Defender opens up about his personal journey through a rollercoaster first season in England
From fulfilling a childhood dream, to the long wait to make your mark.
It may have been a slow burner for Jan Bednarek, having to wait ten months to earn his stripes in the Premier League, but that’s not to say it hasn’t been a season of peaks and troughs for the Polish defender.
Even after a standout display in a clean sheet victory at Fulham in the FA Cup, playing out of position at right-back, Bednarek was back on the bench. Then back in the stands.
The sale of Virgil van Dijk in January, the arrival of Mark Hughes in March and the switch to a back three in April all smoothened his path to another peak – his Premier League debut against Chelsea.
Marking the occasion with a goal to put Saints 2-0 up against the champions represented a new high, but again Bednarek’s satisfaction was cut short. Chelsea came back to win.
He’d done enough to stay in the team, even after Jack Stephens returned from the suspension that opened the door in the first place.
From that day forth, the recently turned 22-year-old has flourished, even if his personal rollercoaster continues to soar and plummet.
From playing at Wembley for the first time and missing out on an FA Cup final, to triumph over Bournemouth and disaster at the death at Everton.
The road, though spanning only four league games, had been long, winding and, for the most part, bumpy.
But the trip to Swansea offered a chance of salvation – a high to end all highs, at least from the perilous position Saints once were.
Even then, before riding the wave of relief there were obstacles in the water. Bednarek, again defending manfully in the biggest game of his young Saints career, was knocked clean out by his own goalkeeper, Alex McCarthy, as he punched clear a cross.
Eager to continue, he was replaced on medical grounds. Bednarek could be seen pleading his case, but Hughes’s mind was made up, on came Manolo Gabbiadini and four minutes later, the Pole had his first assist – of sorts – as his replacement produced an iconic moment.
Some journey, then, and one Bednarek will look back on as an invaluable learning curve.
“You can see that hard work pays off,” he told SAINTS, the club’s matchday programme. “You work hard for ten months and sometimes you think it’s useless, but then you realise it was really good to wait.
“To be a little bit disappointed and sad, but then at the end to be happy that you worked hard and always believed, that feels good.
“It’s been really good for me to develop as a football player and to get used to this league.
“I’ve started to play and I’m happy I can be part of the team. It’s an amazing feeling. I waited for so long and it finally happened.
“Of course, there were tough times when I didn’t get a chance and I was on the bench or out of the squad.
“I always worked hard, I was always ready and I believed that I would get my chance.
“That was all I could do – work hard at the training ground, do everything the best that I can and wait for my chance.
“There are a lot of things I can do, but I cannot pick myself in the squad.
“I can work hard and play well in training, but the only person who can decide who is in the squad is the boss.
“When you come to a new club you want to play as soon as possible.
“The reality was completely different. Virgil stayed, no one was injured and no suspensions, so it was difficult for me.
“I came from a much smaller league to the best league in the world. It was a big difference, but I think it was good for me to wait for my chance and prepare for it.”
Bednarek describes his experiences in the club’s Under-23 side as “a good school”.
It wasn’t how he planned the start of his Saints career, but he knuckled down in the hope it would lead to greater things.
Having to wait so long for his opportunity not only served to increase his hunger to succeed, but, importantly, familiarity among his teammates.
“I was already settled in the team, having been here for almost one year already,” he reflects.
“I know every player in the team very well, so it was much easier for me once I got into the team.
“We spend a lot of time together every day, so it was not so difficult. During the games it’s completely different to training, but I think it’s gone alright.
“Cédric and Maya (Yoshida) – the players around me – have been so helpful, and it’s been good to have them there.
“It’s made it much easier for me, having those experienced players.
“It’s a completely different level of football, but it’s still football – it doesn’t change.
“You just have to run, think and kick the ball. You have to keep it simple and not make football hard for yourself.”
It sounds easy enough, put in those terms, but when the club’s reputation is on the line with the threat of relegation looming, it takes big characters to dig them out.
“It was a tough situation,” Bednarek doesn’t hide behind the team’s recent struggles.
“Nobody thought at the beginning of the season that we would have to fight against relegation, but I think it’s a good experience for everyone.
“We had a little bit of pressure and stress, but we stuck together. We are a really strong team, really motivated.
“I was like this when I was in Poland. When you are fighting relegation, the most important thing is to fight together.
“That’s what we were doing. We haven’t always won – like against Chelsea and Arsenal – but we were always fighting.
“I have not been playing football for two days. I’ve been playing for 15 years – maybe even longer – and I know the most important thing is to enjoy it.
“You always have stress – that’s normal – but you don’t need to think about it. You can only enjoy it and give your best.”
Bednarek speaks of the importance of putting the day job to one side in times of struggle, and enjoys living a life of anonymity.
“It’s really important to switch off from football,” he says. “Your brain must rest.
“When you have a day off, you need to do something completely different apart from football.
“You go for a walk with your girlfriend or with your dog, or you go sightseeing somewhere. I think that’s the most important thing – not to always think about football.
“I live in Winchester. It’s a small city but it’s really nice and calm, and you can rest. No one is looking at you, so you are a little bit incognito.
“That’s what I like, because that’s how you can switch off. The city is perfect to live.
“That’s why I think it’s the best place for me – you don’t really think about football and you can feel really relaxed.”
Bednarek may have assumed there would be no need to think about football beyond the conclusion of the Premier League campaign – at least until he reports back for pre-season training – but the timely seizing of his chance could yet produce another high to round off this helter-skelter year.
By June 4th, all 32 nations competing at this summer’s World Cup must release their final 23-man squads for the tournament in Russia.
Bednarek, an Under-21 international, won his first senior cap as a late substitute against Kazakhstan in a qualifying match, two weeks after making his Saints debut.
He has not featured since, but is included in the provisional 35-man band announced last week – the first Poland squad to be picked since he cemented his place in Hughes’s backline.
“There are not many Polish players playing in the Premier League, so if you play in the Premier League it always gives you a chance,” he reasons.
You can tell it’s something that’s lingered in the back of his mind, and he remains hopeful of boarding the plane to Russia.
“It is up to the coach. I spoke to him,” Bednarek reveals. “His assistant was at the Wembley game against Chelsea, so we are in contact, but that is a decision he will make later.
“I do my best on the pitch – that’s all I can do and the rest is up to him.
“It would be amazing. Everyone in Poland is dreaming about playing for the country at the World Cup.
“I was the same as a kid – it would be perfect.”
Such is the alignment of the draw, should England and Poland progress from their respective groups – as expected – they could meet in the last 16.
“I didn’t even know,” he smiles, intrigued by the prospect.
“That would be nice and I hope we will go through, but we have a tough group and we need to focus on the first three games, not on who we could meet in the last 16 or the last eight.
“The most important thing is to think about the nearest game. It’s been the same here – if you only focus on the next training session and the next game, you will be fine.”
There was a time when Bednarek wondered when that next game would be, but his private journey will surely serve him well for many more seasons to come.
This interview is an edited version of the original feature that appeared in SAINTS for the final game of the season against Man City last Sunday. To order any programmes you may have missed from the 2017/18 campaign, visit saintsmagazines.co.uk.