Young & Hungry: Andrew Eleftheriou
By Ed Perchard
In the 19th century, the Norwegian town of Sandefjord was the centre of the world’s booming whaling industry. Famed for its specialist ships and resident seafaring expertise, it also became the hub for some of the most ambitious expeditions into uncharted Antarctic mysteries.
In March, young Watford pro Andrew Eleftheriou arrived on Norway’s south coast on an expedition of his own, venturing into the unknown to make use of one of the town’s less heralded industries – football.
Eleftheriou is Watford’s longest continuously-serving player, having joined the club at the age of six, way back in 2003. The long-serving right-back made his Watford debut in the final game of the 2016/17 season, but after finding his first-team involvement diminishing last season, decided that the time had come to have a taste of footballing life outside of Hertfordshire.
There was one issue: given the timing, after the closure of the English transfer window, a loan abroad was the only option.
But rather than being daunted by the prospect, Eleftheriou was buoyed by the recent success of young English talent embracing foreign leagues, and so, after signing an extension to his Watford contract that now runs to next summer, he set off for four months in the blue of Sandefjord Fotball.
Two players that have led the recent trend of venturing abroad in search of playing time are Jadon Sancho, now at Borussia Dortmund, and Nathaniel Chalobah, who spent a year at Napoli earlier in his career. Both made their England debuts in October and Eleftheriou knows both well from their time at Watford.
It is examples like theirs that Eleftheriou enthusiastically followed when signing on to spend the first half of the year in Scandinavia, and the young full-back, eligible for Cyprus through his father’s family but born in Islington, is determined to follow their path all the way to the national team.
“We had calls from two other countries but then Norway came up”, Eleftheriou remembers. “It’s a good league and there are some good teams playing in Europe, so I thought it would be a good way to get some more experience, get some more minutes and play men’s football.”
Taking stock of the Eliteserien, Norway’s top division, Eleftheriou found that the standard was “really high”.
“Technically, they’re very good,” he said. “Every single team was technically and tactically very sharp. The physical side was not as demanding as it is in England, but technically it was very good.”
It was a good balance for Eleftheriou, a “box-to-box right back” who counts the physical side of his game as his greatest strength. Alongside his Watford commitments, the defender was scouted by athletics club Barnet Shaftesbury Harriers while at school and ran competitively in a number of sprint disciplines. “I like to overlap and get a few assists. I like to take bits from different players: I like the way Jordi Alba attacks,” says the self-confessed Barcelona nut.
Growing up around North London and plying his trade at Watford, where he had risen through the ranks with a consistent group of players, this was Eleftheriou’s first time living outside of the capital.
The surrounds of Sandefjord, a coastal town that has now swapped harpoons for parasols and the beach tourism trade, helped with the settling process off the pitch.
“I’d been preparing for it for a while, wanting to go out and take the step from living at home to being grown-up and working for what you love. I was mentally prepared for it already, but it was still a bit of a shock. I had friends who came out there a lot which helped.
“It’s a really nice city. Luckily the weather was really good this year, so for the time I was there it was really hot. It’s a summer town really: people come down from Oslo for their breaks. There’s nice beaches, nice places to go out and eat and relax and chill. And everyone speaks English there, which helped a lot.”
But with the club one of the pre-season favourites for relegation (the Norwegian season runs from March to November) there was no time for the whaling museum. And as well as exposure to a new footballing culture, Eleftheriou got an important sample of the universal concept of football as a results business.
“The club was a bit up and down because they stayed up last year but when I got there they hadn’t won much in pre-season and there had been a few bad results,” Eleftheriou says.
“There were three managers in the time that I was there, so almost a manager a month. It was hard but it just shows you what real life is. It’s not as bright and easy as it is in the Under-23s. Results do matter, points mean something, and staying up can mean you’re keeping your job, so everyone’s fighting for their lives.
Unfortunately for Sandefjord, results didn’t improve after their tough start, and the side was relegated after several months rooted to the bottom of the table. But Eleftheriou still remembers his time in Norway fondly, and treasures the experience of running out in front of a packed Komplett Arena.
“There’s a lot of passionate football fans out there and it’s nice to play in a full stadium, having people cheering your name and wanting you to do well.”
He doesn’t hesitate when asked if he would recommend time abroad to a young professional. “Definitely. You realise that it’s not only England that you can aim to play in, there are other places where the standards are really good and a lot of people watch out there.”
Now that he’s back in England, however, Eleftheriou is focused on getting back to where he was at the tail end of the 2016/17 season.
That year, his first as a professional, brought an unexpected leap straight into first team involvement. “I didn’t think I’d be there so soon,” he concedes. “I started training with them a lot in December and I was still surprised to be included. West Brom was the first game I went to and that was out of nowhere.”
Working with the first team meant working with then-Head Coach Walter Mazzarri, a “very technical” coach, says Eleftheriou, and one that progressed the way the full-back thought about the game. “He helped me a lot positioning-wise and with one-on-one defending and taught me a lot about the differences between playing as a full-back and a wing-back.”
In the second half of the season he made the bench nine times, the last of which saw him make his debut in rather difficult circumstances, coming on as a first-half substitute against a rampant Manchester City.
The score was already 3-0 when Eleftheriou replaced an injured Daryl Janmaat in the 39th minute. For a first year professional it was a baptism of fire against the constant movement of Sergio Agüero, Kevin De Bruyne, Leroy Sané, David Silva and Gabriel Jesus – possibly the best attacking quintet in the history of English football.
For most of us, the thought of trying to keep any of those in check in front of a packed Vicarage Road would be the stuff of nightmares, but Eleftheriou, though admitting he felt a little shock when waiting to step onto the pitch, saw it as the realisation of over a decade of hard work.
“As soon as you’re in the game you don’t really think about who it is,” said the Londoner. “I’ve played against hundreds of different players. You’ve just got to think ‘I’m here for a reason, I worked that hard from the age of six at Watford for this moment. This was the target.’ You’ve got to believe that you’re good enough to play against anyone.
“The first time Sané got the ball one-on-one I got my foot in and knocked the ball away. That gave me confidence because it’s the first touch in the first minute of being on the pitch.”
With Eleftheriou in at right-back Watford stemmed the flow of City goals, and saw out the season with a 5-0 defeat. The defender was pleased with his performance, and received words of encouragement from Vincent Kompany, who a year later would lift the Premier League trophy for the third time.
“He came over to me afterwards and told me to keep working hard,” said Eleftheriou. “It was nice he took the time out for that.”
With the taste of Premier League football lingering, Eleftheriou is determined to get back to rubbing shoulders with the likes of Kompany and Agüero as soon as possible.
“I want to be back where I was with the first team, and I need to work as hard as I can to get there,” he said.
His expedition to Norway shows that he’s willing to go to any length to improve his game, and he wouldn’t rule out another loan, home or away, to get more vital experience, but the ultimate target, the white whale, is to get in and stay in Watford’s first team.
“I’ve been here so long and I’ve got a taste of it, so now I just want some more.”
Photo credit: Torstein Flåm & Alan Cozzi.