EXCLUSIVE: Jonathan David on CL realisations, Lille and leaving his mark | OneFootball

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OneFootball·22 February 2022

EXCLUSIVE: Jonathan David on CL realisations, Lille and leaving his mark

Article image:EXCLUSIVE: Jonathan David on CL realisations, Lille and leaving his mark

He’s become a household name for Canada and an increasingly sought-after talent with links to Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, Real Madrid and other European giants.

But Jonathan David isn’t afraid to admit playing football – let alone professionally – was not always on his radar. In a turn of events, he now finds himself living out the career of his dreams.

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In just two short years, the 22-year-old went from playing on pitches in Ottawa to some of the biggest stages in Europe. And there doesn’t seem to be any sign of slowing down.

“My first memory would probably be from the streets of Haiti. Just playing with my friends, having fun, kicking the ball around,” David told OneFootball.

“When I was about six, my family decided to move to Canada to try and live a better life but I didn’t really get involved with football when I first arrived. We actually used to play American football.”

Instead, David wouldn’t officially kick a football for a club until he was 10 and something clicked. One year later, he joined Ottawa Gloucester SC and met manager Hanny El-Magraby, a mentor who played a pivotal role in shaping his eventual professional career.

“My coach (El-Magraby) was obviously someone that helped me a lot. He was my first and only coach, even [when] I was playing for different teams. He was my coach throughout all the years until I was 17 and moved to Gent.

“Not even only on the pitch, he helped me a lot just in life in general because he was like a father to me.”

The centre-forward explained El-Magraby set ambitious goals for his players regardless of their young age. Less than a decade later, David has gone on to see the objectives he once discussed in training sessions as a child come to fruition.

Article image:EXCLUSIVE: Jonathan David on CL realisations, Lille and leaving his mark

“When we were 11, the message to our group he said was ‘I’m trying to develop players to play in Europe, not to go to the Major League Soccer academies, but go to Europe and make a career.’

“When I was maybe 15 or 16, our coach decided to film every game. To make a video, for each player to have their own video and do something they want with it.

“So that would help me have a visual of what type of player I am and what I can do, then we talked about trying to find me a trial in Europe.”

In addition to watching videos of his own game, David took notes from some of football’s most famous talents and began implementing their traits whenever possible on the pitch.

“Watching a little bit of Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto’o. Just those quick finishes, if it’s with the toe, the outside of the foo – any type of finish you can get.

“Also Thierry Henry, the way he drops off, dribbles with the ball and takes on players. Watching the little details of his game is something you can take and put into your game.

“For me, it was about working hard and putting the work in. I like to work on dribbling, on driving with the ball, being more dangerous with the ball at my feet, and taking on defenders.

“And after, you just have to try to implement it, you have to be willing to have the guts and try it in games to see how it goes. Because if you don’t do it, it’s never going to come off and you’re just training for nothing.

“Obviously, eventually, it did pay off.”

Article image:EXCLUSIVE: Jonathan David on CL realisations, Lille and leaving his mark

With the amount of time and dedication poured into crafting his game alongside the help of El-Magraby, David landed a trial with Gent in Belgium in 2017. It wouldn’t take long for the Canadian to make an impact either.

After working with the second team, he quickly earned a spot within the senior squad and played a pivotal role as early as the second game of the season. His professional debut in 2018 against Zulte Waregem turned out to be a watershed moment in a blooming career.

“I’m on the bench at home, we’re losing this game and there’s maybe 10 minutes to go then the coach decides to put me on,” he reflected.

“I don’t even think of ‘I have to try and score a goal,’ I just thought ‘let me go out there and try to have fun. Touch a couple of balls, just trying to make something happen.’

“Fortunately for me, there was a cross and the ball came back to me and I just finished and it went in. At that moment, I didn’t even know what I was thinking. It was just pure joy.

“I didn’t even realise what I actually did. But I think it was the beginning of something really big.”

David went on record 37 goals and 15 assists for Gent in 83 appearances which eventually earned him a move to Lille in 2020 where his impact on the pitch increased tenfold.

He hit the ground running in Ligue 1, becoming a vital cog in the machine alongside striking partner Burak Yilmaz. The duo terrorised defences across France en route to dethroning Paris Saint-Germain and winning Lille’s first league title since 2011 and fourth one ever.

A strong end to the season, inspired by a hard-fought victory against Lyon thanks to the David-Yilmaz partnership, motivated the squad to etch their names in Les Dogues’ history.

“As the season went on we found ourselves at the top end, and we knew we still had to play Lyon in one of our five last games. This was maybe the most memorable game of the season. Being down 0-2 and coming back and winning 3-2.

“After we won that game, I think that we knew within ourselves that we’re winning the league this season.”

And they successfully did so on the last day with David bagging 13 goals and three assists in his first season – a tally he’s on track to surpass this year. Their title victory also meant Lille returned to one of football’s biggest stages, the UEFA Champions League.

Article image:EXCLUSIVE: Jonathan David on CL realisations, Lille and leaving his mark

Though while Lille’s title defence appears to be slipping out of reach, (they currently sit tenth), their European dream is still alive. The club finished top of Group G over RB Salzburg, Sevilla, and Wolfsburg and are set to take on holders Chelsea in the Round of 16.

Being able to play in the competition is an eye-opening realisation for the young star who a few short years ago followed the captivating tournament moments while sitting alongside family and friends in Canada.

“The Champions League, for me, was just watching it on television. Watching it at home with friends or with my dad. Watching any game possible!

“The goal Ronaldinho scored against Milan while he was playing for Barcelona, when he cut the ball with his right foot and finished with his left – afterwards he took his shirt off and celebrated.

“I don’t know why, but it’s always something that comes in the back of my mind every time I think about the Champions League.

“During the Champions League anthem, I think you can take in the atmosphere and feel that it’s not a regular game, it’s something totally different.

“It gives you goosebumps and it makes you realise you’re at the top of the game right now.”

Article image:EXCLUSIVE: Jonathan David on CL realisations, Lille and leaving his mark

For this year’s campaign, David says finishing at the top of Group G was Lille’s primary target.

“Finishing first in the group was very important for us because we knew what it meant.

“Not only for us but for the club, because it would be the first time that the club finishes first in the group stage and we go into the history of the club.

“And I think as a player, anywhere you go, you always want to leave your handprints on the club.”

With a career in the early stages, there is still plenty of time for David to continue to leave his mark on the football world. Whether that be in France, with the Canadian national team, or elsewhere.

Yet what sits at the top of his list is being able to give back to the community because some things are bigger than football – no matter how successful you become.

“For me, it’s important to help the people that are less fortunate or those that didn’t have the opportunities you had.

“Haiti is where I’m from, where I grew up. So obviously something I want to do is to help them. It’s only the beginning, but I’m working on different things that I can do.

“I think it goes back to what my coach told me; ‘Football is important, but being a good man is always the most important thing because people remember you by the way you are and how you act.”