Sulaiman Folarin chats to Southampton's midfield dominator about life at St Mary's, why Mauricio Pochettino must stay, and making it from Kenya...
You're near the end of your first season at Southampton: how have you found it?
It’s been up and down. It has been good and at the same time it hasn’t been great. The team started well and we were in the top four; even I started well. After a while I got injured, though, and that was my low moment this season.
It was really difficult. I was working hard thinking I was going to come back quicker. When I came back I wasn't fully ready, then I was injured again and back to rehab. It wasn't easy. But I had to be strong and keep on working. After almost three months I felt strong again, and was back on the field.
You’ve returned to Southampton’s starting XI. How did you feel when you couldn’t get back in when you returned from injury?
I couldn’t get back immediately because I was injured, and you can't just expect to walk back into the starting line-up right away. The team was doing well. I had to also get my rhythm back, and chemistry with team-mates to some extent. Slowly but surely I played some games, and from there I got my full match fitness and was back in the starting line-up again.
At a point early in the season it seemed Southampton would fight for a spot in Europe. Was that one of the team’s goals?
To be honest with you, we were just trying to finish better than we did the season before. The season before the club finished 14th, and the objective this time was to do better than that. Everything went well. I think we achieved what we wanted because we are better placed than last season. That was an achievement for me.
We’re not thinking about next season yet - we’ll see what the future holds. Our players have been doing well. Hopefully next season we can stick together, do big things and be a great side.
You played in Scotland with Celtic. Did you think a move to the Premier League would come so soon? Was it the right decision?
The Premier League is a big league - everyone sees himself playing in England. That was also my goal. I knew that one day I would be playing here, but it was a tough decision for me to leave a great club to come here. But I’m happy that I made the right decision and I feel good about it.
Mauricio Pochettino brought you to St. Mary’s. What’s your relationship with him like?
We have a good relationship because I trusted the manager when he brought me here. He really helped me to settle in. He is a good coach; he’s not only a good manager but also a great man outside of football. He helps his players whenever he can. As a footballer, I just appreciate what he has done for me and everyone else at the club.
What’s his management style? Does he speak English or use an interpreter in training?
He’s very professional. He has a great philosophy of how to play football, and you can see that in how the team plays. It’s good working under him. He speaks English and we understand the messages he wants to pass on to us. He doesn’t use an interpreter. You know the football message is one that everybody understands - it’s maybe not as difficult as talking in a press conference.
Rumours are circulating that he might leave for Tottenham. What do you make of them?
They are all rumours, although because he is a great manager so many teams will be interested in him. We just hope that he stays because of the work he has done here. I feel like the club can only improve with him - he has done a lot here.
Southampton's top goalscorer Jay Rodriguez is ruled out for six months with an ACL injury. How big a loss is he for the team?
I think he contributed well for us, so it was really a big loss for the team and for England as well. He was on form and he was scoring goals. It was just a shame that the injury came at the wrong time, which is especially bad for the World Cup. He was flying for the club and we miss him.
Luke Shaw and Adam Lallana are part of the PFA Team of the Year and might be part of England’s World Cup squad. What are your impressions of both players?
They are very good players. Hopefully they can make the England team to show people what they have, because they’ve played a big part in the club’s success this season. It would be great seeing them play for England in the World Cup in Brazil this summer.
Let’s talk about Kenya. What was it like growing up and playing football there?
I started as a kid in the streets playing football. My father was a footballer too - that’s how it all started. Growing up in Kenya was not easy, because football there is not run very professionally. I was lucky I got the opportunity to get out of Kenya and come to Europe early. I’m very thankful for that.
In Kenya we have runners and we have people who want to play football. I didn’t grow up with running. I grew up as a footballer on the football side of Kenya, like Nairobi, where it’s more football than running. The runners come from the Rift Valley in Kenya.
West African footballers are more recognisable in Europe compared to East Africans. Why is it more difficult for East Africans to be spotted?
We have good players in East Africa also; it's just that the scouting isn't there. If they came out and to watch the players available, I think they would spot so many talents. I think it’s up to the scouts to make time to come and watch East African players because the talent is there; it exists. I came from there, after all.
I don’t only represent Kenya, I represent Africa. I really think I’m a role model there and a lot of players look up to me so I need to lead by example. This will inspire others to strive to the highest levels and hopefully get spotted.
At 22 you’re captain of the Kenyan national team. What’s it like to wear that armband?
For me I don’t think it’s a big issue, although I do think it’s a test for me as well as a challenge. I’m really enjoying being the captain, but it’s not easy. I must say I have been handling it well. It’s a good thing for me as I grow as footballer.
What can we expect from Kenyan football going forward? Making it to AFCON Morocco 2015, or going to Russia in 2018?
We have to start with qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations first. The World Cup I think is too big for us; we have to take it step by step. When we’ve played in the AFCON then we’ll see what will happen.
There are five African teams heading to Brazil with plenty of household names from the Premier League. How many African teams can make it out of the first round?
All of the African sides are really good teams. I’m sure two or three African teams will make it to the second round in Brazil. Those teams are a lot better than people give them credit for.
Do you think England can advance from their World Cup group?
I think they have a good team, but they are also in a very tough group. It’s going to be difficult for them, but I want them to make it - I want them to top the group. They have really good players, like my team-mates. If they go there and work hard they can make it... even to the final.