Hibs striker Adam Le Fondre lifts lid on golf school, Football Manager, doing his homework and texts from Hearts man
But stop to ponder things too closely and it is clear that the 36-year-old is more nuanced than the happy-go-lucky, chirpy character who happily banters with boss Nick Montgomery and has managed to wind up former Sydney FC team-mate Cammy Devlin enough to have the Hearts midfielder firing off an angry text.
ALF or Alfie, as he is known to his mates, describes himself as moany and a bit arrogant, but it is all said with a warm smile and there is no condescending haughtiness to his confidence so, is that true? There is also no denying he knows his worth, but having spent so much time, over so many years working obsessively to improve himself, polishing his positives and filing away as many negatives as he can, that is unsurprising. And, while he has been a scorer of goals everywhere he has been, his ego does not demand goal-of-the-month contenders each time and he admits he would readily trade in a barrel load of 25-yard screamers for an even bigger barrel load of perfunctory tap-ins.
“I don’t really score spectacular goals,” Le Fondre states in an exclusive interview with The Scotsman. “I have scored a few but to be fair I didn’t really enjoy scoring them. I think of them as lucky. I prefer the ones where someone shoots, the keeper palms it out and I’m there to tap it in! That’s my ideal goal. Or, maybe a near-post tap in. Those are the goals I thrive off. They are more of a striker’s kind of goal.”
Described by Hibs director of football Brian McDermott, who was his manager when Reading broke into the English top tier, as the most selfless person and team player he has ever worked with, there is no disputing his individual drive – it rages like a fire within him and is applied to every aspect of his life. But in enhancing his own ability, his own fitness and knowledge, he is also helping his team-mates, displaying craft and footballing intelligence with his movement, runs and link-up play on matchdays. And, when he considers life after his playing days are over, thoughts turn to mentorships or coaching younger players rather than craving the power associated with being a manager. He wants to help the next generation but he says that diving into management would be unfair on his wife and three children.
“It’s okay on Football Manager, there’s no stress,” Le Fondre says. “If you want me to take a team from North West Counties to the Prem then give me the job but management proper? The shelf life of a football manager is too short. It is too cutthroat for me. As a gaffer, it is so precarious. I have put my wife, Amy, through torture for all this time being a footballer’s wife with all the moving around or being away from home, missing loads of things. Without her and the stability she offers behind the scenes I don’t think I would’ve played so long. So I have to think about her and the kids.”
Having signed a one-year deal at Hibs in the summer, the decision was taken to set the rest of the family up in their forever home in Stockport, as settled schooling etc took precedence, and while the sacrifice is evident, the arrangement has given Le Fondre time to pursue his other passion – golf. “I am a very keen golfer and trying to get better,” he explains. After speaking to Le Fondre about his football career, which has taken him through Stockport County’s youth system to ten other clubs in England, Wales, Australia, India and, now, Scotland, winning promotion, silverware and plaudits along the way, the second part of that sentence is redundant. This is a guy who was never allowed to befriend complacency, thanks to his dad, whose assessments of his games were, he says, brutal.
“My dad was a very harsh critic of mine,” Le Fondre reveals. “Even when I was nine or ten, I was crying most weekends. I didn't understand it then but as I grew up I realised he was wanting me to strive for more. If I got four in a game, he would ask why I didn't get six and then point out the two chances I missed. So I would go out and practice the chances I missed. Even after he wasn't my manager, he wouldn't miss a game and afterwards he would still pick apart things, not berating me but forcing me to look at things differently, and that made me want to impress him. I would be determined to go out and be flawless, which of course you never are on a football pitch, but in my head that spurred me on. I was determined to hear him say nothing but well done! Looking back, I thank him for that because it gave me habits and standards I needed to succeed and play at the levels I have. It made me grow as a player.”
He still makes those demands, of himself and his team-mates, which is where the moaning sometimes comes in. The day he stops working on his game, though, is the day complacency has won and he will hang up his boots, he insists.
Growing up a Manchester United fan he has role models aplenty over the years in Eric Cantona, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Robin van Persie and he has studied them all. But, in a demonstration of his determination to improve overriding team loyalties, he says it was Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero he learned the most from. “Just watching his movement,” muses Le Fondre. “He is the same size and stature as me and he would come off the line and scare people so much with his link-up play and his ability to go in behind as well. It is something I’ve always watched. I still do it now, I watch players and think ‘how can I get better?’ You have to keep evolving as a player.”
An admirer of the Brazilian Ronaldo's strike prowess, the durability of the CR7 is also something he taps into. “There is no better example of what hard work can do. It offers perspective for me and should do for every young player coming through because if someone like Ronaldo can keep working hard to improve then why doesn’t a 16-year-old who supposedly wants to succeed? These days there are so many tools and people ready to help. As a player I want to make myself even more reliable, a better all-round player. That way I can look back at the end of my career and say ‘you know what, I got every single bit out of my talent that I could have’. That’s something my parents instilled in me as a kid.”
It is the thing that could secure him a second season at Hibs, with a clause in his contract making that likely due to the number and quality of performances. It is also what will, no doubt, help his golf handicap as he taps into that work ethic and quest for perfection. “Obviously, being up here alone, I have a lot of time to myself so I do spend a lot of it trying to get my golf swing better,” reveals Le Fondre. “It is not translating quite as fast as I would like but if you want to be good at anything then you have to practice and then practice some more. It’s unlikely you are going to be amazing the first time around. If you are, you are incredibly lucky or stupidly talented and even then, you would need to be a fool not to keep practicing to maximise that.”
The golf has offered him a quick route to settling in, although with more clubs than the average Ryder Cup star, he is used to fostering new relationships. “I think with my personality, I am easy enough to get along with and I know what's required when you go in. I am a genuine person and get along with people and here I can have a laugh with a few people. I'm really happy.”
Finding the kind of camaraderie he enjoyed at Sydney was a concern when he chose to head back to the UK. He reveals he had headed down under looking for a way to rejuvenate himself as things threatened to become a bit stale in English football and it worked so he had to weigh things up before signing anything. “I did my background on the club and the playing group and I found out there were no dickheads,” he says. “I don't want to be in a dressing room where they are arguing or there are cliques and drama.”
Breaking the ice proved easy thanks to a bit of Backstreet Boys’ I Want It That Way, which is his long-time initiation song, in a karaoke bar during the pre-season break to Marbella. The perfectionist in him must have practiced his performance in front of a mirror countless times before taking in public but now he says he can put on quite a show. “I have had to do it a few times so I have a good rendition of it,” Le Fondre smiles. “I’m not shy with it, put it that way. I get a bit of crowd involvement which always goes down well. I started the show and a few of the boys were worried about going after me!”
His link-up play on the pitch speaks to the bonds that have already been formed, as does the banter. When Martin Boyle bursts in with some scrunched-up shorts, which have apparently not been turned the right way for laundry, Le Fondre gives as good as he gets in a bid to avoid the £10 fine, while the golf chat further illustrates the ease in which friendships have been made. “I definitely wind up Riley Harbottle, I can get into his head easy enough and at the minute I’m slapping him all over the course which is good! You obviously have expectations and want to play perfect golf and with my temperament, especially with football, you want to be perfect but you know there are limitations with everything. I wouldn't say I throw clubs but there is a ‘f**k off’ now and then when I hit an errant shot because I believe I have practiced enough not to hit those kinds of shots but I do.”
Picking out Joe Newell and Josh Campbell as the ones to beat, he adds that Christian Doidge is a bandit, Will Fish hits long but claims that it is Dylan Levitt who “is like John Daly off the tee. Seriously, the ball screams ‘ow’ as he hits it!”
A man who says he plays football and golf with a degree of aggression simmering below the surface, he curses poor shots but there is enough joy to keep him coming back – which has been the same with football all these years. Looking forward to this afternoon’s Edinburgh derby – his first – at Tynecastle, he knows he will have to keep that emotion tethered. It gives him the chance to catch up with former A-League opponents and ex-team-mate Devlin and possibly even set up another round of golf, depending on how things go.
“That’s if Cammy is talking to me,” says Le Fondre. “When I signed I said that he had texted to say we should meet up and I told him to f*ck off because we were rivals now. He messaged me saying: ‘You’re a liar!’ and I was laughing because I’d said it as a joke. But Cammy is a nice lad. We have said that we will have to get a round of golf but it's hard because I have such a good golf school at Hibs so it's hard to break away to go and play with other people. I will probably speak to him after the derby. Not before. You are always enemies until after the final whistle. But I am looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to sampling the atmosphere. I think that will be amazing and it will be good to have someone like that playing against me because he is a bit of a windup merchant and that makes it fun.
“Although to be fair, and you might not believe it, Cammy was quite quiet at Sydney. It was only when he moved away to Wellington that he was stroking people’s faces in games and stuff like that. I remember thinking: ‘What's going on here?’ But he can do what he wants in the derby. I have always had that channelled aggression in games so it doesn't matter to me.”
As a goalscorer, Le Fondre has netted on so many stages from cup matches, but a derby goal would definitely find its way into his treasure trove of memories. “In Sydney we played Western Sydney in the elimination finals and the talk had been about how they had had a great season and we were the underdogs and all that palaver,” adds Le Fondre. “We went to their place and won and I scored the winner in something like the 80th minute. It was amazing and a great atmosphere. It shut a few people up as well as they had talked a lot of nonsense about us throughout the season. The best goals are the ones with the most importance. But I just want to win, so we all have to go out there and find a way to do that.”