Exclusive: Rayo boss Sandoval on miracles, Madrid and what Fernando Torres should do

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If ever a manager had a tough job, it’s José Ramón Sandoval at Rayo Vallecano. Last season, the club’s entire future depended on achieving promotion to la Primera with a squad of players who weren’t being paid. This season, the job is to keep a club in administration in la Primera on a budget dwarfed by competitors.

So far, it’s mission accomplished with the Madrid side well away from the relegation zone and four points from the Champions League places with just over half the campaign gone. In an exclusive interview with FourFourTwo, the Rayo boss talks about how he survived last year’s struggle in la Segunda, the secret of Rayo’s success, Spain’s Euro 2012 chances, and how his enormous passion for English football may one day take him to the Premier League.

FFT: How did you motivate your players to win promotion last season when most weren’t being paid?
I put into place ideas from amateur football. The one thing I enjoyed about last year is my belief that football is about teamwork, effort and commitment. This is what motivates you, as it’s more than your own personal world or contracts or anything else.

Last year, when the players weren’t getting paid, I would go down to the dressing room and listen to their problems. I got to know their personal lives and problems, and I studied a lot when I got home. I got to know their world. When the results improved along with their self-esteem, it was all worth it. We made a conscious decision to isolate ourselves and form a common block between the coach and the players.

I have a background in lower-league football and if there’s one thing that’s forgotten in the professional world it’s what it’s like in amateur football, where players play because they want to and have passion. You mustn’t lose this desire of reaching the summit. When a player becomes a professional he needs to keep thinking about playing for a better team, being a better player. This can only be done through hard work and humility.

The message we spread in the dressing was "It’s possible". They would say "But boss, it’s not". That phrase became a motto in the dressing room. If you're looking for a result, then this message works.

Sandoval (foreground) spreads the good word

Were you nervous ahead of the first Primera match, at Athletic Bilbao? Did you know what to expect from your team?
I'm probably more ambitious than anyone else in the dressing room, but it can be contagious. I knew that with the players we'd brought in we could achieve our minimum goal, which was staying up. It was a difficult pre-season as we were in administration and there were players who weren’t training. The methods we used were to raise self-esteem and confidence. They way we involved the players was to say if you want to achieve something, you can do it.

The Athletic game was my first in la Primera, in a stadium that I love and where I wanted to make my debut. The confidence I had in my players was that if things went badly we’d reinvoke the spirit of last year: if you want to do it, you can. You have to keep believing in the players, even if you are in a higher division. We signed footballers who identified with our philosophy. We were much stronger out on the pitch than Athletic Bilbao because the players wanted it more.

Movilla at 37 didn’t want to retire, Lass at 17 wants to get better, Michu was a player at Celta and he shares my spirit, the spirit of the second division. Seven players, I think, made their la Primera debuts – but we were playing against a team in a similar situation with a new coach and new players.

One of those players you brought in was Dani Pacheco on loan from Liverpool. How is he progressing?
The Spanish rate players on the present rather than the past. He’s come from Liverpool, but didn’t really play for Liverpool. We're looking to get the best out of Dani Pacheco: up until now he’s had injuries so hasn’t been able to get going.

But it’s important that a player knows where he is. Het’s at Rayo now, he has to work like a Rayo player. If not, then you won’t play. So we're working a lot with him on a psychological level and getting over to him what the spirit of Rayo Vallecano is, as he needs to identify himself with the badge. Even if you have a lot of quality, if you don’t play the way I want then you aren’t going to be included.

In contrast, Michu is having a fantastic season...
With patience, he could make the Spanish side. It’s a bit early to be thinking about Euro 2012, as we're talking about players in the team who are playing in the Champions League. But he’s someone that Vicente Del Bosque can look at afterwards. He’s strong going forward and works hard in defence. He has incredible strength in the air. He’d be an interesting player for the Premier League.

Michu (2nd right): "Yaaaaaaaay!"

What about you – would you like to coach in England one day?
It’s somewhere I’d like to end my career. I’ve got a great passion for English football. I watch everything I can, highlights and live games. I’m addicted to football! I’m passionate about everything to do with the English league. But it’s really important to speak English as I’m someone who’s at their best when I can connect with the players. Managing any team in England is one of my dreams.

Can you imagine a coach being in charge in Spain for 25 years like Sir Alex Ferguson?
It’s impossible in Spanish culture. I’d like it if it was. There’s no patience here: results rule, but in England it’s different. The supporters in England have a love and passion for what happens out on the pitch and it’s not just about the results. There’s isn’t much patience here. If a coach lost a Champions League game like Ferguson did [against Basle] he’d be out in the street in Spain.

Does La Liga have a future without a fairer redistribution of TV rights?
Everything in life must have balance. If you are going to have a fair league you need a balance in budgets and help for those teams with less resources. If not, it’ll become a league of two. This year, Real Madrid and Barcelona know how to compete against each other, but imagine if there were five teams who could fight against each other?

"How's YOUR recession?"

In the Belgian league, for example, a team reaches the Champions League and it doesn’t know how to compete. Rayo are a team with a budget of €7m competing with a team with €450m: it’s not good for the spectator. There needs to be more balance with budgets and the share of TV money.

The reference is the Premier League in the quality of players, organisation, the TV money share, the timetables. The fans are super happy because they can plan their trips to see their team. We need to be more professional in Spain. England is an example for everyone.

What would your advice be for Fernando Torres?
I’d tell him to stay in England, but he needs to work with a coach who understands him. Moving from one team to another was a big change for him. He has a lot of responsibility but what he needs is patience to make mistakes. His technique and intelligence are perfect for England. If I was coaching him he would be a team player. People demand that he’s a defining player, and he isn’t. At Liverpool, he scored a lot but he also set up a lot of goals. He was a reference for Liverpool. It was a shame when he moved to Chelsea. The fans didn’t want it.

Would you take him to the European Championships?
He has to go. He’s a key player for Del Bosque, but I don’t know if he’s a starter. Del Bosque looks at the group as a whole; Torres has won everything with him and he’s a key player for him.

"Well, that's nice to hear"

Who would be in your Spain XI for Euro 2012?
Spain's problem is that there are no fixed full-backs, so I think Sergio Ramos needs to play at right-back. Javi Martínez is doing very well at Athletic Bilbao and could be a candidate in the centre.

I’d take Roberto Soldado and Fernando Llorente as they offer different things and take Fernando Torres too. It’s great for Spain to be going into the European Championships with these three strikers. The front trio depends a lot on what Del Bosque wants. David Silva could play, or Juan Mata, or Andres Iniesta. It’s the system of play will decide who starts, but which ever footballer players it’s a luxury for a the Spanish team.

With Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets, Spain’s central midfield is the best in the world. Spain’s success comes from having phases when you can play Iniesta or Silva or Mata and get numerical superiority up front, then you have Sergio Ramos coming up-field, that’s going to be important. I think Del Bosque has been looking a lot at our left-back Jose Manuel Casado, he’s having a great campaign for Rayo and could be a key part of the Spanish side in the future.

Back to la Liga: do you think Unai Emery has the toughest job? Valencia can never make the top two but won’t go below third.
The fans there are very demanding, but they’re not looking for Valencia to win the league. What they want is for the team to be brave, to attack, to go toe-to-toe with Barcelona and Madrid. But it’s impossible to have the same quality of players as Madrid and Barcelona with their budget. Being third is being top of our league.

You have to see things as being half-full. If I was in charge of a team of this calibre, my first message would be "Win the league? Why not?" My first message at Rayo last season was "Promotion to la Primera". People thought I was mad, but I believed Rayo could go up. My first message this season is that Rayo must be here next year.

But my second message is to go for something more, although it’s difficult to say to the fans: to get Rayo into the Europa League. With hard work, anything is possible. But you have to have a great team, work 24 hours a day and study a lot. In the end, it’s just 11 against 11 when you play the opposition. Any match can be won, any match.