So, Hal Robson-Kanu, talk us through your goal. “I was in the box and just trying to make space to get a shot off,” the Wales striker says. “I had my back to goal and they’re thinking I’m going to set the ball and I’ve Cruyffed and put it in the net. It was going to take something like that to break the Belgian team down. I’m obviously pleased that we came out victorious.”
It was the giddy aftermath of Wales’s 3-1 win over Belgium last Friday, which has set up Wednesday night’s Euro 2016 semi-final against Portugal, and Robson-Kanu, whose goal-of-the-tournament contender had put his team in front and, in the process, broken the internet, was talking as if he did this sort of thing every week.
Surely, that is not the case? “I have scored a few good goals, personally,” Robson-Kanu says, in an interview at the Wales team base in Dinard. “But the significance of that goal and the manner was obviously special for myself and for the nation.”
It quickly becomes apparent that few people do nonchalance quite like Robson-Kanu. Or self-assurance. The words of the Wales captain, Ashley Williams, resonate. “Hal’s a good guy but he absolutely loves himself,” Williams told Wales Online during a light-hearted, pre-tournament piece on his team-mates. “He did a great job for us in the campaign and he has that song but, yeah, he absolutely loves himself.”
Robson-Kanu’s song runs to the beat of Salt-N-Pepa’s Push It. Hal, Robson. Hal Robson-Kanu. Hal, Robson. Hal Robson-Kanu. And so on. He is a guy who thinks nothing of using the Cruyff turn in the form of a verb and takes the mention of his Golden Boot chances smoothly in his stride. He scored the winning goal in Wales’s opening group tie against Slovakia and who knows where a couple more against Portugal might leave him?
When he Cruyffed against Belgium, he sent Thomas Meunier, Marouane Fellaini and Jason Denayer the wrong way and social media into meltdown. There was even a tweet from Nwankwo Kanu, the great Nigeria striker. “What a goal and skill, Robson-Kanu,” he wrote. “Keep the name flying.”
It would have been easy for Robson-Kanu to have felt the thump of his heart, after creating the chance for himself, and fluffed the finish. He did not. The 27-year-old placed his shot coolly past Thibaut Courtois and the impression he has given is that he has waited all his life for the chance to shine on the big stage.
“There is so much exposure here and people can see what level people are actually at,” Robson-Kanu says. “My level of performance has been high but it is about being given a platform to do that on. I am not doing anything different. I am enjoying every minute and I am feeling comfortable at this level.”
Robson-Kanu’s career path has been rocky. He was released at 15 by Arsenal after he failed to develop physically and despite being told by Liam Brady, then the club’s head of academy, that he had “a wand of a left foot”. “Those were his words,” Robson-Kanu says.
Brendan Rodgers, who was the director of the Reading academy, took him and Robson-Kanu has been on the books of the Berkshire club for the past 12 years – playing one season in the Premier League in 2012-13, when he scored seven goals. That was his best return from a campaign.
He has left Reading as a free agent, having allowed his contract to run down, and, according to him, he has no shortage of suitors. Everton are one of the clubs who have made their interest known. “I haven’t hidden my desire to play in the Premier League again,” Robson-Kanu says. “But I am aware there is interest across Europe and globally as well.”
Robson-Kanu had an injury scare during Wales’s pre-tournament training camp in Portugal and the manager, Chris Coleman, said there was a period when the player’s involvement at the finals was in doubt. Coleman spoke on Sunday about how things might have worked out differently had Robson-Kanu missed the championship while he was without a club. “That’s not a good position for a player to be in,” Coleman said.
Robson-Kanu was never worried. “It was never in doubt for me, personally,” he says. “As players, you know your bodies. Everyone around me was panicking a little but I was confident.”
Robson-Kanu always has been. Nothing holds any fear for him, least of all the prospect of facing Pepe, the Portugal centre-half, who is locked in a battle to prove his fitness after a thigh problem.
“I don’t know how much he will be looking forward to playing against me,” Robson-Kanu says. “My job will be to occupy him and to affect the game in that way. He is a world-class player but I am relishing it. Portugal hold a bit of a high line and there will probably be a lot more space in behind. He will probably and hopefully be seeing the back of my number a fair few times, chasing after me.”
Pepe, who is one of football’s pantomime villains, plays at Real Madrid with Gareth Bale – the Wales talisman. “Gaz says he is actually a nice guy, believe it or not,” Robson-Kanu says. “On the pitch, he does what he feels is necessary but we will be more than comfortable to do what is necessary, as well. Do I have any tricks to get under his skin? No comment.”
Robson-Kanu utters that last line without the hint of a smile. He is keyed up, searingly focused. He says he is aware of the “frenzy” sparked by his goal against Belgium but now is not the time to pick over it. His club future can also wait. The England striker Jamie Vardy, agreed a new contract at Leicester City during Euro 2016 but Robson-Kanu has taken a different approach and he believes that it leads to better performances.
“It definitely does,” he says. “It is easy to get clouded and lose focus on what is really important. What is really important here is doing what is required on the pitch. That has shown in my performances throughout the tournament. I am looking forward to another one on Wednesday night.”
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