The Prödls have two family businesses. The first, started in Styria two generations ago by Josef Prödl, has become a successful producer of high-end kitchens. The second is football. Sebastian Prödl is Watford’s player of the season; his brother, Matthias, played in Austria’s lower leagues but retired last year; a cousin, Viktoria Schnaderbeck, plays for Bayern Munich and captains Austria’s women’s team; another cousin, Jason Kicker, is a 20-year-old goalkeeper trying to make his way into the professional game; and a third was on the books of a top-flight team in Austria as a youth before injury ended his career.
“I really don’t know how it happened,” Sebastian Prödl says. “We always think about it and talk about it. Maybe when we were young we played together and it started like this?”
Unlike many players, retirement is not a word that fills Prödl with fear and uncertainty. Like his brother a year ago, when he finishes in one family business he can step neatly into the other. “I would already be involved if I hadn’t become a professional and of course I’m thinking about that when I finish my career,” he says. “I grew up with it and my whole family is involved in the company. As I’m interested in furniture, in interiors, and especially kitchens, I’m thinking about joining the company. I don’t know which kind of way, in what kind of job, but I feel like I want to be part of it as well.”
It is fair to say few footballers list furniture as a particular area of interest. “When I buy a flat or an apartment, I want to be a part of it,” he says. “I don’t want to give it to an interior designer and say: ‘Just do it.’ I want to learn, I want to get taught these things and get a feeling for it. So I go to Design Week to see new furniture, but I’m also interested in classic designs and classic designers. I want to collect. It’s something I’m interested in and want to spend time on when I finish my career. At the moment I collect art but not furniture. It’s easier to get: paintings, photographs, pop art.”
Born in the Styrian countryside 30 years ago, Prödl broke through at Sturm Graz and spent seven years at Werder Bremen before moving to Watford on a free in 2015, settling in Hampstead near his friend and former Werder team-mate Per Mertesacker. “I’d never lived in a big city and that’s what I put on my bucket list: if there was a chance in my life to live in a big city and to live the big city life, I’ll do that,” he says. “And I took the chance. People often say the city makes them tired but I take a lot of energy out of the city as well. We go to a lot of museums, exhibitions. If there’s a good concert in town we like to go there. It’s a big deal for me.
“This city is so global, so open-minded. You get a different point of view about life. That’s what I sometimes miss when I go back to Austria. I miss that open mind, that international view, the will to work together, to interact, the will to communicate in a different way, to approach in a different way foreigners, cultures, religions. That’s what I really enjoy about living here.”
It is clear Prödl sees the world around him as something not just to be experienced but to be examined and he does so with a focus and intelligence not always found in hulking 6ft 4in centre-backs. If he seems to have embraced all aspects of his off-pitch life, however, there are issues in English football about which he is less enthusiastic. “I don’t think it’s going to be soon but maybe there will be a problem here one day,” he says. “They’re selling everything, not only the football but everything around it. The players are becoming a brand and even I don’t read all the news any more because there’s too much. Too much news, too many rumours, too many things that aren’t even related to football. There’s a chance people will get annoyed by that. I hope not because I like football and I’m part of it, but maybe.
“Sometimes you sit in the stands and you don’t feel the guy sitting next to you knows the game. People travel to England and watch a game, not because they love football but just to show they’ve been to a game. So sometimes, in a big stadium of a big club, the atmosphere is not what we expect. And the transfer market – there was the transfer of Neymar last summer; it was the only transfer where you could understand the value. So many transfers were not that good value. The market went crazy. It’s difficult for a small team and will become more difficult for small teams. I don’t know where this goes.”
The call of England’s capital was one of the reasons why he chose to move to Watford instead of Leicester, who had also been courting him. “I always choose clubs with my gut,” he says. “Watford seemed to be the better choice for me.” He then had to watch the side he spurned sprint to the Premier League title, though that the player they signed instead of him, Yohan Benalouane, made four substitute appearances that season helped to calm any pangs of jealousy.
Meanwhile in Hertfordshire, Prödl has excelled in central defence, where he is a composed and physically imposing presence, under an annually changing parade of managers. The latest, Marco Silva, has a burgeoning reputation that has already prompted a larger club to try to tempt him away. “He’s very different to the last coaches we had,” Prödl says. “He’s very clear in his opinion how to play. He’s very demanding: he demands a lot of discipline, not only on the pitch but also off the pitch. Which means the rules outside of the pitch, be on time, these kinds of things. On the pitch he’s got his opinion and he’s very focused. Every second on the pitch, in training sessions, he’s preparing us well for the games and you can tell he loves his job because of that focus.”
The focus did not appear to drop when the press was full of stories about Everton courting him. “We followed everything that was written but there was no impact on the team or on him, as far as we could see,” Prödl says. “We never discussed it. We don’t know what was behind the scenes. For us the story was only in the papers.”
Prödl spent much of Watford’s excellent early season on the sidelines with a hamstring injury and results since his return have been less encouraging. Watford have been beaten four times in five games, including a 4-1 capitulation at home to Huddersfield last Saturday that was, Prödl says, “a very desperate afternoon for us”. There is a familiar pattern repeating here, of early-season success followed by a winter wobble: in 2015 they were seventh on Christmas Day; in 2016, as this year, they went into December in eighth. But under Quique Sánchez Flores and Walter Mazzarri they had the 18th best record in the division from Boxing Day onwards, and under Silva they are again suffering from what Prödl calls “goblins”.
“There’s still confidence,” he says. “We just need to not make the same mistakes we did in the first two seasons, when we were totally capable of competing in the first part of the season and dropped our level in the second part. We have to progress, to make sure we stay confident and compete in every game. There have only been two games this season when we didn’t compete, against Manchester City and Huddersfield.
“We competed in 16 games. If we can continue like this, there’s no worry about maintaining that level of play. If we drop a little bit, there’s a danger of the same kind of situation we had in the last two seasons. I hope we don’t do that and I don’t see it coming. We try to continue the way we did and not face the same goblins of the last two seasons.”
Prödl signed a four-year contract in September but though what follows it may be mapped out he remains ambitious for the remainder of his career. “I always dreamed about playing in the Premier League,” he says. “When I joined I fulfilled my dream on the one hand but on the other hand I also saw I could compete at this level. Who knows if I’m at the top of my ladder or if I’m still able to climb.”
The Guardian Sport