“You’ve got some balls boss!” or as it was in Michu’s native Spanish, “Que huevos Mister!” That was often the first thing heard in the Rayo Vallecano dressing room after games last season as the club with the smallest budget in La Liga hurtled through the campaign conceding more goals than anyone else, scoring more than all but five teams in the league, and saving themselves from relegation with an injury-time goal on the last day of the season.
The “Que Huevos!” cry from Michu to Jose Ramon Sandoval is remembered fondly by his former coach who picked him up on a free transfer and is not in the least bit surprised that he takes on Tottenham Hotspur with Swansea tomorrow as the Premier League’s top scorer.
“They said I was crazy last year when I said he should go to the Euros,” says Sandoval of Michu’s so far untapped international pedigree.
There is a bond between the two men, formed last season when the coach gambled on the player to keep his side in the top flight, and the player put his faith in the coach to finally kick-start his career. Both got what they wanted, although in Spain’s nonsensical coaching merry-go-round Sandoval lost his job in the summer.
“He is a grateful kid,” he says. “In his first training session of the pre-season this summer while still at Rayo, I got a text message from him saying: ‘Grande, echandote de menos’ [missing you big man]. That was a nice touch to remember me like that. He was always a player who would respond to constructive criticism. He would say to me: ‘Mister, don’t ever get tired of correcting me.’ He was one of those players who had an insatiable desire to improve.”
That hunger was the reason Sandoval had a photo of Michu hanging in his Rayo office. “It was of him celebrating a goal he had scored against Getafe,” he recalls. “His tongue is out, his hair is all over the place and he is banging the badge on his chest. It’s the same celebration you are seeing now at Swansea – the embodiment of hunger and desire.”
So why did it take the now 26-year-old so long to reach the top? “The decision not to go to Sporting Gijon, because he was an Oviedo fan, was important,” says Sandoval.
A player turning down a lucrative long-term deal at a La Liga club (as he did in 2010) because they were the big rivals of the club he had supported all his life could have cost him his top-flight career but Sandoval took him 18 months later on a free transfer.
He says: “He was playing slightly deeper when I started watching him but I noticed how well he arrived in the area and how good his finishing was. I liked his attitude and his aggression. He also had a good family behind him. The dedication of his father was something else – he used to drive around Spain following the team coach in his car to watch his son play.
“When I signed him I made it clear to him that it was going to be Michu and 10 others on my team sheet. He wanted a platform where he could finally show what he was all about.” He did exactly that inside one season with scouts heading for Rayo’s tiny Vallecas Stadium in one of Madrid’s poorest districts as early as November.
“I started noticing that when we would go to other grounds and some of our staff had to sign in, we could see that representatives of other big clubs –Manchester United, City – were also there to watch the game.”
That ramshackle style that makes Rayo La Liga’s loveable urchins means none of the inconveniences that currently see Swansea City share training facilities with the local community fluster their new star.
He told Spain’s OndaCero Radio this week: “We use the local gym to train and when I change I’m using a locker alongside a ‘señor’ who is off to use the swimming pool, and he tells you how well, or otherwise, you played at the weekend. There is not a lot of intimacy, but people treat us well.”
A fan at heart, Michu was famous at Rayo for singing along with the supporters during games. “Sometimes while waiting for a free-kick to be taken you hear what they are singing and I would join in,” he says.
It is no surprise he loves the atmosphere at most grounds in the Premier League: “What has really amazed me is the way that five minutes before the start of the game and five minutes before the final whistle the ground is full” he said.
The biggest bonus though is the manager. Sandoval claims: “Too many tactics kill certain players,” suggesting that Michu is a free spirit for whom Michael Laudrup is the perfect coach. “The team plays good football regardless of whether we are at home against the bottom club or away to Manchester City,” says Michu. “He [Laudrup] gives the players freedom; he hardly corrects you while you are on the pitch and that gives players so much confidence. And you can see what a player he was; when he gets involved in one of our ‘rondos’ [the training ground passing drills] he is the best player by some distance.”
Sandoval believes the preference for foreign talent is the single biggest reason why he was overlooked in his home country. He says: “In Spain you get further if you’re called ‘Michulino’ than Michu. When sporting directors are buying players they should talk more with coaches. It’s the coaches that really know the players. Michu never missed a training session and in the run-in last season when we lost our defensive midfielder he said: ‘I’ll play there, we won’t concede a single goal.’”
The “Michulinos” are of course also cheaper. The new Premier League TV deal will only increase the financial divide that means for the moment Spain takes far more pride in its exports than the competitiveness of its league.
“The No 10 of Manchester City, the No 10 of Arsenal, the No 10 of Chelsea and now the No 10 of Swansea are all Spanish” was enthusiastically put to him during that OndaCero radio appearance. “Yeah and they are all internationals,” was his laughing reply.
“There are Rayo Vallecano supporters who wear Spain shirts with Michu’s name on the back,” says Sandoval who believes he could make next year’s Confederations Cup. “It’s difficult to get into a team that has won two European Champinoships and a World Cup,” says the player.
Vicente del Bosque, the Spain coach, is not famed for looking beyond players who ply their trade at home but has warmed to the idea of Michu and if the striker finishes the season as the Premier League’s top scorer then he will be impossible to ignore.
“You never lose hope,” he says. “If one day I can make my debut then great and if not, there is the consolation that the players keeping you out are the best in the world.”
Clever shopping: Best summer buys
Michu (Rayo-Swansea, £2m) Top league scorer with 12 goals.
R van Persie (Arsenal-Man Utd, £24m) Averaged a goal every 1.6 games in all competitions this season
S Cazorla (Malaga-Arsenal, £15m) Creative talent has scored important goals and now a regular for Spain.
M Dembélé (Fulham-Spurs, £15m) Impressively filled hole in midfield and has three assists in nine games.
M Diamé (Wigan-West Ham, free) Dynamic presence in midfield.
And the worst...
J Rodwell (Everton-Man City, £12m) Has only made five league appearances, failing to take a single shot.