who laughs last.
“People don’t realise what’s happening here. In France, for example, they don’t speak too much about what’s going on at Southampton. Only the people who are around the squad and the city know what’s going to happen to us.
“We have a training ground that’s going to be unbelievable and we have players who are very good so it’s a matter of time until Southampton reaches the top in England. The future is bright.”
The message from Morgan Schneiderlin is clear: doubt him – and his team – at your peril.