For one brief moment Kieran Trippier sounds worried. The England defender is talking about how his Atlético Madrid teammate Diego Costa calls him Rooney and how that means everyone else calls him Rooney too when a thought crosses his mind. “It’s just because I’m the only English player here and Rooney’s the only one he’s heard of; it could have been anything,” he’s saying. “He just calls me that because it’s the first name that came into his mind. And everywhere I go, they shout Rooney. When I warm up, everyone’s shouting it. Everyone. I have Diego to thank for this. Of all the names. I don’t think I …”
And then there’s a pause. Two men sit with him at Atlético’s Cerro del Espino training ground, empty now after the morning session. “Do you think I look like Rooney?” Trippier asks. No. “Do you think I look like Rooney?” No. And if that’s your only concern, things must be going well. “I’m just loving every moment,” Trippier says after the first question of what becomes a long chat; “I’m loving every minute of it,” he says after the second; and “I’m very happy to be part of it,” he says after the third, a pattern confirmed long before the nickname comes up, certain words recurring. “Happy” and “enjoying”, mostly.
“I’m enjoying my football again,” Trippier says, and it shows, fans immediately won over. Everyone said he had a “glove on his foot” – the ability to place a ball perfectly – and Marca declared him the club’s “best signing”. The start couldn’t have been better and while the last month has been harder, victories more elusive, Santi Arias competing for his place, Atlético remain a point off the top and Trippier is happy.
He hadn’t planned to leave London but this was a move he needed. It is one, he says, that improves him and, far from becoming a forgotten man, Gareth Southgate saw the benefits too, returning him to the England setup. On Monday, Trippier boarded a plane at Barajas airport, Atlético’s stadium visible from the runway, to join the national team.
“I spoke to Fernando [Llorente] and Toby Alderweireld about La Liga and they said I’d really enjoy it so I thought: ‘Grab it with both hands,’” he says. “I heard people saying it was a risk, there were a few warnings, but it didn’t scare me. I thought this was a great opportunity. When I first spoke to my wife it was a bit of a shock. It wasn’t necessarily ‘no’, more ‘it’ll be difficult’. She said: ‘Whatever you decide, we’ll stick by you.’ I said: ‘Let’s give it a go.’”
There’s a sense that Trippier needed a clean break, a new start. “Yes, definitely.” He admits his level dropped after the 2018 World Cup in Russia, talking honestly about a kind of disconnect. A feeling lingers that something wasn’t right at Spurs, the occasional hint of something really wrong. After last year perhaps Spurs aren’t such a surprise. After the World Cup perhaps his problems weren’t either, an inevitable low following that high? “Personally I don’t think it was anything to do with the World Cup,” he replies. “Sometimes you need a break but that’s not an excuse either.
“Things happen,” the 29-year-old continues, and there is a long pause. “Injuries and other things happen …” Another pause. “… behind the scenes … and your head’s not quite there. You’re still trying to do your best but things are not quite right and it’s an awful place to be. That was what it was like last season. I tried to put it right but … like I said, I’m just happy that season is behind me and I’m in a new chapter of my life.”
Trippier says “the funny thing about it” is that you can’t even grasp what’s actually wrong to fix it. “Sometimes I feel I was selfish in that when I was really struggling with injuries I didn’t open up to the manager,” he suggests. “I didn’t say anything and that damaged me because I was getting murdered on the pitch or I was making silly errors. Maybe that was my fault, maybe that was selfish. I should’ve thought of the bigger picture, the team, instead of myself. Maybe I should’ve taken a step back and said: ‘I’m struggling, like.’ But I just wanted to play.
“In the end it affected me more. Looking back I should have done that. And moving forward, if I’m ever in that situation again for sure I’ll think about the team more. I don’t want the team carrying somebody.”
Part of the fix came with the change and there has been support too. Trippier says he has “never been anywhere like this”. He’s taking Spanish lessons three times a week, trying to “get involved, go for dinner, banter as much as I can”, and says: “The language will take time. I’ve just got to be patient. I just want them to know I’m trying. I couldn’t have asked for a better group.
“The most important thing is I’m enjoying my football. I’ve come to a different league, different surroundings, different culture, everything. And maybe the new challenge has woken me up. It was there to see last season that sometimes my concentration was lacking. Sometimes it led to goals, I know that. And I’ve said many times over the last 16 months my defending needs to improve. People questioned the move but it was the perfect team. If I play for Cholo [Diego Simeone], I know defensively I can improve.”
In what? “Positioning. If [left-back Renan] Lodi’s bombing forward I can’t be up here as well like in England, because you get a turnover of play and there’s so much space. I need to be thinking defensively always.” Yet, pushed high and wide, it is in attack where he has most impressed with the quality of his passing and timing, liberated by Koke’s covering. “Koke’s brilliant to play with: he’s so honest, his work ethic’s incredible. Everybody’s is, but Koke does so much running, I don’t know how he does it,” Trippier says. “There’s a lot of tactical work. Every day I’m learning. Training’s totally different. For me, that’s perfect. I’m getting help off one of the best coaches in the world.”
It’s notable how rarely Trippier loses possession. He says he doesn’t know the amount – 78% pass completion – but does know part of the answer. “You see sometimes last season or before I was maybe putting the ball in the box for the sake of it. Look at the goal [Álvaro] Morata scored from [Ángel] Correa’s pass [against Athletic]. At Tottenham I would have just crossed that, but there’s three v one so I came back out, played it to Koke, Koke to Ángel, Ángel to Morata, goal. It’s practice. In this league if you give the ball away you can be chasing it a long time. It’s about being patient: if the cross isn’t on, come back out. Koke, Ángel, goal.
“We do that with England too, with Gareth,” Trippier adds swiftly. “If it’s not on, turn out, play to Hendo [Jordan Henderson]. You see the one at the World Cup with Jesse Lingard. It’s not just throwing the ball in the box, hoping they get on the end of it.”
In the way Trippier turns to England there is a glimpse of what it means; there is a fondness, a warmth, to every mention of England, even when he discusses the racist abuse in Bulgaria.
“It was horrendous to witness,” he says. “My dad’s mixed-race, my brothers. It’s not nice. I was speaking to their manager, he said he didn’t hear it and I thought: ‘OK, that’s interesting.’ But we dealt with it the right way. We wanted to score goals and score more goals and punish Bulgaria. We’d had meetings. Gareth and the staff are perfect: he got us prepared if anything happened and there’s a very good group. We have full respect for each other and we support each other on and off the pitch. We have a great squad.”
A squad he is back in. “I had a good chat with Gareth when I wasn’t in the Nations League [squad],” Trippier says. “It was expected because of my performances. It does hurt, but it’s one of those. I’ll always respect Gareth’s decision because we’re honest with each other. He’s a great manager; he’s done a lot for me. I knew it was coming in a way because of the performances. You’ve got Trent [Alexander-Arnold], Walks [Kyle Walker], [Aaron] Wan-Bissaka now, Reece James; there’s so much competition.
“But I felt – and I spoke with Gareth about this – that new challenge, coming here [might help]. I thought: ‘Why not? Give it a go.’ I didn’t want to come to the end of my career regretting having turned this opportunity down: such a big club, Champions League football, and I’ve been back with England the last two camps.”
And so life is good. Everything is good. Except perhaps the nickname bestowed upon him by the man Trippier says is the maddest he’s met. Oh, and there is one other thing: Trippier misses the darts here and will miss it at Ally Pally in December. “I can’t go, but I’ll be cheering on [the world No 1] Michael van Gerwen,” he says. “I still owe him dinner. We had a bet when England played Holland. [England lost, Holland won] so I still owe him dinner at Novikov. I want him to know I haven’t forgotten. I’m gutted I’m not going. And I don’t think anyone at Atlético plays. It’s just me.”
Which might be no bad thing: imagine Diego Costa armed. “Yeah,” Trippier says, “a lot of people are in trouble if he’s got darts.”