Preparing for an interview with Gaizka Mendieta is a stressful business. Something tells you that a phrase book and kid gloves are going to be needed when talking to the fallen Spanish star, who has had to drop down a peg or three to start rebuilding his career at Middlesbrough. So much for sound journalistic intuition.
Not only does Mendieta speak excellent English (he certainly puts other foreign players who have been in the Premiership for a lot longer to shame), he is also a charming and candid man. No matter that he has played for some of Europe's biggest clubs, Mendieta has no airs and graces about him.
It helps, of course, that he is appearing in the Carling Cup final, an event that will be televised around the world and provide the former Valencia, Lazio and Barcelona midfielder with a fitting showcase to exhibit his undoubted talents. But today's match against Bolton at the Millennium Stadium is not the only reason for Mendieta's approachability. "You know what?" he says. "I'm beginning to feel happy again. Even if we weren't in the final, I'd still be smiling because I like it at Middlesbrough. My life is great."
So great, in fact, that Mendieta's original one-year loan from Lazio has now been made permanent. "It's a done deal," the 29-year-old announces. "I have signed a four-year contract that will start from the beginning of next season, and that's what I wanted. I've been given the chance to find my footballing feet again here, so I believe it is only fair that I should repay the club's faith in me by committing myself to a long-term deal as early as possible."
Mendieta's capture is a major coup for the Middlesbrough manager, Steve McClaren, who must have feared that he would lose the Spanish international to a bigger club now that he has proved his worth in England. Only last summer, the Cameroonian Géremi, who had been on loan from Real Madrid, turned his back on Boro and joined the Chelsea revolution. "Why should I leave?" Mendieta asks rhetorically. "I've been impressed with the training facilities, with the stadium, and especially with the whole coaching staff. The club is going places and I want to be part of that."
No wonder Mendieta is upbeat. When he took the bold decision to move to Middlesbrough last July, following disappointing stints in Italy and Spain, he knew that he risked alienating himself still further. "After the two terrible years I'd had," he explains, "I was fully aware that I couldn't afford another mistake. This had to work for me. The one advantage was that, by dropping a level, I was at least giving myself a much better chance of succeeding."
Mendieta's honesty is refreshing, but then, as the player himself declares: "I no longer have anything to hide." It was three summers ago, in the wake of Valencia's back-to-back Champions' League finals, that Lazio paid £27m for Mendieta's services. Within three months of his transfer, the dream move had turned into a nightmare. "Looking back now," he says, "it was the wrong club at the wrong time." A loan move to Barcelona then followed last season, but again, Mendieta had joined a club in turmoil. "Now you understand why Boro are so good for me," he says, laughing.
Conversely, Mendieta has been good for Boro, adding an extra dimension to the team's often defensively minded style of play. "It's worked well," he says, "although that is largely down to the fact that I'm playing every week. Being involved helps me play well and, before long, I'm sure I'll regain my best form."
Will it be in time for Euro 2004? "I hope so," says Mendieta, who faces an uphill battle to make the squad after having been left out for the recent friendly against Peru. "I still have ambitions to win things with my country, but I'm not making an obsession of it. Ultimately, if I play well for Boro then I'll get noticed."
Starting today? "This final is a chance for the club to finally win a trophy," Mendieta says, "and that is much more important than the hopes of individuals. All that is exciting from my point of view is that I could be helping Boro make history. That's the incentive for Cardiff."
That, and a reunion with an old Val-encia team-mate, Señor Campo. "Ivan and I were at Valencia together for one season," Mendieta recalls. "We've not really been in touch much since we've been in England, so it will be fun to catch up."
Despite their qualification for the League Cup showpiece, there are those who still feel that McClaren's side have underachieved during his three-year reign. More than £40m has been spent on strengthening the squad and yet the club continue to struggle at the wrong end of the Premiership table.
Mendieta believes the breakthrough will come in the next few months. "There have been a lot of new faces brought to the club," he says, "and it always takes time for players to get to know each other. You can't blame the manager for that. He has done a good job here and he has shown himself to be an excellent communicator. We're heading in the right direction, I'm sure of that, and I think we will be challenging in the League next season."
Mendieta suddenly stops. He has already made far too many promises for one day. "Well," he muses, "it's just that I've learned that the less you expect, the more successful you feel."
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