Huddersfield Town, 2020–
I have always thought life gives us experiences that are key for our personal development. Taking advantage of them is up to us.
Undoubtedly, that’s how it was with Villarreal.
Juan Mercé, a football lecturer at the Universidad de Valencia, where I was studying sports and exercise science, rang me to say: “You’ve got an interview tomorrow at Villarreal.”
He had recommended me to Juan Carlos Garrido (below), who was then director of the club’s academy, to join the second-team staff.
That recommendation was key for me, because I went from coaching amateur football to becoming part of a professional structure – and, on top of that, at a club like Villarreal.
It was a club that worked – and still does work – by having a very clear identity, uniting the players with a certain style of play and way of training all within the same framework. It's a combination that has enabled them to get great results over a long period of time.
Starting at Villarreal meant ending my career as a goalkeeper. This was something I had already virtually decided before that call, since I was aware that I wasn’t going to make it at any of those places you dream about when you are a kid.
At 23, I was no longer focused on training with my goalkeeping coach. I was continually shifting my attention to my teammates' training sessions in order to adapt those drills to the club I was coaching at.
Up to then, I had been in charge of the junior, colt and youth academies for Cheste, a town near Valencia. Those days seem a long time ago now, but I still cherish them. In the end, all of those experiences help shape you as a person in charge of a group of players – and obviously those teams were part of that process too.
I have always been aware of how complicated it is to be a football coach, especially if you haven’t been a professional player. But, undoubtedly, to be part of a club like Villarreal allowed me to start putting some flesh on the bones of my new career. I was at the club for six seasons, the last three of those in the first team, as part of Juan Carlos Garrido's technical staff.
In that spell we got to play in the Europa League – and in the 2010/11 season we reached the semi finals against Porto (above). That season we also ended up in fourth place in La Liga, which allowed us to play in the Champions League in my final year there.
From that first-team experience I remember, especially, the great players who made you grow with each training session.
I will always remember how easy it was for Ariel Ibagaza (below, left) to control the pace of the game in a simple rondo drill. How Robert Pires (below, right) hardly had to adjust his movement to find a pass; how Marcos Senna, playing on the inside, gave us balance, helping to play high-quality football in a midfield full of great players.
"Juanma Lillo exuded knowledge, curiosity and awareness"
But unfortunately, as with everything in life, it came to an end. In this case it was Christmas 2011, after being knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Mirandés of the Segunda División B.
Those dismissals, bitter as they may be, make you value every minute that you’ve been through, and make you realise that having the opportunity to be a football coach is a privilege that cannot be wasted. That’s when you learn that there isn’t a single day that is just another day. Not a single day can be wasted.
Your footballing days give you so much. Nothing lasts forever – even less so in football – so we should squeeze every last drop out of each and every day.
Fortunately, life brought me another of those key opportunities. This time, in Saudi Arabia.
Leaving for Saudi Arabia was a challenge I had to take up in order to keep learning about football. It was a league, and a country, that I didn’t know at all. I went as the second coach to Raúl Caneda, who up to that point had been working with Juanma Lillo, the coach I had been most interested in up to then.
In each interview or article he wrote, Lillo exuded knowledge of, curiosity for, and awareness of the game. So I started to follow him closely, and at the same time I started to develop a relationship with Caneda. My ambition was to learn as much as I could about the game and how to coach. All those concepts I was hearing about were helping me to form a new idea and understanding of what was happening on the pitch.
"That first time addressing the group is so important. There is never a second chance to make a good first impression"
As you develop, there are always people who turn up at different stages in your life who act as a stimulus and boost your growth. Their influence takes you to new levels of knowledge that, without that interaction, you wouldn’t access.
With Raúl, I had some experiences that are very unlikely to happen again. We made it to the Asia Champions League semi finals with one of Asia’s greatest clubs, Al Ittihad (below). It was a team I had known nothing about until the months before taking on that new challenge.
I was in Saudi Arabia on three different occasions, but I kept myself as active as possible in between each of them. I would either coach a lower-level team that would allow me an easy exit in case a good offer came along – I didn’t want to lose my links with professional football – or I would travel to take a closer look at leagues in countries where I might work one day.
One of those trips was to Cyprus. There, I established a relationship with the owner and chairman of Doxa, one of the smaller teams in the country’s first division.
At the end of 2016, Doxa didn’t have a coach and I didn’t have a team. Although it is always risky to stop being an assistant coach to become the lead coach, I felt it was the right moment to take that step forward.
It was the time to throw myself in and live what I had inside. Or, maybe, throw yourself into what you’ve been capable of doing all along?
"He wanted to have the best coach in the world to make it happen. He had no doubts. Marcelo Bielsa was the ideal coach"
It all happened – as these things tend to – spontaneously, and with very little time to plan. I remember thinking about the first dressing-room talk I was going to have as I was flying to Nicosia. For me, that very first time addressing the group is of paramount importance. As Oscar Wilde put it: “There is never a second chance to make a good first impression.”
My spell at Doxa was short. We managed to climb out of the relegation zone, but after nine games my contract was terminated and I was transferred directly to Ermis Aradippou, a team in the top half of the Cypriot table. I finished the season with Ermis.
Just as the season ended, I got the opportunity to work for an Aspire Academy project in England. I had a meeting in Qatar with Iván Bravo, general director of Aspire Academy, who suggested the possibility of landing a job at one of the most historic clubs in the country – Leeds United.
At the time, Aspire had an agreement with Leeds to manage the club’s sports strategy, which had been signed a few weeks earlier by their chairman Andrea Radrizzani (above, left).
It was June 2017 when I arrived in Leeds to coach their under-23 team. I was on my own, with no one from the technical staff, but I knew Víctor Orta (above, right), the director of sport. I had first met Victor a few months before, during a football congress in Madrid. For a while I was organising football congresses, and on that occasion we called Víctor. As usual, he was very willing to support these types of projects.
For the first season I was committed exclusively to the Under-23 team, with the aim of developing a different identity to the one we’d had in previous years.
"Working with Bielsa was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity"
When the season ended, I had a meeting with Víctor and Andrea to evaluate the results. Andrea was very clear about changing the club. He wanted to awaken the sleeping giant that was Leeds United, so he wanted to have the best coach in the world to make it happen.
Víctor had no doubts. Their ideal coach was Marcelo Bielsa.
The meeting ended with the idea of going to Buenos Aires to meet Marcelo (above), and I was fortunate enough to make the trip with them. Andrea wanted me to be part of that project from the very beginning.
At that meeting, Marcelo showed that his analytical ability and his extensive knowledge of how a team works is limitless. This is something that leaves its mark on you.
For the second season I joined Marcelo’s staff in the first team, but I kept some responsibilities with the under-23s. I wanted them to play and work as similarly as possible to the first team, so I organised the group that would carry out their training and then I would coach them on game days. I performed this double role during my second and third years at Leeds.
Working with Marcelo was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When people ask me what it’s like to work with him, there is always something I emphasise – with Marcelo, you can only learn. He questions and analyses everything to a microscopic degree, and that enhances your development.
"You have to make the decision to leave on your own terms"
It was a marvellous experience. On a sporting level, we finally managed to win promotion back to the Premier League. On a personal level, those were two years of amazing growth for me.
The fans had suffered for many years, but they never abandoned their club. Being part of a project where you pay the fans back for all the suffering they have endured is something that is just extraordinary.
We had made it back into the Premier League. I was working alongside a coach like Marcelo. For a club with fans like Leeds.
So why change?
I always wanted to be a coach. You also understand that, if you want to keep growing, every stage has to come to an end at some point.
After promotion, I felt there couldn’t be a better ending. Promotion was the best way to give thanks for all the support and trust that Marcelo, Andrea, Iván and Víctor, alongside his working group, had given me.
"Every training session with the players has to be perfect"
I had been given a great opportunity and I wanted to pay them back in the best possible way. In football, it is fundamental to give the best of yourself to people who believe in you. There is nothing more important than the club you are at, otherwise you are at risk of valuing what you have only when you lose it. So you have to try to make the decision to leave on your own terms, and not ever have that decision taken by the people who hired you to be there.
Every decision has a level of risk and fear. But, if you are able to put those aside, then you can go through the situations and challenges that you need to move forward. What really matters is seizing all that each opportunity can teach you.
That is exactly what I am trying to do at Huddersfield. Because football challenges you every day.
Every team you play against is forcing you to find new and better answers. Every training session has to be perfect. So does every moment with the players, in order for them to be able to deliver.
Sincerely, I wouldn’t change anything that I have been through since I decided I wanted to be a coach. None of the good or bad moments. Obviously, you always want things to go your way, but I have learned a lot from those times when things didn't turn out the way I hoped – what some people might call failures.
That’s when you have just two options – either look the other way and hamper your own development, or be brave, look failure in the eye, and learn what it has to tell you.
I have always chosen the latter, because I think those difficult times have a lot more to show us. But to listen, we have to break free from our own ego and question everything that just happened. Hold ourselves accountable even for those things that weren’t solely down to us.
That is the gateway to professional growth. At least, it has been for me.