‘R’ Chat w/ Yoann Barbet: Pre-Season Special

Yoann Barbet joined ‘R’ Generation’s Sam Taylor and Ben Summer to talk through the early years of his career, a moment of reckoning in joining QPR and the advice he would offer to the younger generation.

If there is one thing you need to know about Yoann Barbet, it’s that he has drive and professionalism to spare. Some players might take a broken shoulder as a sign to slow down, but not Barbet. After a scan revealed the QPR #6 had sustained a break during a Championship game against Swansea, he found himself at a crossroads:

“I found out after the Swansea game that I was the only player left able to play every single [Championship] minute, so straight away I went to see the physio and the doctor, and said ‘listen guys, we’ve got three games to go… just give me everything you can as long as it’s healthy. Give me some strong painkillers.’”

“It’s just a personal point of view,” Barbet explains as he speaks remotely from QPR’s training ground. “If I can’t do it, and I’m a weak link to the team, then I’ll step away,” – but otherwise, he was determined to play. After seeing a specialist, the defender took the decision to play through the pain barrier and complete all 4140 minutes of the Championship season. 

This doggedness and focus on physical fitness exemplify Barbet’s determination. When speaking about whether life has returned to normal after lockdown, he mentions a disciplinary lesson that he will be carrying forward as restrictions ease.

“[In lockdown], you cannot go to restaurants, you cannot go out, so I was really focused on just myself. Not being selfish, but being [as] healthy as possible. That’s how I ended up playing 46 games. Now you’re back to normal, you’ll always have the temptation to go ‘ah, tonight, should we go to a restaurant?’”

“You just have to be strong. If you know what you want on the pitch, you know what you have to do off the pitch. So it’s back to normal but I haven’t changed my routine from when the lockdown was over or when everything was shut down. I try to maintain [as if] no restaurants are open in the week and try to enjoy myself just after the games.”

When asked what his individual targets were in pre-season, this mentality remains and Barbet is clear – “to be as fit as possible,” after returning to training at a fitness level below his own expectations. After missing the 2-1 win against Cambridge due to a sickness bug, he returned to fitness to play against Leicester. He describes the encounter as one of several “really, really good” pre-season games. “They put almost their strongest XI out to prepare for the Community Shield,” he notes, and credits the QPR side’s ability “to go toe-to-toe with them for 90 minutes.”

That particular game was special for another reason, with Barbet’s son present for his first-ever football match. “He saw the goal as well,” laughs the proud father, “it was probably the only 2 minutes where he was watching, so that was really really good!”

Winding back the clock, Barbet admits that his early days at QPR were not his best, with two consecutive injuries limiting his opportunities at the start of the 2019/20 season. “I was getting hammered by Brentford fans because I left for QPR, and getting hammered by QPR fans because they wanted me to go back to Brentford!” he jokes.

In comparison to those early days, he now feels “great” in the team. “The gaffer trusts me, I played every game last season and I want to play as many games as I can. So if I can play 46 games this season, that would be brilliant again!” 

When asked whether he sees QPR as a home for the future, he replies: “Why change? If I’m good in the team and the team performs well, I’d be more than happy to be there of course. There’s no question about that.” 

Whilst Barbet appears entirely content at QPR now, he admits to a crisis of confidence when initially offered a contract:

“Basically, I left Brentford and didn’t know where I was going. So I went back to France, and after a week the physio from Brentford texted me and said, ‘I have one manager who’s asked me for your number, should I give it to him?’ So I said, ‘yeah, go on.’”

The gaffer rang me and said, ‘I’m taking over QPR and I want to sign you.’ The first two weeks I was like… ‘oh, I can go anywhere but I can’t go to QPR.’”

He qualifies this statement, which seems sincerely alien coming from the QPR fan-favourite we’ve come to know, by explaining:

“I used to learn [to] hate QPR for 4 years. That was the fact, how we used to be at Brentford, like ‘it’s the big derby, we have to win and we have to hate them.’ So I’m about to sign at some club that I’m supposed to hate, basically. I’m saying to my family, ‘I can’t do that, I can’t go.’”

Barbet chuckles as he tells this story, no doubt looking back at a long-gone anti-QPR mentality. How does a player go from fearing the backlash at joining a direct rival, to playing 77 games (and counting) for Rangers? 

Enter stage left, Mark Warburton.

“The gaffer kept ringing me every day. ‘Yoann, I want you, I want you.’ I was just thinking about what’s the best for my career. I know the fans are important but they’re not the ones on the pitch. I have to think about what will be the best opportunity for me. The gaffer said, ‘if I need to come to France to see you and convince you, let me know and I’ll come.’”

The rest is history. Warburton flew out to France and the pair spoke at the airport for hours before the Frenchman decided to sign on the dotted line. Barbet recalls speaking to his agent, who had never before seen a manager fly to another country to convince a player. “As soon as he came, I knew in my head that I was going [to QPR].” He reflects: “I think I made the right choice!”

Rewinding further yet again, Barbet speaks about his early days at Bordeaux and how he carved out a professional career. When asked which player he looked up to as a child, he replies “[Zinedine] Zidane” – and before we are able to note that he hasn’t named a defender, he explains:

“I used to be a striker [or] a number 10, until I was 13. When I joined Bordeaux, I would play as a number 10, then left wing, then I dropped to central midfield, then centre-back. I was a bit scared because after centre-back there’s only goalkeepers and then there’s nothing left – so I had to stop there!”

On whether there was a key moment in his early career that made him believe he would make it as a professional, Barbet admits that “I think that really I was always in good shape to do it… when I was 13 I was playing with the under-15s, I was always with one generation older than me, sometimes two.” Knowing that this was a sign of good things to come, Barbet may not have expected to leave Bordeaux without a professional contract after three seasons in the B team – but he “got lucky” when Ligue 2 outfit Niort picked him up for a trial.

After starting on the bench in a handful of friendly games, the defender got his chance when another player was injured. A 45-minute cameo appearance soon led to the offer of a two-year contract. Despite being told he would be the third or fourth choice centre-back, Barbet recalls that he was happy to be 10th choice if necessary – “as long as I signed my first pro contract, I’d do the job.” 

Looking back on this period, Barbet notes that the manager had little interest in signing him before that key 45 minutes. “Basically, I made my career in 45 minutes.” After this, he played 33 of 38 games in his debut season and earned a move to Brentford. “If I didn’t have that good first half, I don’t know where I’d be at the moment.”

Whilst he admits that a move back to France, especially to Ligue 1, would be something he’d be “happy to do” one day, Barbet is laser-focused on the approaching season with QPR. “I’m so happy here. We have a really good season ahead, so I just wanna do my best and try to get the club as high as possible.” Despite the mounting expectation among fans after a strong 2020/21 finish, Barbet isn’t letting the pressure get to him. 

“That’s expectation, that’s outside. It doesn’t matter what people think outside. If they think we’re gonna go down…. that’s good to us. If they think we’re gonna go up… that’s good to us as well! We just focus on ourselves, game per game. We’re confident in what we do, and know we have to work hard to get results and cannot be complacent.” 

“We know there’s not many places between where we finished [last season] and the playoffs, and we want to finish as high as possible.” 

He also notes the “fantastic” morale in a squad where “everyone is on the same page, everyone is happy, we’re all laughing between each other,” and the ability to build around an existing squad so that new signings “already know how [the manager] wants to play.” 

Speaking of the manager, Barbet understandably sings his praises. “It’s really easy to go and talk to him… his door’s always open. We can laugh about everything.” Referencing Warburton’s time in the world of finance, Barbet notes that “[his] mentality is really good from where he used to work before football,” and that John Eustace (who recently turned down the Swansea first-team manager job) “is doing more of the tactics stuff,” alongside ex-Arsenal first-team coach Neil Banfield.

It’s no secret that Barbet has played more comfortably in a back three than a centre-back partnership. He confirms he enjoys playing further up the pitch with the knowledge that he has adequate cover available behind him. When quizzed on whether it is more difficult to create unity among defenders in an often-rotating group of three, he doesn’t think so.

“We all try to do the same thing. If Jimmy [Dunne] replaces Jordy [De Wijs], we’re making sure he does exactly what Jordy used to do. We just try to make sure we learn, all five defenders, the three positions, to make sure it doesn’t change if someone jumps in. It’s gonna be as good as if no-one changed.”

“We have really healthy competition and that’s really good for the squad. We are always talking about details – should I go up, if I go up do you cover… detail is gonna be the key this season if we’re gonna finish higher than last year.”

As our time with Yoann draws to a close, we ask him what advice he wishes he heard as a youngster, which might be useful for readers of ‘R’ Generation. After pondering, he revives the topic of food and nutrition. “What I was eating before the games, before training, after training… I wish I would’ve taken it more seriously. I wasn’t bad, there’s a lot of people worse than me for sure, but I know I could’ve done a lot better.” 

It’s clear, though, when Barbet evokes the theme of food in his advice to youngsters, he isn’t just talking about meal plans. A wider theme emerges of having the right people around you to help you make the right decisions. 

“I would’ve loved to have someone really kicking my…” he hesitates, finding the appropriate way to adjust his phrasing… “to make sure I understand how important it is!”

“I think that’s the main thing to succeed, or just to be a professional footballer,” he explains. “I’m glad I have good people around me, my family and my friends all understood when they were all going out and I had to go to bed because I was going to train the day after. I never had someone push me like, ‘aw, come on, we don’t care about the training tomorrow, blah blah blah.’”

“That’s the key,” concludes Yoann Barbet. “If you want to succeed, you need to pick good people around you, to make sure they push you high instead of push you down.” 

We thank Yoann for his time and co-operation, and wish him all the best in what is shaping up to be a truly exciting season ahead!

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Written by Ben Summer (@bm_summer)

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