Fresh from signing his permanent contract with AFC Wimbledon of English League One yesterday, goalkeeper Nik Tzanev very kindly gave of his time to answer a few questions for me. Speaking in an accent that is very much half-Kiwi / half-English (he has lived in the UK since 2006), Nik opened up on the hard work that got him to his current success, the merits of a loan move to non-league football and also gives some advice for aspiring young Kiwi players who dream of making it as a professional in England.
Before I start, I must firstly mention how grateful I am to AFC Wimbledon and their Press Officer, Chris Slavin, for helping to set this interview up. The time of all involved is hugely appreciated.
OF: Congratulations on your contract at Wimbledon. You must be pretty happy with that?
NT: Thanks very much. Yes, really really pleased. It’s been a hard for me this past year, coming up from Brentford and to now being back on top of my game it’s been really good. And to get that contract to prove I’ve been putting in that hard work… I’m pretty happy, yeah. It’s made it all worthwhile.
OF: And it’s Wellington you’re from originally?
NT: Yes. I’m born in Wellington and then I moved to Auckland when I was three and I lived there until I was nine. And then I moved here, to London, in 2006. So I’ve been here (UK) quite a long time and I couldn’t really remember much of Wellington when I went back. But it’s nice to see friends and family.
OF: Given that you came over to the UK in 2006, is it right that you have played all your football over here?
NT: Yeah, I started like every other boy by just playing Sunday League and then I just got picked up by a Chelsea Development group so I did a bit of training there. And then I went to my first professional club which was Crystal Palace when I was about 14. And it just sort of went from there. I left Palace and went to Brentford and I was there for my youth career.
OF: And how did you find your time at Brentford? You won the youth Player of the Year in the 14/15 season?
NT: Yeah, it was my second year in the Youth Team. And I really enjoyed the time I was there. I’ve got a really strong bond with a lot of the boys there and a lot of the coaches I am still really close with, so I really enjoyed it there.
OF: And were you playing alongside any of the guys who have since made the First Team?
NT: Yeah there’s one boy that’s called Tom Field and a couple of the other guys in the Youth Team that have broken into the First Team now and made their debuts with the club, so it’s brilliant to see all us young boys coming through. They’re pushing into the First Team environment and showing what all us Youth Team players are all about.
OF: And you had a loan spell at Lewes in the Ryman Premier Division?
NT: That was when I got my first professional year at Brentford. It was around October time and I really, really enjoyed it and loved the time I was there. I was still only 18 but I was playing men’s football and I think that benefitted me a great amount. It was preparing for what the next step was, which was men’s football.
OF: A lot of players might look down on going on loan in non-league football. Is it something, though, that you would advise young players to go for on a loan basis?
NT: Yes. I actually read in a newspaper a couple of weeks ago that a boy got signed from a Ryman Premier League team by Arsenal. So it just shows that if you’re good enough you’ll always get spotted. I think the problem sometimes with Under-23’s football and club football is that you don’t get much game time. And game time is a necessity, you need it to progress. Without that, you won’t be able to progress and scouts are everywhere so even if you’re playing at lower league or non-league level, you’ll always get spotted if you’re good enough.
OF: How did your release from Brentford come about? Was it a mutual thing or did you feel the need to leave so as to progress?
NT: It didn’t really work out for me there. It felt like it was time to leave but I’m really pleased with how things have worked out and I’m looking forward to the future.
OF: And you went on trial to Wycombe Wanderers after Brentford?
NT: Yeah I was at Wycombe for a while after that and I really enjoyed my time there as well.
OF: And then you went to Wimbledon and played in the Development Squad games. You clearly made an impression?
NT: I was quite lucky and it was really supportive of the coaches to take me on there because I just went there for training to get me ready. I played a couple of games and the opportunity came about where they needed a goalkeeper and I was training there. I played a couple of games and did really well and impressed the coaches. The First Team coach then came down and watched me as well and he was really impressed so I was really over the moon about that.
OF: And to actually get to the point that you were training at Wimbledon, did you arrange that yourself or were you approached by the club?
NT: It was through a mutual contact that helped us out and it was really good of them to take me on and just to give me the opportunity to train there.
OF: The fact that you’ve now signed a contract and that Wimbledon have released their first-choice ‘keeper from this season, is your hope to go on and claim the number one jersey as your own?
NT: Yeah for sure. That’s the ultimate goal for me and I believe in myself to be able to push for that. If I keep working hard I believe my opportunity will come and when it does I’ll hopefully be able to snatch it up and keep my position. But I’m staying humble and keeping up my work-rate and just hoping for that opportunity.
OF: I know you’ve been part of the Olympic Qualifying squad for New Zealand, so what is your view on international football moving forward? Is that something you’re looking to push on with?
NT: Yeah I’m still in close contact with the national team and really just waiting for the opportunity to arise. Hopefully I can showcase what I can do at international level as well.
OF: Are you in touch with any other Kiwis playing in England at all?
NT: Sure, there are a couple. There’s Monty Patterson who’s at Ipswich. Sam Brotherton who obviously came to Sunderland, so I’m still in touch with some of the boys here and we’re good friends.
OF: Having looked around social media, there’s been quite a bit made of the fact that, being a Kiwi and signing for Wimbledon, you’re following in the footsteps of a certain Shane Smeltz. He had a massive impact there when they were a Ryman League club…
NT: I’m definitely trying to fill the boots. Quite big boots to fill but I’ll do my best to do what I can do for the club.
OF: Looking down the road, what are your plans with regards to your future in the game?
NT: Well I want to focus solely on Wimbledon now and do as well as I can, get more game time and keep showing what I can do. I want to prove to the coaching staff and everyone at the club that I am good enough to play, and secure a place in, the first team squad.
OF: Do you follow the game back in New Zealand at all?
NT: I wasn’t too involved in football back in New Zealand, to be honest. I was more involved in basketball and I guess that’s why, when I came over, I was alright with my hands because my Dad played a lot of basketball too. So I couldn’t say that I was too interested in football back in New Zealand.
OF: Do you ever keep an eye out for the Wellington Phoenix or the Stirling Sports Premiership?
NT: Yeah of course. In the national team I’ve got a couple of friends who play for the Wellington Phoenix and in the league in New Zealand as well. I’ve got a couple of mates at Auckland so I do have a look and sometimes chat with them and see how they’re doing.
OF: Do you ever see yourself perhaps playing in New Zealand at any point in the future?
NT: Well you can never say never I guess. You can only take the opportunity if and when it comes. So we’ll see what happens.
OF: Being a young a Kiwi making their way in England, what advice would you give to other young Kiwi kids? For instance if a 16 or 17-year-old is sitting in New Zealand now and is desperate to go over and play professionally after saving their money to chase the dream?
NT: I think the best advice I can give is just to go for it because if you don’t ever build up the courage and don’t really see yourself as becoming a big player then you can’t really achieve anything. So literally go with your gut feeling and, if you’re good enough, you’ll be able to make it. And if you put in the hard work and graft then you’ll be able to make something out of it.
OF: Well that’s pretty much it Nik. Thanks for taking the time out to speak to me – really appreciate it. And all the best for the future.
NT: Thanks very much Paul, all the best.
by Paul Gellard