The head coach at the time was Bobby Robson, and he had Jose Mourinho there with him. I did pre-season with the first team, and I thought I would make the first-team squad for the season. It was everything I had been fighting for, for all those years – but I ended up playing for Barca B that season, and by the following summer it was clear I’d have to go out on loan if I wanted game time.
That was a tough time for me. I’d been at the club for six years, and I was close to making my dream come true. So close, I could almost touch it.
Instead, the club arranged for me to go on loan to Toledo in the second division. They inserted a clause in the contract that meant I had to play a certain amount of minutes. If I didn’t, Toledo would have to pay Barça more – so the club were able to ensure that I could get the game time I needed in the final stages of my football education as a young player.
“Cruyff would know your name, say hi, ask how your studies were going. As a young player in the academy, that was amazing”
I learnt so much in my time at Barça. As you come up through the youth system, there’s one common theme in all the teams and with all the different coaches. It’s the most basic part of football: learning to control and pass the ball correctly.
But perhaps one of the most important lessons was taught to me by one of the greats, Johan Cruyff. It wasn’t a technical or a tactical concept. It was about the human side of the game.
Cruyff would come to the afternoon training sessions with the Under-15s, the Under-16s, all the different age groups, and he’d join in the rondos with us. He’d come to the Masia and he would know your name, say hi, ask you how your studies were going. It was amazing for us that the first-team head coach, a guy who was a legend both as a player and coach, knew all our names and was genuinely interested in us.
That was one of the first things I started doing when I became Valencia’s general manager. I started getting to know every single player in all the youth teams by talking to them whenever I saw them at the training ground, and I watched them all train and play as often as possible. I honestly believe it was that sort of thing from Cruyff which made Barça so successful in that period. It’s something I will always do, wherever I’m working.