Not too many players who have won two Spanish League titles and the Uefa Cup ,as well as 38 caps for Spain, end up playing in the Championship. So Brighton's signing of Vicente Rodriguez, the Valencia winger once linked with Manchester United and Real Madrid, was a coup for Seagulls manager Gustavo Poyet.
Most of the 30-year-old Vicente's triumphs had come in the first five of his 11 seasons at the Mestalla, after which a series of chronic injuries restricted his appearances. He was out of contract this summer and looking to fulfil an ambition of playing in England when Poyet convinced him that the Amex Stadium was the place where he could enjoy his football once more.
He joined Brighton in early September, and gradually worked his way towards match fitness. On his debut as a substitute in the Carling Cup tie against Liverpool, he won a penalty after attracting an injudicious challenge from Jamie Carragher. On his first start, at Ipswich, he ran from his own half before scoring from 18 yards.
"It was emotional to leave Valencia, because it is my city and I had played for the club for a decade," he said. "But it was time to move and I had always wanted to try playing in England. I had to wait for a few games, which was a bit frustrating, but I knew that I needed to get fit before I would be ready to play. I expected English football to be faster than Spain, and it is. Some of the challenges are hard, but they are in Spain, too. Maybe I can say that they are more basic here."
He first made an impression in England during Valencia's 2000-01 Champions League campaign when his cross from the left created the equaliser, a Wes Brown own goal, in a 1-1 draw against United at Old Trafford. He is likely to have a more central playmaking role at Brighton.
"Wherever the coach wants to play me is OK. I don't think I'm suddenly always going to be a midfield player or a 'No 10' and I'm happy to play wide if that's what the plan needs. Often my role will depend on the other midfield players. We can play in several different formations."
Unfortunately, Vicente's arrival in the team coincided with a loss of the form that took them to the top of the table early on – Brighton have yet to win when he has played and will be looking for a first victory in eight matches when they entertain West Ham tonight.
Although he has only been learning English for a matter of weeks, lack of communication with his team-mates is not the issue. "On the pitch there's no problem. The football words are easy to learn. Players are the same everywhere, always joking. Sometimes I understand the jokes, sometimes not."
Some of the Brighton players and staff are learning Spanish, too – Liverpudlian Craig Noone, allegedly, so that he can ask Vicente about former Liverpool and Valencia manager Rafael Benitez, under whom Vicente had his greatest successes. However, current manager Unai Emery seemed reluctant to find a berth for him even when fit and his departure at the end of his contract last season was inevitable.
Several English clubs were interested, some able to offer more money, but Poyet's powers of persuasion won out. "I've said that coming here is not about money, it's about enjoying playing again and knowing a different football culture," Vicente said. "The manager talked to me about football, about the city, about the club and how he wanted the team to play – attacking and keeping the ball. Money, no. He knows exactly what he wants and explains it very clearly. You have to have a coach who believes in you, and who lets you know what he expects of you."
Shirts bearing Vicente's name and No 15 are prominent at the club shop, and his signing was taken by many Brighton fans as the most important indication that the club was serious about doing more than surviving in the Championship. "The crowd in Valencia were more laid-back. Fans here are very intense, and the atmospheres in the stadiums are very good. I understand that the Brighton supporters have some expectations of me and I hope I can fulfil them."
So far he is enjoying life in England. "It's different, and it's a bit colder, but of course I expected that. Brighton's a nice city, smaller than Valencia, but it's got a good ambience and it's still near the sea, even though the beach isn't exactly like a Spanish beach. The rest of the season? We have to end this bad run and win some games again so we can get to where everyone wants to be."
Brighton v West Ham is on Sky Sports 1 tonight, kick-off 7.45pmReuse content