Gelsenkirchen (Germany) (AFP) – Sat in the Schalke dressing room, Welsh forward Rabbi Matondo and English defender Jonjoe Kenny are clearly enjoying life outside their comfort zones, fighting for the Bundesliga title.
Matondo and Kenny are the latest UK exports to Germany’s top flight, following the successful path of Jadon Sancho, who made the England team after impressing for Dortmund.
After three years at Manchester City, Cardiff-born Matondo, 19, joined Schalke in January for 11 million euros ($12.2 million).
The teenager was part of the Wales squad which qualified for the Euro 2020 finals and scored his first Schalke goal in a shock 3-1 win at then-leaders Leipzig last August.
“Some might have thought ‘oh, he is just following other people who have gone to Germany’, but I saw Schalke as the right place to come and improve,” he told AFP.
He describes the training as “pure hard work, you have to be on it every day”, while Kenny feels “quicker, stronger and fitter” thanks to Schalke’s training regime.
“It’s more intense, we do double days on Tuesdays — that only happens in pre-season in England,” said Kenny.
After spells in and out of the Everton team, Liverpool-born Kenny, 22, has started all 14 league games at Schalke on his season-long loan stay.
– Rookie award –
He was voted the Bundesliga’s rookie player of the month in August after scoring a superb goal from right-back against Hertha Berlin.
He puts his success down to the faith shown by ex-Huddersfield Town boss David Wagner, who describes Kenny as one of his “best signings” since becoming Schalke coach this season.
“It’s gone perfect, but it’s all down to the coach for me — he had the confidence to play me straight away,” said Kenny.
As part of the England team which won the Under-20 World Cup in 2017, Kenny is full of praise for the Bundesliga where Schalke sit fourth, six points behind leaders Borussia Moenchengladbach.
“People (in England) don’t realise how much of a good a league it is,” he said.
“I was happy playing in England, then an opportunity like Schalke came along.
“It’s a chance to become your own man on and off the pitch. I came here not knowing what was round the corner and it was something I thrived on.”
German lessons three times a week help the pair tackle the language, but there were blank looks when asked to translate ‘Merry Christmas’.
“A lot of the lads make it easy by speaking English,” said Kenny.
“When the coach is speaking, you know a little bit more each time and can pick up what he is saying, but obviously it’s a good skill to have outside of football.”
As to whether Schalke can win the Bundesliga title for the first time, Matondo gives a resounding “yes!”
“There is a long way to go and a lot of good sides, but we have a special team which can do something good, but we have to remain humble and see how the season pans out,” he added.
Both men are looking forward to the approaching four-week winter break — a novelty having previously played through December and January at their respective Premier League clubs.
“It’s more the mental side, it gives you a little bit more energy knowing that there is a break coming up,” admitted Kenny.
Schalke face Frankfurt on Sunday, then Wolfsburg and Freiburg, who are currently level with them on 25 points, in their last games of 2019.
– Euro 2020 ambitions –
When the league resumes, Schalke will have their title challenge tested by hosting Gladbach, then playing Bayern Munich away in late January.
“We know it’ll be tough against Frankfurt (this Sunday) and have to prove how good we are by getting the win,” said Kenny.
However, he acknowledges that Bayern’s recent league defeats to Leverkusen and Gladbach present their rivals with a chance.
“Everyone knows the quality Bayern Munich has and how good they have been for so long by dominating the Bundesliga, but when they lose, it opens up the gate for everyone else.”
As for the future beyond Schalke, Matondo hopes to play at Euro 2020.
When Wales reached the semi-finals of Euro 2016 in France, he was “back home, watching the lads, some of whom I am playing with now, getting to the semi-finals, which was a big deal.
“It was all incredible — the celebrations, the fans, making the country proud — and hopefully we can do that again this summer.”
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