The top English goalscorer in the Premier League, after Daniel Sturridge? That would be Jay Rodriguez, the Southampton striker with the exotic surname, whose form over the last three months will make him, at the very least, a candidate for the England squad that Roy Hodgson names on Thursday.
It was on 15 November that Rodriguez made his England debut against Chile, an experience he recalls with fondness as we discuss his season in a corporate box overlooking a sunlit St Mary’s. Without a great deal of fanfare, his career has been advancing impressively, with 10 Premier League goals and 12 overall this season despite the fact that he starts chiefly on the left for Southampton.
His debut against Chile lasted 57 minutes and, although it was tough at times, against an excellent side with full-backs who pushed on, it was another step forward in his development. Two years ago, he was still a Championship player at Burnley but at every stage in his career he has risen to the challenge.
Rodriguez does not speak Spanish despite the name, inherited from his Spanish-born father Kiko. It did occur to him before he walked out at Wembley that the name on his shirt might cause the misunderstanding he often encounters on holiday abroad. “I was thinking, ‘I wonder if one of the Chileans is going to start speaking to me in Spanish?’ ” he says. “‘I won’t be able to say a word to him!’ ”
Rodriguez is a likeable, down-to-earth Burnley lad who has worked his way up from his hometown club via loan spells at Stirling Albion, then in the Scottish First Division, and Barnsley, to be an England international. He may also have the best taste in music of any Premier League footballer. Not just a big fan of The Smiths, he says he has also commandeered the dressing-room iPod dock to play “This Charming Man” to his team-mates.
If he is in Hodgson’s squad on Thursday for the Denmark friendly, then he will have a chance of being on the plane to Brazil in June. It is a tough challenge, especially given that Hodgson has wide players and strikers aplenty. Yet since that first cap he has scored eight goals for Southampton, who face West Ham United today, a record which bears comparison with any other candidate’s.
His selection by Hodgson in November was the peak of a career that has come on rapidly since he signed for Southampton in July 2012 for around £6m. One of three Southampton players picked, with Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert, he was called in to see manager Mauricio Pochettino to be told the news.
“It was massive, something I have always dreamt of secretly,” he says. “Inside I always felt it’d be amazing and for it actually to happen was a bit surreal. I remember sitting there thinking, ‘I never thought it’d happen to me’.
“I was told in the morning and couldn’t tell anyone until it was announced – I spoke to my dad and family.
“The standard in training was unbelievable; you learn so much in a few sessions with the top players. It is everything, touch, awareness, confidence – the quality is just there. If you are not at it, you get told. It is a big step up. I learnt a lot.
“Me and Adam found out we were playing [against Chile] and we couldn’t stop smiling. We just wanted to get out there. There were nerves and all sorts of emotions. To sing the national anthem was the best feeling ever. My younger brother was in the crowd and he said he couldn’t believe it, looking around saying, ‘Is this happening?’”
When it comes to Thursday’s squad announcement, Rodriguez will listen with interest. “I always want to be at the highest point possible and achieve as much as I can. I won’t be expecting anything. It’s a great squad of players, the standard’s really high. I will be concentrating on our next game that week and the working week in training, but obviously it would be something to look out for.”
Still only 24, Rodriguez made his professional debut at 18 for Burnley, although it was not a meteoric rise. Scouted at the youth team Barrowford Celtic, he struggled at 14 to compete physically, before a late growth spurt. A solitary Under-21 cap aside, there was no recognition from the junior England teams and, although he lived within the catchment area of some of the biggest clubs in the country, no interest from the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool.
He gives great credit to Burnley for persisting with him and working on his game. “When I was 14 to 15, I lacked confidence, especially not being as strong as some of the other kids, but they kept faith and worked at my game. I am very thankful to them.”
Owen Coyle sent him on loan to Stirling Albion, where his debut was against Celtic at Parkhead in a cup game. There he played with team-mates who were part-time and would train after a full day’s work, “an eye-opener” he says for a teenage footballer making his way in the world. Although he played a part in Burnley’s promotion season of 2008-09, he never played for them in the Premier League.
In that 2009-10 season his career stalled, in most part owing to a broken ankle. He went on loan to Barnsley. When he returned to Burnley he was the club’s top goalscorer for the next two seasons. He has never looked back. The move down south was hard at first, but he loves it now and lives with his fiancée Simone. Most of all, it is clear that Pochettino’s influence has been significant.
“He has just given me the belief and opportunity to play,” Rodriguez says. “He has worked with me in this position that I play. It’s quite free, it’s all-attacking so it suits me but he speaks to me all the time about different situations and how I can improve my game. The workload we have been doing has improved me physically and mentally as well. The training is really hard but it is working for us so we can’t complain. Everyone has stuck to it. It’s a good atmosphere.
“We do a lot of leg weights and power running. Mentally it’s been massive for me. He’s given me the belief and the run of games I needed to get my foothold in the Premier League. He has always tried to improve me.”
Technically speaking, Rodriguez is still eligible to play for Spain until such time as he plays a competitive game for England, although he laughs at the prospect. His father moved to England from Spain with his parents when he was six and has a Burnley accent, Jay says, as broad as his own. His grandparents were chefs from La Coruña, who originally worked in Manchester before settling in Burnley.
His father never taught him Spanish, a regret for Jay, although he did inherit the family football gene. Kiko had a good career in amateur football in Lancashire and once had a trial for Deportivo La Coruñna – “When he was younger,” Jay says; “he likes to keep mentioning it”.
The new academy system may mean fewer players coming from Championship clubs all the way to international football as the likes of Rodriguez, Lambert, Phil Jagielka and Kyle Walker have done. Rodriguez is proof that there is talent there and he picks out Danny Ings, a former Southampton trainee now at Burnley and already an England Under-21 player, as another who could make it.
For Rodriguez it is a long way from the days when he would train at Burnley in the week and travel to Stirling on a Friday for the weekend game. “I was skinny, lightweight and English,” he recalls, “and some of the away crowds weren’t the greatest to me! But all that experience helped make me the footballer I am now.”
My other life: The Smiths
I love The Smiths. My favourite track is “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”. I roomed with Jack Cork in pre-season and put a few tracks on. He likes that kind of music anyway and he didn’t mind it, but when I put it on in the changing room I got a few looks. I am reading Morrissey’s autobiography now. I like the way he describes things, although I have to look up some of those words he uses!