The Senegal star opens up about the anguish he felt during his spell at the Gunners and why his head was elsewhere during the 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford earlier this season
By Wayne Veysey | Chief correspondent
For Armand Traore, it would begin days, often a week, before the match. The anxiety. The nerves. The sick feeling in the pit of the stomach. By kick-off, he would be drained and exhausted.
The stress was a manifestation of being a young fringe player at Arsenal, aware that opportunities came along only fleetingly.
“You can feel it there,” he said, pointing to his stomach. “It is not good and you cannot perform as well as anyone who is training all week and playing every week. It is different. Whenever I played, I was under a lot of pressure. You have to perform or that’s it.
“Every time you go to control a ball, you automatically think, ‘I cannot miss my touch’. Then, after that, you think, ‘I cannot miss my pass’. You worry about so many things. It’s just not good for your head and you are not entirely focused.”
Honest and open, Traore offers it as a heartfelt explanation, not an excuse, for his failure to make the breakthrough during six years at Arsenal, especially timely on the day his former club prepare for a League Cup quarter-final with a team likely to be dominated by young guns. He was not so troubled during his season-long loans at Juventus and Portsmouth, or current employers QPR, where he is enjoying regular first-team football.
“It actually feels really good,” expanded Traore in his first extended interview since his move on the penultimate day of the window. “I was explaining to a few of my relatives that I almost feel that I’m needed sometimes, where at times at Arsenal it was almost like, ‘well, if [Gael] Clichy is injured, if [Kieran] Gibbs is injured then maybe you can play’. So you never really know when you are going to play.
“It wasn’t the best conditions to focus and play every week. When you are more relaxed, you can do more things. This was my big problem. I didn’t play much, that’s for sure. I had some not-so-good games as well.”
Traore does not blame Arsenal, or Arsene Wenger and his coaching staff. He has “no regrets, never” about six years of education at one of football’s finest finishing schools and retains great affection for the club that he joined as a 16-year-old.
The expectation came from within. “It was from me because I have got ambition and my ambition was to be at some point the first choice,” Traore explained. “I put a lot of pressure on myself and it didn’t happen.
“One time I spoke with Wenger and he said he knows what it's like. Even before the game started he said, ‘Your energy is almost gone because of the pressure. You think about the game too much, for the whole week’.
New lease of life | Traore has established himself at QPR following his summer move
“I know at the time I had trouble with coping with the pressure. Especially when you are young and you have all these people looking at you and judging you the next day. I learned to cope with it at my time with Juventus.
“Now, it’s a different story. I can’t wait to play. I set myself goals for games like getting assists and making sure when I play left-back that the goals don’t come from my side.
“It’s completely different. I feel like I am more useful. I feel I can help the team more. Before I was a bit like, ‘Hmm, I don’t really want to play’. At some point I just wanted to go and play football."
The nadir of Traore’s Arsenal career came at Old Trafford on August 28 in his 13th and final league game for the club. An injury crisis meant a late call up, the postponement of his transfer to QPR and then an 8-2 buffeting.
Traore reveals: “For me personally, I was supposed to leave before that game. It was all arranged. The game was on the Sunday and on the Thursday my agent calls me and says, ‘We are going to sign for QPR in the afternoon’. In my head I was gone already and didn’t want to be there anymore.
“I wasn’t fit. Pre-season is the most important part of the season and I missed part of it at Arsenal, which maybe stuffed me. I came back from injury for the game against Udinese. So, personally, for me, it was a crazy score. You can talk about the Arsenal defence back then but have a look at the goals. At least maybe three or four, maybe five, are unbelievable goals.”
QPR made sense for Traore, what with a charismatic manager, an ambitious new owner, a London postcode and the prospect of a regular starting place.
Speaking at Rangers’ training ground at Harlington while planes fly overhead en route to nearby Heathrow, he explained: “There was interest from other clubs but I liked what Neil Warnock said. It is definitely going places. The chairman [Tony Fernandes] is not kidding about this club. A couple of times he came to talk to us and it sounded good.
“The fact it was in London as well, so I didn’t have to move my family. I have just had a little boy. I learned from Juventus when I had to bloody move all the way to Italy. I thought, ‘I’m going to give it a go’. That was one of the reasons and I thought I would get a good shot at playing.”
Traore’s goals are simple: “to try and play well every week” and for QPR “to stay in the Premier League”.
He also has shared motivation with fellow window signings Shaun Wright-Phillips, Anton Ferdinand and even Joey Barton. “A lot of us are united by the fact we have a lot of people to prove wrong,” he said. “100 per cent we have something to prove.”
For Traore, professional disappointment has been exacerbated by personal heartbreak over the last two years
“My life has changed a lot,” he explained. “People don’t know this on the outside. I lost my Dad to cancer. I used to be on the phone to him almost every day. I have seen my Dad when he couldn’t even walk or get out of bed. I had to pick him up myself in the middle of the night. When you see things like this and think about them again, it can be very heartbreaking.
||The number of goals Traore has scored in his professional career.
|3||Traore has three tattoos, one on either arm and wings on his back, all of which he wants to remove.
|8||Arsenal conceded eight goals in Traore's final game for the club.
|13||The number of league appearances Traore made during six years at Arsenal.|
|14||Traore was 14 when he left his parents' home in Paris to join Monaco. He moved to Arsenal's academy two years later.
“He passed away and I had to cope with trying to get back into the Juventus side at the same time as the front page of the papers saying, ‘Traore hasn’t even started playing. He is still injured’. My wife was pregnant. Injuries, injuries, injuries. That was a crazy season. It was a painful time.”
Traore was helped by his Muslim faith, which he has embraced with added vigour in recent times after a spell when he admits he did not practice it properly.
“Without my faith it would have not been the same. I would probably still be thinking of my Dad now and all sad. He was suffering and now he is okay, you know. My faith helped. When you have faith in God, it is okay.”
Despite playing for France at Under-21 level, Traore opted in June to represent the land of his fathers and by pledging allegiance to Senegal. It is a decision that would have pleased his father, a former Senegal international himself.
“This is one of the main reasons why. My mother keeps telling me, ‘If he saw you now he would be proud’. All the time we were talking about France or Senegal he was, like, ‘Wait a bit, until you are 21 or 22’. But I knew that he wanted me to play for Senegal because back in Senegal are all my family and there is a lot of pride in me playing for Senegal.
“The fact also is that when I saw what Senegal was trying to do, rebuild the team with so much quality, the names they were trying to bring in, I thought, ‘I want to be part of this; there is something we can do there’. Everyone is my age, quite young and could be there for the next 10 years.”
One regret Traore does have is decorating his body with three tattoos, one on each arm and wings on his back.
“I don’t know what I was thinking,” he admitted. “I was 16.” Traore has spoken in the past of removing them but is now concerned about the pain.
My life has changed a lot. I lost my Dad to cancer. I used to be on the phone to him every day
“I have heard the laser is more painful than the actual tattoo,” he grimaces. “I am still thinking of doing it but at the end of the day I hope that I have been forgiven for what I have done. I might as well not try and go through the pain. The ones on my arms, the small ones, definitely, but the one on my back, the big one, is going to be difficult.”
Talking of art, Traore returns to the subject of Arsenal and Arsene, who he was too bashful to approach as a teenager but gradually got to know over time. “Outside of football, I had some good chats with him. He is a good man.”
Before he leaves the training ground to go home to his wife and 12-month-old son, who Traore laughs is “wrecking the house at the moment”, the defender talks with optimism about the future.
He said: “My aim was to establish myself as the left-back at Arsenal. It didn’t happen. It was meant to be like this. I’m not going to cry over it. I have moved on and want to get on with my career. That’s what everyone should do.”