Fulham Focus’ Daniel Smith spoke to former Fulham centre back Zesh Rehman about the defender‘s time at Fulham. The Pakistan international became the first British–Asian footballer to play in the Premier League whilst wearing the famous black and white of Fulham.
DS – Growing up did you always want to be a footballer?
ZR – Yeah growing up just like all kids in England that was my dream, everywhere was a football pitch to me… the house, the street, the garden… so yeah, there was only one thing that I wanted to do.
DS – Did you always want to be a defender?
ZR – Well I was 12 years old when I joined Fulham as a schoolboy and came as a striker. Then I got to 14/ 15 years old and went to centre-mid and by the time I started in the academy I was at centre-back. So I went from top to the bottom.
DS – It must have been a big sacrifice for your family to move down to London? Was it hard to settle in at such a young age and how did the Fulham move come about?
ZR – My whole family moved to London when I was around 11 or 12 years old. I was playing for Sutton district because I went to school around that way and there was a scout there. He was actually the manager of the U12 team there, Gary Clarke his name was and he just wanted me to come along for a trial. I was there for four or five weeks and then I signed and I was there all the way until I left at 22.
DS – You were part of Fulham’s academy for a long time before you broke into the first team. Were there any players in the first team squad that you looked up to as a role model?
ZR – I was quite lucky when I was there because the team had a lot of leaders and some of them have gone onto becoming managers now. The likes of Lee Clark, Andy Cole, Van der Sar, Mark Pembridge, Brian McBride. Real solid professionals who were always there to give good advice and the way they conducted themselves, as a young player you can help but learn from them. What they did on the pitch, off the pitch, what they were eating etc… I was fortunate to have all those guys around me and it really helped.
DS – It was Cookie who gave you your opportunity in the first team. Being a centre-half himself did he give you any advice?
ZR – Yeah well, he was giving me advice from the age of 17 when I was going up to him keen to clean his boots and stuff like that. I would ask him questions every week about positions he was taking up on the pitch etc and when it came to me making my debut for the first team, obviously, as you say being a top centre-half himself, really helped me a lot. It was perfect timing for me really, perfect manager because I was young when I made my debut in the Premier League and he showed confidence in me which was such a great feeling.
DS – Did anyone mentor you or look after you as you were making the step into the first team until you found your feet?
ZR – No one was assigned to it but as I said before we had some great guys in there. Mark Pembridge who works at the academy now which is brilliant, he would always give me advice, so it doesn’t surprise me that he works with the U23’s now as he’s perfect for that role. Mark Crossley again was brilliant and all the guys I’ve already mentioned. They weren’t interested in just themselves; they chatted to the younger players and really cared about us being the best we could be.
DS – How did it feel making your debut in the Premier League knowing you were the first British-Asian player to do so?
ZR – I was aware of it at the time but I’ve never really tried to put too much emphasis on it. Other people tend to do that but I’d prefer just to be looked at as a player only. My full debut we beat Spurs at the Cottage 2-0. It was a great day and to win and keep a clean sheet it was a special day but I’ve never really put much pressure on myself about my background or whatever. Other people tend to do that.
DS – What was Chris Coleman like as a manager?
ZR – He was very young as it was his first managerial job, only about 36 at the time so very young. You could always see as a player that he was going to go on and be a top manager cos he always had that presence, the respect of everybody and he knew what he wanted. You have to earn that respect from your players and his man management was excellent which isn’t surprising as he was always a great captain and a great leader.
DS – What was your favourite game playing for Fulham?
ZR – My favourite was actually away to Newcastle, we won 4-1.
DS – I remember it well, Mark Crossley was on a mad one that day stopping the ball with all sorts, legs, arms, chest… he even made a great save with his face.
ZR – That was the game, yeah, things were just smashing everywhere, he saved everything. We scored four goals at St James Park and it was just a great day. They had some top players up front, the likes of Shearer, Kluivert, Bellamy… it was a real top side, an attacking side but our threat on the day was fantastic. Boa, Radzinski and Andy Cole were on another level and Mark Crossley with the best goalkeeping performance I’ve ever seen!
DS – Do you remember your only goal for Fulham against Lincoln in a cup thriller and could you describe it?
ZR – Yeah I do, I don’t score many so I do remember it. All week Cookie was telling me that I was playing centre–mid and to make sure I made runs into the box. So I remember Heidar Helguson drifting out wide so I ran into the space he had vacated and he put in a great cross to the back post, I won the header and guided it into the bottom corner. I think the score ended up something silly like 5-4 or something like that. A great game for the neutrals but not the managers! We had a lot of young players playing in that game actually so it was nice to get over the line playing alongside a few of the lads I’d grown up with.
DS – What was Al Fayed like? Did you ever get the famous handshake as he paraded the pitch before home games lol?
ZR – Yeah he was brilliant, everyone knows the fantastic work he did to take Fulham to the Premier League, it was unbelievable actually what he did. He used to visit the training ground occasionally and come to speak to the players, sometimes we’d have to stop training as he was landing on the middle of the pitch in his helicopter. He always made everyone a hamper at Christmas so he was brilliant to everybody. A great character and for me, it doesn’t seem the same without him.
DS – Which player did you room with whilst at Fulham and who were your closest friends?
ZR – I used to room with Rosenior sometimes, I’d be with Leacock whenever he was in the squad. A lot of the time also Luis Boa Morte, another really nice guy. Got on really well with Boa, he started to take more leadership around the time I broke through and was great to have around.
Dean Leacock was with me all the way through the academy right up to 22 when we both left. He went to Derby and I went to QPR, I’m still in touch with Deano too. I see Liam Rosenior a lot cos we are on the same pro license course, not many more to be honest. That’s football, people move on and it’s very rare players stay at a club for more than 2 or 3 years so it’s unlikely you will keep in touch with more than a couple.
DS – Who was the best player that you played with at the club?
ZR – There was a lot of good players at the time, Steed Malbranque could take the ball in any situation, he was outstanding actually. It was really difficult to take the ball off of him because he was so small and would turn you really sharply. Boa was a match winner and Edwin was world class. But if I had to choose one I’d go for Papa Bouba Diop. He was a man mountain in front of the back four. In that season 2004/05, he was unplayable and scored some amazing goals. That Man Utd goal was amazing.
DS – It’s one of my favourite Fulham goals; the angle you must have seen it from was best with the camera behind him facing the goal. The bend outside the post was insane, very much like that Roberto Carlos’ free kick against France.
ZR – Yeah, what a goal! That’s the angle I saw it from, unbelievable! Then the celebration into the corner was a bit strange but not surprising from Papa!
DS – Why didn’t you get involved? You could have jumped on his back like Collins John did!
ZR – Nah mate, I was being professional, saving my energy for the last 2 minutes. I would have been knackered running over there! It was a great feeling cos I knew a draw against them was a decent result and it meant the team wouldn’t change for the next game on Sky against Charlton. So I was excited to play on live TV again.
DS – Why did you leave Fulham in the end and was it something that you knew was going to happen well in advance?
ZR – It got to the point where everyone was now fit again in the squad so my chances of playing regularly were slim. The manager wanted experience in the team, sadly we didn’t get off to the best of starts the following year with me in the team, so Cookie wanted to go with the experienced players. He told me to be patient and wait and obviously having a taste of it and then being out of the team is very frustrating. So I went to see him and explained, he told me over the next two years doesn’t matter what level that I needed to be getting 50 or 60 games under my belt for the experience.
So I did, I left for QPR and it’s probably the best thing I ever did. It was a turbulent time as we had 7 managers in a short space of time but I got the games I needed and that helped me stay in the game for another 10 years or so. Whereas someone like Adam Green chose to stay and ended up disappearing down the leagues without having many games after that. As sure as my home club I loved it but when you come through the ranks there comes a time when you have to move on for the sake of your career and that was the right time for me.
I actually had two years left on my contract but I had to play so I took a pay cut to go to QPR. Game time has to come before money otherwise you aren’t going anywhere.
DS – When you check the scores on a Saturday, which former club do you look out for first?
ZR – To be honest I always check for Fulham, Bradford and I check Villa because I grew up there. I had a little spell at Gillingham recently so I also look out for them. But I also keep an eye out on QPR but Fulham will always come first. It’s my club, when I’m in England I always pop to the training ground to say hello, I live local when back in England and I’d love to be back in some capacity.
DS – Fulham’s academy now is very strong and plenty of youngsters are given a chance in the first team. I compare that to the amount given a chance when you were breaking through. Was there anyone that you played within the academy that you were surprised didn’t get an opportunity?
ZR – I think when a clubs in the Premier League it’s much harder for a manager to take a gamble on the kids coming through unless it’s a cup game because their job is on the line and they have to do what they feel will bring in the results. To be fair Chris Coleman gave a few of us our debuts. The likes of myself, Dean Leacock, Malik Buari, Darren Pratley. There were 5 or 6 of us so it wasn’t that bad considering.
I went to the training ground recently and you’ve got the Sessegnon brothers and players like that. They’ve come in and taken their chances but don’t get me wrong the academy has definitely improved. The likes of Huw Jennings and Steve Wigley have done a fantastic job and it’s great to see. There was a young lad when we were 16 years old called Nicky Bailey, I was surprised that he didn’t get a contract but then he went onto have a good career to be fair to him with the likes of Charlton and Southend.
DS – Can you describe how it felt when you scored for Pakistan?
ZR – It was a nice feeling, it was against Chinese Taipei known as Taiwan out here. Like I mentioned earlier I don’t score many and for this game, I was the captain, we won 1-0 so it was great to score the winning goal and a couple of days later it was my birthday so it was a good way to celebrate that.
DS – Obviously you played for Pakistan because of your family background. Did you make the decision from an early age to represent them over England or was it just a case of being more likely to get opportunities for them?
ZR – No, when you grow up in England and you are part of the system, part of the academy you only dream of playing for England. I played for England U17 and was in the system up until 20. And then I was around the first team at a Premier League club playing for Fulham watching players from the Championship and League One getting called up for the England U21’s ahead of me which was very disappointing. Then the opportunity came up to play for Pakistan because of my parents and I took it up. I really enjoyed it, it was a great experience.
DS – What are your plans for when you retire, do you plan to go into management or anything?
ZR – I’m still playing at the moment, I’ve had a good time out in Thailand, Hong Kong and Malaysia and now I’m back in Hong Kong. I’m doing quite a bit; I’ve got my foundation which is running in the UK giving opportunities to kids of different backgrounds a chance to get into sport and education. I’m doing a business management degree which will be finished next year and I’ve got my BNA license and I’m currently working on getting my pro license so it will be good to go down the coaching route, hopefully back at Fulham, which would be nice even if it’s working with the youngsters.
DS – It would be great to have you back at the club; it’s always nice seeing ex-players involved with the club in some way when they’ve retired. It’s what keeps Fulham, Fulham. You are still part of the Fulham family even if you did have a spell at QPR and Gillingham!
ZR – Yeah well it’s a family club, they were really good to me and my family for 10 years so I’m never going to forget that. All the people there are so friendly, I’m still in touch with Carmelo and a few of the guys from the office which is rare in football. Fulham is always the first result I look out for and will always be the closest club to my heart. Although, as you keep telling me, I had spells with QPR and Gillingham but Fulham were always the one.
DS – Finally Zesh, pie or pasty – Which filling?
ZR – It’s gotta be a pie mate! Minced Beef I reckon.