'This is me, back to normal now' - Ryan Fraser interview
Written by Tom Easterby
This season brings with it something of a fresh start for Ryan Fraser, whose first season on Tyneside was disrupted by injury. He seems to be relishing the prospect of a more normal campaign – one without empty stadiums and unfortunate setbacks. This interview was published inside Saturday’s issue of UNITED, just before the Scotland international rounded off pre-season with another assist…
There are few less palatable phrases in modern footballing jargon than describing a player as 'like a new signing' when by definition they most definitely are not. But it feels reasonable to ask Ryan Fraser, after disruption, injuries and silent stadiums pockmarked his first year at Newcastle United, if part of him still feels like one. "No," he replies – fair enough – before taking a moment to consider it. "In a way, I do feel like a new signing, but I am glad that I got last year in so the players could get to know me on a personal level as much as on the pitch. The fans probably will think I’m a new signing!"
A full, normal pre-season after the chaos of 2020 has been welcomed by the 27-year-old, who joined the Magpies as a free agent last September. He signed less than a week before the start of the Premier League season, six months to the day since his last outing in Bournemouth colours.
"I hadn't kicked a ball. I didn't play the West Ham game (on the opening day), then I played 70 minutes against Blackburn and that was my first game in six months. As much as I wanted to play, I was always playing catch up – that was the thing," he says. "You play catch up, then you try doing too much to try and catch up with the lads, then you get injured, then you're playing catch up again.
"I'd never went into a season not having had a pre-season. Even if it’s been a short pre-season, I'd always been away with Scotland having games and stuff. So I think this," he pauses, "this is me, back to normal now."
That is a relief for both Fraser and United’s supporters, who did not see what they hoped they would from the Scotland international during his first campaign at the club. The primary reason his 2020/21 was so fragmented was injuries ("they weren’t small ones – they were big ones") which came after he had largely managed to avoid them for the best part of a decade.
A pulled hamstring and a pulled groin preceded a calf problem and then a hernia that he tried to play through until it became too much. A torn oblique muscle, discovered mid-operation, added a further layer of difficulty to an already exasperating year.
Part of it, he feels, relates to his own eagerness upon arrival. "I think I just tried too hard, in a stupid way, doing extras when my body probably wasn’t ready for extras," he says. "I probably should have been looking after myself thinking, 'right, let's be honest, I’m probably not going to play the first one or two months', and just try and maintain myself.
"But I was trying too much – 'I need to start the games, I need to show that I'm working harder than anyone else' – and it probably didn't work, to be honest. There's ways to do that type of thing, and I think I've probably just overdone myself."
The Blackburn game, a Carabao Cup tie, brought a debut goal, the winner. It came at an empty St. James’, in that strange, eerie atmosphere that became an unwelcome norm. He missed the "boot up the arse" fans can provide. "We all know fans make football, and I'm not just saying that. We all know that it gives you that extra little bit – it shouldn't, but it does."
There wasn't even much of an opportunity to get a feel for his new city – the lockdowns saw to that. He was accompanied by Andy Carroll, Matt Ritchie and Callum Wilson on the only occasion he made it out for a meal. That night, Carroll joked on Instagram about ex-Cherries Fraser and Wilson joining another, Ritchie, in Newcastle.
There was a great deal of excitement at the prospect of Fraser and Wilson, a 23-goal, 25-assist pairing in 2018/19, replicating their partnership up north. "We used to just train on it every day under the manager at Bournemouth," he shrugs. "We used to just go through things every day – 'if I’m in this position, I need you there’' or, 'if he’s in that position, he wants it there'.
"Over the last maybe five years of playing with each other, every season we’d set each other up. It was just kind of like that, (like) a robot, a natural instinct, where if I put it in an area, he knew I was going to put it in there and likewise. There was a lot of work put into it on the training pitch with the manager there, and that's why it was so good."
Fraser, right, congratulates Dwight Gayle after setting up the striker's first goal against Norwich City on Saturday
In the last few weeks there have been signs that they can rekindle that fruitful link. The Aberdeen-born wideman, deployed in a deeper midfield berth, clipped a delicate through ball to hand his old friend his first goal of pre-season in the win at Doncaster. Fraser's own strike had set Steve Bruce's men on their way. It was a "decent" start. "I'm just happy to be fit!" he laughs. But aside from the usual late-summer fitness slog, there has been another test.
"I've changed position to try and fit into the system,” he explains. "I've never really played midfield, but I'm trying to learn how to play (as a number) eight to try and get myself in the team, because obviously I'm a winger.
"It's just trying to fit into the team as much as I can, going in and asking the coaches – 'look, if you see me playing as an eight in midfield, I need to be taught it', so they're trying to teach me that at the minute. This pre-season, I've been playing that position and doing OK at it. It's something I just need to keep learning."
Did Fraser instigate that conversation? "It was both me and the coaches. Obviously in this formation, I don't really fit in the formation, in a way, but you can always fit yourself into it. So that's what we kind of said to each other – 'right, you see me playing here', 'right, let’s learn it'.
"I'll try and get into the team. I might not start in the team but I want to be first choice if I can. I played wing-back at Bournemouth sometimes under Eddie Howe, so I've played there. If they want to play me ten, I've played ten before, but not a lot, (and) Maxi (Allan Saint-Maximin)'s going to play there. And then you've got eights, where there's three, (and) more of a chance of me getting in there, so I'll try and learn it.
"It's one of them – a season of trying to be versatile to try and play as much as I can, and fit into the team as much as I can."
Fraser's parents used to spend nine or ten hours driving down from Scotland to see him when he lived on the south coast. Newcastle is much closer to their home in Aberdeen than Bournemouth, which means a much less arduous journey for the family. "I feel comfortable here, which is really nice," he says. "I enjoy coming here, I enjoy living here, which is really important for me." He is currently renovating his home in the area, a task made slightly easier by two years of work experience as a joiner and an electrician. "You never know if you're going to make it in football, so I think I just stuck in at that. In the flooring of my new house, I'm putting new lights in, putting wires through and connecting everything. You never know, after football, what you’re going to be.
"It's going to take us a while, but there will be people coming in to help, like my dad. But the main things I'll be trying to do myself. It could be horrific," he laughs, "but at the same time, it could be decent."
There is plenty to be said for the comforts of home, even more so a well-finished and fully-wired one, and there is a sense of a fresh start about his second season at Newcastle. "I feel a lot happier, a lot better within myself," says Fraser. "I don't want to jinx anything, but the injuries and stuff have been really good so far. I've got a lot of football in and done decent as well in the games.
"In your head, you've got things you want, but you never know in football – you never know what the manager thinks, if you're in the team, if you're not in the team, if he sees you in the team. All you can do is just give 100 per cent every single day, and try and play well in the pre-season games.”
At Bournemouth he knew, if fully fit and firing, he'd most likely play. There is a different challenge for him at St. James' after a summer of learning. "It's one of those," he says. "I'm not really too sure. Everyone needs to fight for their position and I'll fight for my position. If I'm in the team, buzzing. If not, I'll want the team to win and I'll do the best I can if I come on to try and affect things so we do win. That's all you can do as a footballer."
To order your copy of Saturday's matchday programme online, as well as upcoming issues and programmes from the 2020/21 season, visit Curtis Sport's website by clicking here.
"We all know fans make football, and I'm not just saying that. We all know that it gives you that extra little bit – it shouldn't, but it does."