Maccabi Tel Aviv's young midfielder Omri Altman, previously at English club Fulham, still dreams of returning to a top club in the Premier League. In the meantime, he has Maccabi's forthcoming Europa League tie against Basel on his mind. An exclusive interview.
Last summer, still sporting a "Mohican" haircut, young winger Omri Altman's future was still a matter of speculation. His contract at English Premier club Fulham had just expired and with his longing to return to his native Israel, questions remained just where he should continue his career. "At Fulham they wanted me to sign a new contract and loan me out to a club in Holland or in the second-tier Championship. I said, if I'm going out on loan, just Maccabi Tel Aviv. In the end the two clubs couldn't agree terms and I decided that my place was here at home in Israel with my family and my friends so I signed a three-year deal with Maccabi".
Altman came up through the ranks of Maccabi's youth system and it was already clear early on that he had a future in the club's first team. Rumours of the talented young goal scorer who was swirling the nets in the Israeli Under-19 Premier League reached all the way to the British Isles and clubs began sending scouts to monitor his progress. "They came to one of my games and right after the match they told me and my father they wanted to sign me and as quickly as possible. Two months later I was already on a plane to England for a trial at Liverpool and at Fulham and after thinking it over I chose Fulham because I wanted to live in London".
It wasn't until towards the end of the 2010/11 season that Altman finally settled into his south-west London club, and feelings of social isolation in his new surroundings aroused thoughts of a departure earlier than expected: "To make that break so suddenly, from your family, your friends, your girlfriend, and then to spend so much time on your own, not knowing the city, not knowing anyone. My family of course stayed in Israel and I spent the first few months with another player at a 'foster' family who worked for the club. It was a very difficult time for me and of course it had its effect on my football as well. But then the new season started and I started to enjoy myself and everything changed".
After an additional year in the Under-18s, Altman joined Fulham's reserve team last season and got his first look at the English Premier League from up close: "Last year was my best season, I played in Fulham's reserve team and we finished fifth in the table. It's closer to the first team than to the Under-18s, first team players join the reserves to stay fit or whilst they're recovering from injuries so you wind up playing against first team Premier League players. It's first team football in every respect, I played against such top players as Chelsea's John Terry and Ashley Cole and everything I experienced there did me a lot of good, I matured. I understand the game much better now, they provide you with the best fundamentals of football, I raised my game by at least two levels".
During the season Altman talked a great deal with his coach Kit Symons, among other things about the European Under-21 Championships being played last summer in Israel. In addition to his work at Fulham, Symons was also the Young England assistant coach and came with the England squad to the competition. "We talked about the tournament all season", Altman relates. "After being drawn with Israel, Norway and Italy he was feeling particularly confident England would go through at a canter. After we beat them 1-0 in the final group-stage match we spoke on the way to the dressing room and he was really embarrassed at the way his side had played. I'm still in touch with the staff at Fulham, about once a month. I'm still in touch with some of the players as well, in particular Kerim Frei, who was a truly close friend of mine and just moved to Turkey to play for Besiktas".
Altman's maiden appearance for Maccabi's senior squad was in the away leg of the Champion League qualifiers against Hungarian champions Gyori. In the return leg he had an assist in the second Maccabi goal and has appeared in no less than eight of Maccabi's European encounters since the start of the season. "That game against Gyori was a fantastic experience, it was something entirely different for me. We're enjoying every minute of our European campaign and we want to get as far as we possibly can. I came to Maccabi during the summer training camp and it's like I never left the club at all. I already knew most of the players because I had already trained with them a number of times before I left for England. I've been playing with Dor Micha, Barak Levi, Reef Peretz and (Munas) Dabbur since I was 14, I've been on all the national teams, so it was like coming home rather than starting somewhere new".
"I think we're a better team than we were the last time we faced Basel. The dynamic with the coach is better, we know better what he wants from us. Don't forget, the last time we faced them it was only our third match of the season. I saw both of Basel's matches against Chelsea (in the Champions League) and they won both of them. It's a team we faced up to well both at home and away and they were a hair's breadth away from reaching the last sixteen in the Champions League. You could easily say that makes us feel even worse about having just missed the chance to get past them, but that was then and now it's now. Now we're really looking forward to facing them again and I think we have a good chance of advancing".
Towards the end of the interview, Altman tries to sum up his feelings, for the time being at least, about being back at Maccabi: "I've really improved my endurance and my tactical ability, even in relationship to what it was in England. I've improved my understanding of the game, my touches, my wing play, I've got used to my new position down the flanks and that's really important for a player. I'd like to improve my numbers, score more goals for instance. I'm working on that right now at every practice, to get "meaner" in front of goal, sharper. The coach is always telling me to be "meaner" in front of goal, that it's not like in the Under-19s where a shot towards one of the posts is enough to score. I hope to be playing as much as possible, to start scoring goals and so far the team are concerned, to get as far as possible in all the competitions".