Lukas Hradecky: Leverkusen’s shot stopper feels like the club is his family

The Touchline Sports - Lukas Hradecky: Leverkusen's shot stopper feels like the club is his family

Bayer 04 Leverkusen’s impressive rise up the Bundesliga standings after new coach Xabi Alonso injected new energy into the squad has been well documented, and Finnish goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky has played an important role in this. After a poor start into the season, a new culture evolved under Alonso where every player, including Hradecky, knows he needs to show that he is worthy of his place.

After five years at Leverkusen and 156 matches with the squad, the club feels like family to him, says Hradecky. As captain he tries to maintain a positive spirit and keep his own head clear. In our interview he opens up about what inspires his team, stressing that a strong mentality and a united team effort are key to their UEFA Europa League success and a possible top-four Bundesliga finish, adding: “Whatever it’s going to be at the end, I’m going to look at the second part of this season proudly.”

When did you hear the name Bayer 04 Leverkusen for the first time? 

“To be honest it might have been the 2002 final, I was watching it when I was 12 years old. Unfortunately, I only remember the goal by Zidane. I know Bayer Leverkusen were playing against Real Madrid.”

What is the atmosphere like at Bayer 04 these days?

“Like family, like a home for me, it’s the club I’ve represented for the longest time now. I’m one of the more experienced guys, I’ve had the honour of being the captain as well, last season. It feels like my club like I want to be part of winning something for this city, for this club and the fans, and it might be closer than ever.”

You’re now unbeaten in 14 competitive matches – are you proud of this run?

“We needed a streak like that to rescue the season. We started in a pretty bad way; we were in a relegation spot after seven or eight match days. The start was horrendous. Since the new coach came, the situation started to turn, and the players, everybody, including me, started to perform better. It’s fantastic that we have managed such a long streak, and hopefully, it will be 21 games after May.”

How often did you shake your head looking back at the really poor first third of the season, because these are more or less the same players as back then?  

“Mostly, in the bad times, you shake your head more often. We weren’t playing as badly as we’re playing well now, so the difference between the wave of movement wasn’t that big, in my opinion, we just couldn’t get a win, couldn’t get a goal, I couldn’t get a clean sheet at the start of the season. I was shaking my head then, thinking ‘How could this be possible?’, we had the same team which finished third last year, and the quality is still there. It ended up being so bad that we had to change the coach. The coach wasn’t to blame, but then, as we know, Xabi Alonso came and we started a new chapter in the history of the club, and it’s going well. 14 games, I don’t think I’ve ever had a run like that in my time at the club, so hopefully it will continue.”

How would you describe the ‘catch-up race’? 

“Unreal, to be honest. Usually, something like this only happens to Bayern Munich, that they manage to pick up such a big amount of points in such a short space of time. Being where we are at the moment, I would never have guessed if somebody had asked in October, that we’re in the semi-final of the Europa League and almost playing for the

Champions League spots in the league. Crazy.”

Did you raise your voice sometimes, to wake your teammates up?  

“Yes, that as well. I’m not the loudest guy, but I mostly try to keep a positive spirit up and to keep my head clear. Undoubtedly, the quality is in the team, and we’re maturing, we’re showing that on the pitch now. We weren’t doing that, we had a couple of meetings and a couple of team evenings, and it changed our course. One small thing is of some value. Everybody has been contributing, not only the captain. Andrich is a very important player,

Jonathan Tah, those are the leaders that we’ve been needing as well.”

In your day-to-day work with him, how do you see the fact that Xabi Alonso was a world-class footballer? 

“With his passion, everything we do needs to be at a good level, and he persistently reminds us that we need to deliver in every training session, every training drill. You can see that even now he sometimes plays with us, and he’s still world-class. That’s the kind of aura that woke the players up.”

What has he been able to change, e.g., on the mental side of the game? 

“This is the kind of question I don’t like because the old coach didn’t do that much wrong, it’s just that circumstances changed, and when you get a new coach you get new energy. He’s been doing his job really well; it was mostly the players’ fault that we ended up in the situation we were in.”

What did the players learn from the poor first part of the season? 

“We needed to wake up. You can’t throw 23 or 25 players out of the squad, that would have been more necessary than throwing the coach out. It woke all of us up, we looked in the mirror and decided to start our comeback, and here we are.”

So many players are now playing at a much higher level – what happened?  

“We realised that everybody is expendable, if you don’t perform, you don’t play, and the culture has been growing since then. It’s imperative to achieve something big. Even I had a couple of bad games and needed to show that I’m worthy of my place, being a keeper for Leverkusen. It’s a daily and weekly job to perform at the highest level and that’s the culture we are building now.”

In percentage terms – how important is a healthy mentality for success?

“100%, it’s not only in training but also about life, how you recover, what you do, what you eat. It’s an ongoing process, that’s the thing that most people forget, being a football player is not just 90 minutes a week.”

You’re eight points outside the top four with four matches to go. Is the Champions League still possible? 

“I would say it’s more likely that we win three games in the Europa League than the teams above us in the league messing their games up. If someone had said in October or November that we’d be sixth or seventh at this stage of the season, I’d have taken it straight away. Whatever it’s going to be at the end, I’m going to look at the second part of this season proudly.”

Are you confident that the team will keep the momentum? 

“Yes, I am, the spirits are high. The way we are doing things now, we are a tough team to beat, and hopefully, that will continue until the end of May.”

Bayer 04’s hunger and thirst for silverware and a title is….? 

“Huge! I don’t know when we are going to be closer. All of us in the dressing room realise it. The energy and euphoria the fans have shown about this adventure are bigger than ever. For us and for the city it would be a massive thing.”

How would you rate the chances of getting through to the Europa League final? 

“It’s a toss of a coin, 50-50, Leverkusen is also a big European name. I know the story about those guys as well, I think they are looking forward to meeting each other.”

Alonso played under Mourinho at Real Madrid. Has Xabi learned from José? 

“Possibly, yes, I hope he knows his tricks.”

If everything goes well, are Bayer Leverkusen a top-four club in the Bundesliga, what do you think? 

“In the Bundesliga, yes, for sure. Because of the way we have been doing things here for years. The club has a very good scouting department, the players they find, the young talents want to come here. It’s sustainable. In the five years I’ve played here, we’ve finished in the top four twice, top six twice, so I think we are where we deserve to be.”

The end is in sight, the outcome remains unpredictable in the Bundesliga

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