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'You need to feel nerves, a little bit hungry' - Martin Dúbravka interview

Written by Tom Easterby

As he closes in on his 125th Premier League appearance for Newcastle United, goalkeeper Martin Dúbravka is as important to the Magpies as ever. After a tough summer and a troubling injury, the 33-year-old reclaimed his place between the posts last November and is yet to relinquish it. He spoke to UNITED, the club's official matchday programme, ahead of Saturday's visit of Liverpool…

Life is a little more hectic these days and, as Martin Dúbravka sits down for this interview, he apologises for shunning my WhatsApp message. It is one of 30 sitting unread on his phone. As the father of a one-year-old, Viliam, his time and attention is in greater demand now. "I still remember the feeling when they showed him to us for the first time, when I heard him start to cry," he says. "It was unbelievable.

"It is fantastic, I'm super happy. I can see the little one growing up every day, discovering things. I'm happy that I can show him a bit of life abroad, you know. I like that he can experience this. Hopefully he can pick some good things up, for example the language – that would be massive for him. He was born here, a little Geordie. This will always be in my mind, in my memories."

It is the kind of emotional tie that separates Dúbravka from those just passing through Newcastle and four years into his time on Tyneside, from the stable perch of mid-table, he can laugh at the chaotic circumstances of his arrival. "It was so stressful! I didn't know if I would make it, because we didn't have much time." It was January 2018, transfer deadline day. Short on sleep and in Spain for a training camp with Sparta Prague, he was pushed onto a plane to Tyneside and greeted by the club's player liaison officer, Glenn Patterson. "He bought me a nice lunch. I still owe him some money."

United were at home to Burnley that night. It was a bizarre evening. With a match going on during the final hours of the window, United worked to complete his loan deal as the game was being played. In the bowels of the stadium, there was the unusual sight of a potential new signing being led through the busy media suite on his way up to the boardroom to sign his contract.

Then 29, Dúbravka was probably not instantly recognisable to most Magpies fans. There were just a few requests for photos and autographs and were it not for reports of the club's interest, he might have got into the ground under cover of relative anonymity. "The thing is, I'd been playing for a national team for so many years. Not the first goalie – I'd been waiting for my first match for, I would say, seven years. I had experience, but I had zero experience with English football.

"I knew this was the chance I had to take. That night against Manchester United, that was an incredible moment for me. An incredible experience in my life. You can't imagine how many calls and how many messages I had after that game."

His debut, that famous win over the Red Devils, was a successful audition for the number one spot then-manager Rafa Benítez had identified as a priority in his functional but limited team. He established himself for club and country, helping Slovakia qualify for the delayed 2020 European Championships. It was there, he feels, that the foot injury he had been playing with since the previous December became unmanageable.

"If you play 50 games during the season and you don't have a break in the summer, I think it's normal that you pick up some injuries. Unfortunately for me, I pick up the strange ones, I'd say," he explains. "I didn't really do any bad movements. Your body just asks when you need a break, and you just need the time to slow it down. I was lucky before that I wasn't injured for a while.

"With certain injuries, you know the process – you probably have an estimated time, 'it will take four or five weeks', or however many months or whatever. But with this injury I had, no-one really knew how long it would take."

Dúbravka had struggled to complete training sessions after joining up with Slovakia ahead of last summer's tournament. He played with painkillers and his enjoyment of the whole occasion dipped. "Even in the first game, against Poland, after 60 minutes I was struggling. I was struggling. I knew I had to fix it, because this might affect my future."

In their final group stage fixture against Spain, Dúbravka made an error, the kind that is tough to forget. Does he think his injury affected how he played? "I don't know. It's no excuse for the performance," he shakes his head. "When you are on the pitch, you cannot accept it – you don't always go onto the pitch fully fresh. When I'm there I'm trying to be focussed, not think about it when you have a bad injury, but when you have an injury like this, you can't think about being fully, fully, 100 per cent focussed on the game because it's so much pain. I was trying to concentrate. But it's no excuse about the performance."

Dúbravka's error against Spain at EURO 2020. He had been playing with an injury for months. "I was trying to concentrate. But it's no excuse about the performance."

I am reminded of an interview from 2019 in which Dúbravka told me that "football is all about mistakes, you know". It is a striking thing for a goalkeeper to say but he stands by it. "It is, yeah. The most important thing is to be honest with yourself. With social media now, everyone can comment, everyone can have different opinions. But I was always honest with myself. If I made a mistake, I admit it. 'Listen, I made a mistake'.

"When the keepers make a mistake it's usually a goal, so it's slightly different, but you have to be honest. You have to study to do better, in the moment where you make the mistake, and that's how you improve.

"I never put my head down after that one. I was maybe sad that I made a mistake, that's an absolutely normal reaction – look at the big names, they make mistakes as well, on the biggest stage. But the reaction – to keep going, keep working, analyse what you could do better – proves that you're still a good goalie.

"Especially young players, sometimes they don't know how to react after that. Sometimes the players try to hide, or to avoid the question. Why, when it's obvious? It's obvious! That's part of the game. Obviously you're trying to not make mistakes, but when you're playing at the top level, sometimes it just happens. Sometimes you can't really do much with it because it happens so quick. But that's how it is in the Premier League."

It seems a more pragmatic way of handling it than pretending it didn't happen. "You have to show the character as well," he continues. "When someone is just blaming you for random things – that's something different. Sometimes, you have to also realise you didn't do any mistakes – ‘hold on’. You have to stand up and say, 'this wasn't my fault'. You have to defend yourself."

Throughout his time at Newcastle the club's goal has been to simply stay up, so it feels like Dúbravka is quite enjoying being able to talk about "building our reputation" and "putting the club back where it should be". The 33-year-old brushes off a question about a goalkeeper's best years ("I'm just living the moment now, to be fair") but is more forthcoming on the mental strain of setting a low bar, year after year. "It's been a difficult time for us, playing to survive in the Premier League. I always said that I have ambitions to play in European competitions with Newcastle, so this has always been my dream. If you look back at where I've played before, I always played in European competitions – at least the qualification round – so it would be nice to achieve that target here as well.

"It's mentally very difficult to play every year against relegation, to play to survive. That's very difficult and sometimes people don't realise how difficult that is. It would be nice to go higher in the table and enjoy the football a little bit more. When you are down there, you have so much pressure. You need to get the results because you just need to stay up, and you want to stay up, to compete with the best ones. Now we are in a position where we can enjoy it a little bit, with four more games and a job to do. Then we can see where we can go."

He signed a new six-year contract with United in 2019, so has three seasons remaining on his current terms – "not as long as I wish!", he smiles. It means his immediate future is more certain than some of his teammates but he still must prove he can be part of the future. "I'm trying to be in good shape, that's the first thing. You need to be healthy. I'm the most experienced player in the dressing room at the moment, but it doesn't mean that I can just chill and do nothing. I'm a player who likes to work hard. I'm 33 now, and I still think that I have more years ahead of me, and hopefully here."

"There's a massive difference between being nervous and getting the nerves. When you're nervous, you can make a mistake. That's something different. But you need to have that kind of feeling of, like, 'let's go! Let's go, come on!'"

Eddie Howe's appointment in November brought many changes. Some were practical, some were cultural. There are a number of quotations printed on the walls inside the training centre in Benton, one of which emphasises the importance of application each and every day. Dúbravka agrees with it. "I'm experienced now but I still want to be better. I'm still working on my personal ambitions, personal improvements, so you have to do it every day," he says.

"When you watch the Champions League and European competitions, football has changed a lot the last couple of years. Liverpool and Manchester City are great examples – short passing, trying to build it up, not just kicking the ball away. We are trying to get there, trying to see where we can improve, and you can see a few bits there already. For me personally, I'm trying to work with my feet because I think there's always room to be better."

That approach tallies with a man who does not always feel at ease in the calm. He once told me how, in order to be ready, you have to have nerves. "I think when you are just relaxed, you are missing something," he nods. "You need to prepare yourself, like, 'no, this is another tough game', you know? You just need to feel this kind of tickling inside your head somewhere. 'This game is very important, so prepare yourself'. You need to feel nerves, a little bit hungry as well. When I get the feeling I'm chilling, I go to take a cold shower. That always, always, brings you back, man.

"There's a massive difference between being nervous and getting the nerves. When you're nervous, you can make a mistake. That's something different. But you need to have that kind of feeling of, like, 'let's go! Let's go, come on!' It's not a feeling of being nervous and scared. It's something different, like when you feel pumped, like you take some kind of pre-workout."

In part, that feeling he craves is anticipation, being ever so slightly on edge. After warming up this afternoon, Dúbravka will head back to the dressing room and shower. One more thing: that gesture he does with his right hand, after walking out, after the huddle, as he jogs over to his goal? What is it? "I kiss the pitch," he says. "Sometimes I take the grass. It comes naturally. I don't know why. I'm not superstitious to be fair, but I have some things I've just picked up through my career. I try to touch the ground. Sometimes I just grab a bit of the grass and put it in my mouth, just to get that feeling of, 'alright!'"

Presumably the grass acts as some kind of horticultural smelling salt, jolting him back into the moment in which he is living. "I know it's strange, but we are like gladiators sometimes. You have to really fight. This is what I've picked up. Then I go to the fans, and appreciate that they are there." I just thought I might as well ask about that little routine. "I don't know when I picked that up," he laughs. "It just kind of just happened, and since then I just kind of enjoyed it. Especially when you have a nice pitch…"

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