Vladimir Coufal: "I hate losing in every aspect, even when I play cards at home with my wife and she beats me, I am furious. It's the same on the pitch"; watch Newcastle vs West Ham live on Sky Sports Premier League from 5pm on Saturday Night Football; kick-off 5.30pm
Saturday 4 February 2023 14:47, UK
Sitting down with Vladimir Coufal at West Ham's Rush Green training base, it is easy to see how he has fit in so well. The same renowned passion and dedication the fans have for their club is mirrored in his words, expressed in perfect English.
Those qualities are clear from his first answer when he says last season's Europa League semi-final loss to Eintracht Frankfurt "still hurts".
Although they missed out, reaching the final four in European competition still capped off a remarkable two years for the east London club, of which Coufal played an integral part.
When the Czech international arrived in October 2020, West Ham had just survived relegation under David Moyes. But a spectacular 2020/21 campaign saw them finish sixth in the Premier League and reach the group stages of the Europa League for the first time, having previously been knocked out in qualifying for the competition in the 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons.
Coufal made an immediate impact. He assisted seven Premier League goals - the same as fellow defenders Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson - and finished as runner-up for Hammer of the Year.
He also ranked highly among Premier League players for tackles (73 made), clearances completed (90 made) and possession won in the defensive third (114 times).
"It's very important as a new player, you have to show the team and the people what you can do," he said ahead of West Ham's trip to Newcastle, live on Sky Sports on Saturday Night Football from 5pm.
"For me, the first season and first games were very important. I came as an unknown player and I had experiences from the Champions League, but nobody knew about it because Slavia Prague isn't as well known here.
"I had to settle in the Premier League very quickly and I had good performances, so it was a good start for me.
"The atmosphere at the London Stadium is something amazing to hear. 62,500 people singing 'bubbles' is an incredible feeling.
"But also the atmospheres in the other stadiums. Before I moved to the Premier League, I watched these stadiums on the TV, so now I can play there against these players. It's amazing."
"It's difficult to compare it [to other clubs he has played for]. West Ham fan base is much bigger and the passion of the fans is something amazing.
"Of course, there are two sides. When you play well, you can feel the support from every corner of London and people stop you and ask for autographs or photos.
"But when you play like we have played this season, with bad results and we are down in the table, it’s a second side. People ask why you aren’t winning, why do you play like you play, you have to win.
"You know you have to win, but on the pitch, it’s difficult because the opponents also want to win."
While that first year for Coufal was followed up with a Europa League semi-final and seventh place finish last term, things have not been quite so easy this season. They are currently languishing in 16th place - a point above the relegation zone - with just five league wins.
The defender was a stalwart over the previous two campaigns, but has found opportunities this season harder to come by following the arrival of Thilo Kehrer in the summer.
Between October 1 and the World Cup break, the 30-year-old played just 92 minutes in eight Premier League matches. However, this was also balanced with playing every minute of West Ham's Europa Conference League group games, winning each one and breezing into the last 16.
Through it all Coufal never let his commitment drop. He will continue to "die on the pitch for the team" - as he says in his own words - as West Ham try to rectify a run of just one win in eight Premier League games.
"You have two options," he says. "You can be offended and stop training hard, don't communicate with the guys and be negative.
"But I'm not like this. I'm a team player so I wanted to keep working hard in the sessions, to show I deserve my place in the starting XI, try to be positive with the guys and support them.
"We are still West Ham United and we have to be successful like a team. Everybody is part of this team and this community and we have to be successful together.
"For me, I'm always giving 100 per cent in the games and I'm 100 per cent focused until the referee blows the final whistle. I think I am able to die for the team on the pitch.
"Of course, everyone in the club is trying to look for the reason why we haven't got the results so far.
"But it's difficult because in the previous two seasons, we played in a similar way, we got these results and this season, we are struggling with scoring goals to get the right results that we want.
"We have the same training process, the meetings are still the same so I don't know where to find the reason, but we are trying to find it.
"We are trying to keep working hard in the sessions and hopefully, we will get away from these results as soon as possible."
It is an urgency felt throughout the club, although back-to-back wins against Everton and Derby will surely go a long way towards boosting morale. They are results that will please Coufal - who does not deal well with defeat.
"I absolutely hate losing in every aspect, even when I play cards at home with my wife and she beats me, I am absolutely furious," he says.
"It's the same on the pitch - I hate losing and I'm able to do everything to reach a win. That's my strong side."
In terms of footballing ability, Coufal feels back to his best after having groin surgery in February last year, but says there are still areas he would like to improve in his game.
He reveals: "I was really struggling one year ago because I couldn't move, I almost couldn't run so I took the painkillers every morning to be able to get up from bed.
"It was a really bad period for me, but now I feel much better than before the surgery - it was like I got a new groin. I'm not struggling now with injuries so I can train really hard and I have to say thank you to the doctors.
"But I think I have to work on a bit of composure in the final third of the pitch. Some stuff I do in defensive end of the pitch, it's very risky what I'm able to offer because it's my home half of the pitch. But when I'm on the attacking [part of the] pitch, the composure is still not good from me for what I would like to do."
Of course, it was not just one Czech Republic international, but two who helped West Ham fire up the table. In January 2020, a relatively unknown midfielder named Tomas Soucek arrived at the club from Slavia Prague, and immediately became a fan favourite.
His former international and Slavia Prague team-mate Coufal trod the same path nine months later - which the defender admits was not a coincidence - and the pair remain close friends in London.
"My relationship with him is amazing because we are the two Czech players in the whole Premier League and in one club and one city," the defender says of Soucek.
"We live 100 metres from each other, which is perfect. Our families are really close friends, my wife and his wife are good friends and also the kids are very happy together.
"It's perfect to have a close friend who I can speak with in our first language because I speak all day in English and when I get home, I want to speak with someone [in Czech] so I can give a rest to my head.
"Sometimes we just go for a walk, have a coffee and a nice chat. Me and Tomas are football fanatics so we go with the strollers up front and talk about football and our wives are behind us, talking about other things.
"The product of the Premier League and the marketing bump is something unreal - how it works, there are all these people, all these fans, all the players.
"You can see how the country is living with the football, they are connected with the Premier League. It’s something amazing.
"The Czech Republic is a small country, it’s a small football fanbase but I would like to achieve something similar to the Premier League."
"I have to say thank you because of him, he was very important part for me to be here. I think he spoke with the manager about me and what I could I bring to the team. Hopefully I have done it."
The pair now face a challenging run of fixtures as they look to pull away from another relegation battle. It begins with a trip to St James' Park to face an in-form Newcastle on Saturday Night Football, before two London derbies against Chelsea and Tottenham.
Looking ahead to facing Newcastle, Coufal says: "I think their biggest threat is they have become a really good team, you can see they are fighting for each other.
"They are running everywhere, they try to press hard, especially at home. It's going to be really tough at St James' Park from the first minute, they will go right up to us, so I expect a really tough game, with big intensity. We need to be ready for it and do the impossible to take some points there."