Ilias Chair discusses his rise at QPR, adopting the famous No 10 shirt and the key to his success so far this season; Watch Derby vs QPR live on Sky Sports Football from 7.30pm on Monday; Kick off 7.45pm
Monday 29 November 2021 15:37, UK
"It was told by people around me that England wasn't for me," says Ilias Chair.
Wrapped up in several layers and sat on the touchline of the main pitch at QPR's Harlington training ground, the Moroccan is in a reflective mood as he looks back on the earlier years of his burgeoning career.
If there are any doubters out there now, they are few and far between. This season alone, he has scored six goals and assisted six more in 21 appearances in all competitions for Mark Warburton's side, who are among the promotion front-runners in the Sky Bet Championship.
In an exclusive interview with the League of 72 YouTube channel, he discusses his rise from Rangers' U23 side to being one of the first names on the teamsheet, taking on the iconic No 10 shirt and how belief is a key building block for any chance of success this term.
It all started in January 2017, when he signed a permanent deal to join QPR's Elite Development Squad following an impressive trial period.
"I was told that in England you needed to be big and strong," he says. "I was 18 and to hear that every single time was not great, but I always believed in myself. I always believed that whatever league I played in, I would do well. I always listened to my dad, who told me to always believe in myself because I am the one out there playing, no one else, and what's the worst thing that can happen?
"At the end of the day, it's football. You can upset a few people, but if that's the worst thing that can happen to you it's nothing because there are so many other things in life that are more important and more precious. Football, for me, is an enjoyment. If I'm not enjoying it, I might as well stop. I don't do it for anything else, I just enjoy it because it's what my first love was and it will be my last love as well.
"When I came to England, I met Chris Ramsey, Paul Hall and Andrew Impey at the U23s and I think, without them, I never would have succeeded in any English club because I wasn't fully mature yet in my body - I was a late bloomer. I was 19 years old in a 16-year-old's body and they just developed me every single day. Training-wise, I was doing my bits but still wasn't there yet in a mature level, so I was learning a lot and I knew, if I got the chance, I would prove to everyone that I was ready."
During the 2018/19 season, he joined League Two side Stevenage on loan. Aside from two appearances in the Belgian Second Division with Lierse, it was his first taste of first team football and he took it with both hands, scoring six times in 16 appearances.
"The team was full of great lads, very welcoming guys and the manager, Dino Maamria, just told me to make sure I worked hard defensively, but to just go and play my game. That's what I did and every single game, you saw me grow in confidence and then, when I came back to QPR, I could take that next step.
"That Stevenage move was maybe the best decision I ever made in my life. I always said to myself that I wouldn't go to League Two, that I didn't watch the games so I didn't know how they were going to play. Angel Rangel came to me and said not to worry, as did Luke Freeman, who was there at the time. I went out there, played my game, scored a few good goals and got the love from the fans - I love them too, by the way.
"It was very important for me to learn about patience. The four-and-a-half years I have been at QPR have made me such a mature man because I learned so much about football and learned about patience and disappointment. All these things make you better as a footballer, better as a human being and make you understand the game more. I'm trying to keep on growing."
Having staked a claim for a place back in west London throughout 2019/20, in September 2020, Chair was handed the R's famous No 10 shirt. Over the years, it has been worn by cult heroes including Rodney Marsh, Stan Bowles, Kevin Gallen and, most recently, Ebere Eze.
Though he revealed there were murmurs of uncertainty that he was ready to adopt such an iconic number, the Moroccan has stepped up to the plate, taking it upon himself to ensure he delivers week in, week out.
"It takes a lot of responsibility and there was a lot of pressure as well, especially in the beginning because people were saying that maybe I didn't deserve it, maybe I wasn't ready for it," he said.
"I like to take these responsibilities on me, I like to take that pressure on me; I was born to do this kind of stuff. Now, no one is talking about that No 10 shirt anymore! I'm glad that I have it; it's my favourite number, my favourite players wore it.
"I think the most important thing is about working hard. I try to work hard every single time, whether it's out there on the training pitch or it's playing a game. If you work hard, at the end of the day, you will get your reward. That's what I truly believe in. I also want to try and be consistent.
"Like I said in a previous interview, I can't be a 9/10 in one game, then a 5 or 6/10 in another game. I need to stay as consistent as possible because that's what the top players do in this world."
Performances at club level have also propelled Chair into the international fold in 2021, where he has, incidentally, bumped into another former QPR No 10, Adel Taarabt, who now plies his trade in Portugal with Benfica.
"Now he is a bit older, Adel has changed his game up and now he's a two-touch kind of guy, three touch maximum. I always watch his clips from when he was at QPR back in the day and they are unbelievable. What a great talent he is.
"Playing for Morocco is a new experience that I have never experienced before. It has taught me a lot of lessons because you can train as much as you want here at QPR, then you go to Morocco and see all these international players who play in top leagues and, all of a sudden, that's different. Once you play with better players, you become a better player yourself and they teach me a lot of things."
At 24, Championship defences should be worried that Chair is continuing to develop - and at a rapid rate. But it's not just by way of natural development, the experienced figures around him are playing their part, too.
"I think it's perfect how it [the squad] is right now. We understand each other, we can laugh and joke about everything. The older players help the younger players with stuff on the pitch and the young players help everyone with the running! We have a very good group. We have Charlie Austin, we have Stefan Johansen, Albert Adomah and young players like myself, Chris Willock, Rob Dickie and Luke Amos.
"Albert has been here a year-and-a-half and the other two have been here two years almost and every single day they are teaching us something new that we can use on the pitch. Stef is telling me how to get into the box and Charlie telling me how to move in the box and then Uncs [Adomah] is telling me to do whatever skills I like.
"They have been unbelievable and all credit goes to them because, without them, I don't think we would be the team we are now because they bring that maturity we really needed. I love playing with those guys. We have a good balance and I think that's key to a good team and we can do great things this year."
Since relegation from the Premier League in 2015, QPR have struggled to challenge at the top of the Championship and last season's ninth-place finish marked the sole occasion they have finished in the top half.
But with steady growth under Mark Warburton - their longest-serving manager since Ian Holloway's first spell from 2001 to 2006 - their form so far suggests that they should be targeting a play-off place at a minimum.
And Chair says that consistency, belief and tunnel vision will play a crucial role throughout the second half of the campaign.
"I have always had belief; since the day I stepped in here I had belief. I always thought about myself - not in an arrogant way - as the best player. If you don't have that mentality, you will never achieve the dreams that you want to achieve. The team is growing. We are building a great consistency, winning games and that is key for us.
"The last couple of years, we have had good players and nice teams, but the consistency and that winning mentality wasn't there. We are becoming that consistent team that teams are afraid of playing because we can do the nasty side and the pretty side as well. I'm very happy and delighted with how the team is shaping up.
"It's very tough to play against teams who know that we play football, though. They drop off and they sit with 10 men behind the ball, so it's difficult to penetrate and go and score the goal. We need to be patient, we need to keep the ball ticking over and we need to try and create those gaps or have some individual brilliance with a shot at the end.
"For us, it's very important that we keep patient. We would like to score in every single first half, but we know it's not possible. We know it's a tough league, we know there are very good teams out there that are trying to come and win games, so we are just trying to do what we are best at doing and that is scoring and not conceding.
"As we said recently in the changing room, now we take every game on its own. We play Derby next and we only focus on Derby; we can't be focused on any games after that. We focus on Derby, then the next game comes and that's how we move on and try to get the three points every single time."