The train to Leicester on Saturday from London was meant to be a quiet one. I had been down with the cold all week and at one point was even deliberating whether it was a wise idea to go to the game. Bearing in mind that it is a decent walk from Leicester train station to the King Power, and I was about to stand in the cold for 90 minutes, I was relying on that train ride to catch up on some rest.
Anyway, as I took my seat with two Spanish guys at the table, I couldn’t seem to close my eyes as they chatted away about football. Little did they know that my Spanish isn’t that bad, as I quickly figured out they were heading to the same game as I was.
We got talking and it turns out they were both football agents, one of them being Leicester’s recent summer signing Vincent Iborra’s agent. It is amazing how many topics you can cover in such a short space of time…
The first was obviously Rafa.
The agent was pretty adamant that what we see from Rafa is all just a character. I for one do not know who the real Rafa is but I guess it is true that all managers have a certain character that they have to live up to. He argued that now Rafa is a big well known name, he has a certain public profile that he has to conform to. Either way, I don’t really care so much because I like the character, I am sure that we all do.
In a way, I kept saying positive things about Rafa, in the hope that one of the guys would come back to me or give me a sign that they agreed he was a top class manager. However, I didn’t really get that feeling. What it confirmed for me is that this is a guy who is under appreciated everywhere, except for on Tyneside and Merseyside.
Who knows what it is about him that the rest of the country doesn’t seem to find so loveable. Perhaps his football is a little boring unlike Guardiola, he doesn’t act like a caged animal on the touchline such as Conte, he doesn’t give the media something to talk about with a stupid excuse after every defeat such as Mourinho, nor does he generally act like a buffoon all of the time such as Klopp.
Yet, this is a guy who has been a success at almost every club he has been at since Tenerife back in the early 2000s (with the exception of his very short spell at Inter Milan), so I was surprised by their lack of enthusiasm for Rafa.
The second subject that came up was the Youth facilities in Spain compared to that in England. I was lucky enough to spend some time at Villarreal when I was a kid so I know well how some of the youth facilities are in Spain.
I think this is an area that Rafa has made a priority. For a club that isn’t going to spend lots of money, the academy set up has to be seen as a source of talent and revenue, now more than ever.
During my time in Spain we were constantly told by the coaches at Villarreal about how bad their facilities were, and how they were in desperate need of an upgrade, in order to not be left behind.
As kids, this always amazed us as we knew that if Villarreal’s facilities were picked up and placed in England, they would be amongst the best youth facilities. One of the main reasons for this is that clubs in Spain have to rely on bringing through youth players far more than clubs in England. In England, the clubs have so much money that if they need a new left back, they just go out and buy one. In Spain, there is so little money flowing through the system that clubs are having to rely on bringing kids through.
The academy is an area that Rafa has to address. I wrote a previous article a while ago which showed just how few kids Rafa has brought through in his career at all of the clubs. Yet having grown up in the system, I can say it is an issue that is widespread throughout the country, not just in the North East.
If you are an 18-year-old in Spain and Holland, and you play right back for the youth team, then there is a mentality within the clubs which states that this given right back is the first team’s 5th choice right back until his last day with the club. What this means is that there is a clear line of progression to the first team. So if ‘X’ Spanish/Dutch club has an injury crisis in which the first team full backs are injured, the u23 player is out on loan, then the 18-year-old full back will be called up. He gets his chance and invariably they take it.
In England it doesn’t work like that. In order to have any chance of getting near the first team, even for training, you have to be a special player. One of the chosen ones, I like to refer to them. In my age group it was Adam Campbell and Remie Streete. So if the same situation throws itself up in England and there is an injury crisis, then everyone will be juggled around so that an ‘experienced’ reserve team centre back plays right back and one of the ‘chosen ones’ steps up to the bench… in this case Remie Streete.
Some may think this is the best way of working it, but it is just a first hand explanation that I can provide of the differences between England and those on the ‘continent’.
According to the agent, the way clubs are set up is having a greater impact upon the decisions players make in their future. This was probably the most interesting thing I took away from the conversation. Football players coming from Spain are far more likely to choose a club set up like Leicester City or Watford than they are compared to Newcastle.This is because in Spain, they largely operate on the ‘Sporting Director’ model, which is the person that largely runs the football club, while the manager is in charge of running the team.
The beauty of this model is that, it doesn’t really matter who the manager is, the philosophy of the club carries on, the structure of the youth set up is the same and the club has to have a certain style of play. On the other hand, a club like Newcastle which has no distinct philosophy, no obvious structure, and is largely ran by one man (who could go at any time), it is not an attractive proposition for any player.
If ‘X’ Spanish player comes to Newcastle on a five-year contract because of Rafa, and he then leaves, then where does that leave the player? It is likely the next manager may come in with us own ideas and style, and that player will be shut out on loan to somewhere he doesn’t want to be.
If that happens at Watford or Leicester, then everything just carries on as normal, the style of play doesn’t change that much, a similar manager will come in and their place in the team isn’t under as much risk. This is a perfect example at Leicester where Shakespeare was sacked, and Puel has come in, only to make minor changes rather than the classic overhaul we are used to.
Finally, we got onto Spanish players at NUFC. Amazingly, he didn’t seem to know who Ayoze Perez was! Although, having moved over here as a relative unknown from Tenerife maybe it’s not that much of a surprise.
He mentioned that there has been a bit of disappointment in Spain regarding Manquillo, who was categorised as a young player with a lot of potential in the Spanish national set up.
Noted also that Newcastle did well last summer to pick Florian Lejeune as he was well sought after following a strong first season with Eibar. There was also a few laughs at the mention of Marcelino, Albert Luque and Xisco.
Last but not least, a question I always ask people when I can…
“How big of a factor is London, or coming specifically to the North East, for players?”…well, it’s massive apparently.
The agent commented that unless you are going to go and play for Man U, City, Liverpool or Everton… then Leicester is about as far north as most of his players would want to go. Something I wish wasn’t true but it is a fact I hear more and more today.
Newcastle are going strong at the moment, yes, but the club is nowhere near being set up like a proper football club yet.
Rafa appears to be the glue that is holding just about everything together right now. This is why a takeover is needed now more than ever, as it will allow to the club to start building some solid foundations for the future.
I worry that if Rafa was to leave in the summer then the whole house of cards would tumble.
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