West Ham's Spanish keeper sits down with FFT's Jonathan Fadugba to discuss the Hammers' summer recruits, beating Real Madrid and his manager's language skills...
At what age did you decide you wanted to become a goalkeeper?
Well it’s quite a strange story. Before I joined Betis I played at school in my neighbourhood. When I was 10 I played as a striker, because I was tall and I enjoyed scoring goals. But then my team didn’t have a goalkeeper, so I decided to go in goal, but only as a stop-gap until we managed to get a new keeper. But I did quite well, the coach was impressed and the following year I was signed by Betis. To this day I’ve remained a keeper and now I’m no longer thinking of changing positions - I think I’ll stick to being a goalkeeper! (laughs)
You grew up in Seville, were you a Sevilla or Betis fan as a kid?
Forever Real Betis!
Tell us about the rivalry and the intensity of the derby. Why do they hate each other so much?!
It’s a huge rivalry because it’s a big city; there’s the red of Sevilla and the green of Betis. It even splits families, sometimes there are brothers in the same family with one a Sevilla supporter, one Betis. So yes there’s a huge rivalry, and the derbies are massive. People live for this match and experience and feel it 100%. We wait for it all year, you know? In Seville everybody talks a lot about it before and afterwards.
Are there some Sevilla fans in your family too?
My Dad, my brother and my Mum are all Betis, but I have uncles and cousins who are Sevilla. And my partner’s family are all Sevilla fans. So it’s a healthy rivalry.
- Date of birth: January 3, 1987
- Place of birth: Seville, Spain
- Height: 6ft 3in
- Position: Goalkeeper
- Club: West Ham United
- Former club: Betis; 32 apps
You joined Betis in 2006 and played for their B team for a long time. Did you ever get frustrated or feel like you might not succeed or make it to La Liga?
Yes, of course, I played for nearly four and a half years for Betis B. Even though I was trying my best, I wasn’t progressing that much, but I kept faith that if I continued to work hard, with my ability and my characteristics, I could one day have the chance to play in the first team - this was always my dream. Finally I managed to achieve it. I made my debut in the final year of my contract at Betis. I had a really good season, the team did well and we qualified for the Europa League.
How difficult was that period and what was it like generally playing in the B teams?
It’s very very different to the English system because here in England all the teams play against boys of their own age group - U21s, U19s etc. In Spain, the B team plays in the Segunda Division B, a professional league, so there are players of all ages and players who began in the Primera but then dropped into the lower leagues. So it’s quite a tough league. But also it helps the young players who emerge from it because it helps them get experience, mature and eventually make those steps into the first team.
Do you think the Premier League and English football should follow the Spanish model and use B teams in the lower divisions like in Spain?
I think for football in general it’s a good system. Talented kids need to gain experience playing against players older than them. If you’re 18 you might stand out playing against 18-year-olds but you need to play against older players than you to see if you’re genuinely a good player. It’s something that Spain has in its favour I think, and I believe it’s important.
You suffered a serious knee injury during your time with Betis B - how difficult was that to cope? Is it easier to maintain fitness as a goalkeeper when you have that kind of injury, as you can concentrate on upper body work?
Yes, it was one of the most difficult times of my professional career, for sure. It was three years ago, I was 23 or 24, and it was a serious knee injury, cruciate ligaments. It was five and a half months before I could return to playing again. At the time I was captain of Betis B and I had many responsibilities, so for them, losing the captain and keeper was a complicated moment. But anyway, I always try to maintain a positive mentality, I tried to return to fitness as quickly as possible and I actually managed to return before the end of the season and play the final game.
Were you ever close to giving up at that point?
No that didn’t really enter my mind. It’s true, the first few days after the operation are very difficult and as it’s such a complicated injury. You need your family and friends for support. You’re basically incapacitated, your knee is bad, you can’t move, so you need support in the early days. But bit-by-bit you train more, you get better each day. I was able to come out of a difficult situation - thanks to God there were no permanent consequences and I’m currently in perfect shape.
Who were you heroes growing up? Which keepers do you look up to, past and present?
When I was small I always followed the best; I never had one particular idol, I had a few I looked up to, players like Oliver Kahn, Peter Schmeichel, Gianluigi Buffon when he was at his best. When you’re growing up you follow the most professional keepers as well as the best. I think Spanish keepers have a great reputation at the moment; Victor Valdes, Pepe Reina, Iker Casillas, Diego Lopez – it’s a good time for Spanish keepers.
Unfortunately we lost my debut 4-0. I was man of the match but I still conceded four goals – it could have been eight or 10 goals!
Do you learn different things from watching different keepers?
Of course, when you watch games it’s normal you check for the qualities of the keeper, and I study the movements of other keepers often. How is their footwork? What are they like in the air? What position do they take up for corners? That kind of stuff. You study the best keepers and then you try and improve your own positioning. I used look at Casillas’ movement and learn a lot.
Who is the best goalkeeper in the world today?
For me, Manuel Neuer is the best. He had an amazing World Cup, he’s in incredible form now but he’s also been good at Bayern Munich for years.
You made your Betis debut as a substitute when the first choice keeper was sent off. What was that like? Did you feel ready? Nervous?
It was a beautiful moment, you know? I’ll remember it for the rest of my life because it was also the first time I’d been selected in the first team squad. I was on the bench and in the 12th or 13th minute of the game my team-mate gave away a penalty and was sent off. So the manager shouted “Come on Adrian, we need to make a change!” So in less than two minutes you have to change, get ready, put your gloves on and you’ve got all these thoughts running through your head! But I was ready, I’d been working hard and waiting for this moment to come. This had always been my dream, to play for Betis and I’d been there for so many years. So when the moment came I couldn’t wait to get out on the pitch. Unfortunately we lost the game 4-0. I was man of the match but I still conceded four goals – it could have been eight or 10 goals! But I played quite well and from there it continued.
You played very well and kept your place. What was it like playing against teams like Real Madrid and Barcelona?
Yes it was a beautiful time, you know. Since you were a small kid you’ve been thinking about the possibility of playing against these teams and even beating them, and I’ve had the fortune of being in a team that beat Real Madrid – we beat them 1-0 in our own ground and, well, it was a spectacular occasion. I also played really well so it was good on a personal level. Winning at home against Real Madrid in front of your own fans against all these Real Madrid stars, the Galacticos…it was amazing! I’ll always remember that.
What was your favourite memory from this game, a save you made or anything like that?
Yes, one above all. It was in the second half, I’d made a lot of saves in this game, but there was one in the second half – a shot from close range from Benzema that I stopped with my face! After it bounced off my face and the move ended I remember thinking to myself “well if I’m making a save with my face there’s no way they’re going to score against me today, it’s impossible!” (laughs)
How did the move to West Ham come about? When did you first hear about the deal?
It was a bit unexpected, actually. My contract at Betis was running out and I was reflecting on the possibility of renewing my deal, but I felt I deserved a different contract to the one I was offered - a lot more than what was on the table. I had various offers from Spain but when I was told that West Ham were interested in me I didn’t think twice. The Premier League is a league I’ve always enjoyed and, although I’d had a good season in Spain, I felt it was the right moment to leave and take a step in a different direction. So here I am, I’m really happy and really glad I joined.
The main difference is the weather - there’s a lot of clouds and rain here!
What are the main differences to life in Andalucia and London, on and off the pitch?
Well, the first main difference is the weather, obviously! There’s a lot of clouds and rain here, whereas in Andalucia, particularly in Sevilla, it’s mostly sunny and very hot. The food is also very different; Spanish food is completely different to English food.
Spanish food is better, right...?
Yes, I prefer it! As for the football, it’s much more physical than in Spain; in Spain it’s more tactical, more about keeping possession of the ball. All the teams try to play a passing game. Here it’s more direct. But here the football is also more attractive for the spectators. There’s a lot more chances, teams attack and defend constantly, up and down. So they’re totally different – it depends on your preference.
At West Ham, again, you had to wait a while for your league debut. What did Sam Allardyce say to you when you signed? Did he tell you you'd start as the No.2 keeper?
No, not really. When I spoke with him he told me about the keepers already here, but for me it didn’t really matter. I had confidence in myself and I knew that by working hard and with my own strengths I could become number one keeper. Clearly, when I arrived Jussi Jaaskelainen was first choice – he’s a Premier League veteran with many years of experience in England - so I knew I would have to work hard and compete with him. I worked and trained hard and when my chance finally came in the cup I had to make the most of it.
Tell us about that first Premier League game against Manchester United; how was it playing against such a big club in your league debut?
Actually it was a bit unexpected. At the time I was originally only playing cup games and Jussi was the first choice in the Premier League. Of course, I know that things can change at any minute, but in those moments when the manager told me he’d decided to play me at Old Trafford, well, I never imagined I would make my debut in such a stadium! We lost [3-1], but for me it was a great memory. It was a great game for me to make my debut in – at one of the biggest and most famous stadiums against such a big club. And from there on I continued in the team.
Did you speak to David De Gea on that day? Are you friends with any other Spanish players in the Premier League?
Yes, yes. The Spanish players always have a chat when we play against each other, and of course, I had some words with David De Gea. He wished me the best of luck and I wished him the same. Whenever we are playing against teams with Spanish players we chat for a bit and catch up. I’m friends with a few players who were at Swansea – Jose Canas and [Alejandro] Pozuelo were at Betis when I was there. And of course new players join and we bump into each other, for example Sevilla’s old left back Alberto Moreno who is now at Liverpool. So we make new friends.
What is your English like and how did you communicate with your defenders in the early days at West Ham? Is it difficult to do so?
Adrian: Yes it can be. From the start you need to learn the key words fairly quickly so you can communicate with the defence. Words like (breaks into broken English) “over your shoulder!” “Your back! Left! Right!” Basically the calls you make so they know where the forwards are and what runs to make, when to push up. So those are the words you need to learn and know quickly. Pre-season was really important for me in that respect, so I could get to know my new team-mates.
In Spain they follow the Premier League closely. At the moment Man City are the biggest for the people there.
What are your ambitions for this season?
Adrian: The truth is, I think the team has improved quite a lot [since last season]. We’ve made some good signings - international players and players with good experience like Enner Valencia from Ecuador, Alex Song, Morgan Amalfitano, Mauro Zarate, Cheikhou Kouyate. They’re all players with experience. So I think we can finish higher than last season. We have a team to be mid-table and then even look to break into the top 10.
West Ham have some big games in the next few weeks - you'll play both Manchester United and Liverpool - how are these teams seen in Spain?
Yes of course we have some big games coming up and some really tough tests. First we have Hull on Monday and then we have two big games against Liverpool at home and Manchester United away. In Spain they follow the Premier League quite closely. At the moment Manchester City are the biggest for people in Spain and the most closely followed, also because their manager (Manuel) Pellegrini used to coach in Spain and they have various Spanish players. So at the moment Man City are the best known team in Spain. But of course Man United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea also because of (Jose) Mourinho – people talk a lot about the English teams in Spain.
How is your relationship with your manager, Sam Allardyce?
Well at the moment I only have words of appreciation for him. He has had faith in me and brought me to England and West Ham. He took a gamble on me and has supported me all the way and given me confidence to keep my place and become number one keeper at West Ham. Generally, he’s a good manager. He has clear ideas, is good at calculating different strategies and knows what we have to do. He likes a fast-paced game, direct, with us playing on the shoulders of defences, playing in behind them. We have a lot of pace in forward areas and so for this kind of game it works well. So I’m really grateful for everything he’s done for me up to now.
Does he speak any Spanish...?
No, all he can say is ‘tapas’, ‘cerveza’ and three or four other words! (laughs) The only Spanish he knows is holiday Spanish!
Adrian's gear is supplied by Pro Direct Soccer