Ahmed Elmohamady is taking a well-earned breather. He’s just finished his morning run and little Malik is already pestering him for a kickabout in the garden.
So far this summer the 33-year-old has squeezed in a month working as a pundit during the European Championship, a family holiday in Spain, and more games of football with his seven-year-old son than ever before. At his home on the outskirts of London, the married father-of-two is relaxed. This is a summer quite like no other. Unusually he’s training alone each morning as he’s currently without a club following his release from in May.
“It’s weird in some ways but good in others,” he tells The Athletic. “The family time has been great but not knowing where I am going next is strange. I’ve had offers in England and abroad but I’m waiting for the right move. Hopefully it will be sorted soon.” Elmohamady has earned the right to be selective when picking his next move. He wants something exciting especially as Malik is already questioning him about it. “He knows more clubs and players than me because of Fifa,” the defender laughs.
Elmohamady must soon decide whether to accept an offer from nearby or head overseas for a new challenge. To see how he has matured over the last decade is warming. Eleven years have now passed since he joined Sunderland from Egyptian side ENPPI as a 22-year-old who couldn’t speak a word of English.
A striker as a kid, he grew up playing in the streets. “It was all natural back then, and to be honest I’m the same now,” he says. Elmohamady could run for Egypt, but stick him in a gym and he still feels out of place. He’s never lifted weights in his career and has rarely veered off from his tried and trusted training regime out on the grass. Steve Bruce, the boss who signed him for Sunderland, Hull City and Villa, used to love that about him. He was Bruce’s Mr Reliable; always available and rarely injured. “If the gym didn’t work for Thierry Henry or Jamie Vardy, then it didn’t have to work for Elmo, either,” he says laughing. “I like to be natural.”
Still, Elmohamady’s body is very much a temple. There are no secrets to his clean-living lifestyle. “I just look after myself like a professional footballer should,” he says. “I don’t go out partying or anything like that and to be honest, I don’t eat that much food, either. Sometimes one meal in a day is enough for me.”
Over the years he’s grown to enjoy English food, too. When he first arrived in the country he would visit the Egyptian restaurants in Sunderland four or five times a week because he missed his home comforts. “The weather in Sunderland was much harder to deal with than the food, though,” he chuckles. “It must be the coldest place in England! It definitely feels warmer down here (London). But I really like living here. It’s why I’ve stayed here for so long. To be the first Egyptian to play in the country for this long is perfect for me.”
If England has a special place in his heart then so, too, does Aston Villa. His aim when he joined in 2017 was to help Villa back to the Premier League and kick on from there. What he didn’t realise was how much he would grow to love the club.
From setting up Anwar El Ghazi for a crucial goal in the 2-1 win over Derby County in the 2019 play-off final victory, to nurturing fellow countryman, Trezeguet, to sitting on the bench at West Ham United nervously checking on the other results during Survival Sunday in 2020, Elmohamady played a big part in Villa’s recent journey.
Dean Smith appreciated his loyal service to such an extent that he gave him extra notice when breaking the news that he would not be offered a contract extension when his deal expired this summer, and that’s not his usual way of addressing such a situation. CEO Christian Purslow then told him he would be welcome back at Bodymoor Heath at any time in the future.
“Christian is a great man,” Elmohamady says. “He said if I wanted to do some coaching after my career then Villa would allow me to do that. I also have so much respect for the gaffer. He told me before he signed Cashy that he was going to be the new right-back and that he wanted me to compete with him. “Then he explained to me in advance that he had three other right backs — Cashy, (Frederic) Guilbert and Kaine Kesler — all under contract, so I would not be staying any longer. It gave me time to prepare for what to do next. He’s always honest and tells his players the truth. Not all managers are like that. “These people also love Aston Villa and are working their socks off to make the club better.”
Not every memory from his time at Villa is a good one, though. The heartbreaking 2018 play-off final defeat to Fulham in his first season still cuts deep. Ex-owner Tony Xia’s chaotic management style was also as peculiar around the training ground as it was on social media.
“I don’t like it when the owners get too much involved with the players,” he says. “That should be left to the coaching staff. I found it extremely weird. There were so many meetings with the players.
“Maybe it was because there was so much pressure from the fans to get the club back into the Premier League. He must have thought it was a good idea to pass on all of that information to the players, even though the coaching staff knew what they were doing.”
Like so many of his team-mates, Elmohamady only began to appreciate the true size of the club and its passionate, expecting, fanbase when he stepped inside. “I have been promoted before but when Villa went up in 2019 it was certainly the biggest one for me,” he continues. “The pressure on us as players was massive. The gaffer changed a few things which really helped. We all became a really close unit because we were sleeping over the night before games even if we were at home. We had big belief going into the final, and we were able to help get Villa back up.”
The big turning point, of course, was when the current owners Nassef Sawiris — a man Elmohamady knows well — and his business partner Wes Edens took control of the club in the summer of 2018.
The pair saved Villa from administration, financial ruin, and inevitable years of struggle. “Everything changed when they took over,” he says. “I know Nassef very well. He’s a fantastic man, a great leader and you can see from day one exactly what they wanted. They didn’t just want to get the club back into the Premier League, they want the club to be involved in European football and to chase trophies.”
The words from one poignant conversation still ring in Elmohamady’s ears to this day. “I was on the pitch with Nassef after the play-off final at Wembley on the pitch,” he recalls. “You could see how happy he was. I remember he said to me, ‘Now we’re back into the Premier League, watch how this club will only go forward, not backwards.’ I could then see straight away how much it meant to him.”
Villa’s owners are the third richest in the Premier League and have already pumped in over £300 million in three seasons, debt-free. “They are great owners and they do things the right way,” Elmohamady continues. “They come and watch the game, wish you best of luck before the game and if you win, they say congratulations after. This is the best way to do it. “You will see again this season that the transfers they bring in are great players. The only way I can see it going for Villa this season is up.” Elmohamady believes, however, that John Terry’s departure from his role as assistant manager will be felt. “Honestly, he was unbelievable for us, but I know why he’s done it; he wants to become a manager himself,” he says.
Losing Jack Grealish to Manchester City is also a massive blow, especially as Elmohamady believes he is the best English player in the division. “I was away in the summer in Qatar doing media work around the Euros and I was saying how Jack needed to be used more by England,” he says. “He’s a different level. People won’t realise until he plays four or five games in a row for England. He will be the main man, believe me!” Punditry could be the way forward for the reliable right-back after football. Other than playing tennis, or watching his favourite player Rafael Nadal, the Egyptian’s life is pretty simple; family and football. “If I’m not playing football, I’m watching it,” he says. “This summer was good working as a pundit. I enjoyed covering the England games for beIN Sports. It was a really great experience.”
For now, though, there’s a sharp focus on securing a new challenge as a player. Last season he made just 17 appearances for Villa but hopes to feature more often when he decides on his next destination. In the meantime, it’s morning runs and more time with Malik. If the youngster who plays for his school team wants to follow in his father’s footsteps then he’s got the perfect role model to learn from in the times ahead.