Football: Juanjo starts to be content at Hearts

Phil Gordon meets the diminutive Spaniard eager to strike in tonight's Edinburgh derby
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The Independent Online
THE VIEW from the apartment, of the Pentland Hills, lightly dusted in snow, would make Edinburgh's estate agents salivate. Nowhere at present enjoys more of a property boom, thanks to the new Scottish Parliament, yet the proud owner of the room with a view is not a politician, but a footballer. And a Spanish one, at that.

Auld Reekie is reinventing itself for the new millennium, as consulates, MSPs (Members of the Scottish Parliament) and, possibly, bankers - if the Royal Bank of Scotland takes over NatWest - vie for property. Edinburgh's football teams, though, began the makeover from parochial to cosmopolitan quite some time ago, which is why Juanjo has a flat some would kill for.

"It's wonderful," says the Hearts forward. "My girlfriend loves to look at this every day, because in Spain we maybe only see snow once every five years."

This quietly spoken young man swapped the Ramblas and the Nou Camp for Princes Street and Tynecastle. When Hearts and Hibernian meet there tonight, the former Barcelona player will be just one of eight nationalities helping to change the face of Scotland's most traditional of football enmities.

For most of their 124-year rivalry (older than Glasgow's Old Firm), Hearts and Hibs have begun the new year with a thudding encounter which shook off the hangovers from Hogmanay; 19 December does not have quite the same ring to it as 1 January, but Juanjo is hoping that it heralds a new dawn for himself and Hearts.

He has picked up the pieces of a broken dream at Barcelona and survived scorn about his physical fragility, as well as the Scottish weather, to emerge after a year in the cold as a potential match-winner.

The tiny Spaniard has been used only sparingly by his manager Jim Jefferies, but a stunning goal as a substitute against Kilmarnock and another in his first start, against Dundee United a fortnight ago, are evidence that you can take the boy out of Barcelona but you cannot take Barcelona out of the boy. "I have waited a long time for my chance," Juanjo reflects, "but hopefully now I am showing that I am a good player."

A year ago, many doubted the wisdom of Jefferies in recruiting the Spaniard from Barcelona, where he had failed to establish himself. One game, while on trial, against St Johnstone showcased all the natural skills which prompted Jefferies' decision, but another, after being given a two-year contract, was simply damning.

"I was taken off after 45 minutes against Rangers at Ibrox," the 22-year- old recalls. "I didn't speak any English then, and I was not as physically strong as I am now.

"The manager and a lot of people told me I was too young and I would have to wait for a while, but I don't understand that. It should not be about how old you are, just how good you are. That is the attitude in Spain."

As if to underline the point, Juanjo's girlfriend, Roser Arltayo, pulls out the lovingly cared-for scrapbooks which show Juanjo jousting for the ball at the age of 17 with another prodigy, Real Madrid's Raul, when the pair met in the semi-final of the Spanish Under-18 Cup.

At the Nou Camp, he rubbed shoulders with the best. The scrapbooks show a fresh-faced teenager in a first-team line-up for a pre-season friendly in Holland alongside such luminaries as Hristo Stoichkov, Luis Enrique and Robert Prosinecki.

He came under the tutelage of Bobby Robson, who gave him his only appearance in the Spanish League. "It was against Deportivo La Coruna, for whom Bebeto was playing his last game before going back to Brazil, and we drew 2-2," Juanjo says, religiously reeling off the catechism of facts he has committed to memory. "I had been a Barca fan all my life, to play for them was simply a dream."

However, reality bit in the shape of some very expensive competitors. "It's impossible for Spanish boys if they play up front because Spanish clubs buy the most expensive strikers from around the world. Barca had Romario, then Ron-aldo. Stoichkov could not get a game, so I realised very early on I would have to move."

Yet the whole Hearts experience almost turned sour last February when Jefferies suggested that Juanjo went on loan to Cowdenbeath to toughen him up. "I would have gone back to Spain and given up football if that had happened," Juanjo declares. "With respect to Cowdenbeath, if you go to the Third Division in Scotland you are finished. I am stronger now, but I don't want to change my style of football. I have adapted my game, just as I have my customs, to live in Edinburgh, but I am at my best on the ball. Romario was a small guy, too, remember."

Juanjo went even further to accommodate: he changed his name. Juan Jose Carricondo Perez is too much of a mouthful for team-mates, if not shirtmakers. "I had Carricondo on the back of my strip, but Juanjo is easier."

Now he would love to carve that name into Edinburgh folklore. "Fans have been telling me, `If you score against Hibs you'll be a hero'," he smiles. "The people here are passionate for the game. In Spain, they are too demanding, but here people support the team when it is tough."

Juanjo's goals are followed by a trademark handstand celebration, but if he does it tonight, half of Edinburgh will be following suit.

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