Wilson Palacios: My amazing journey
He was rejected by Arsenal just 18 months ago but, amid terrible family trauma, the Honduran Wilson Palacios has made himself Wigan's prized asset. With a big-money move imminent, he told Ian Herbert his incredible story
Saturday 17 January 2009
Take a scene at the Wigan Athletic training ground, a few days back. Steve Bruce has just been relating, in the canteen, why he considers the Honduran to be his best signing in 11 years of football management when said player ambles in from the shower room. "Palacios, Palacios," Bruce shouts across, a grin on his face, to a player he introduced to British football at Birmingham City, then brought up to Lancashire. "You're not going to leave me now, are you? Because if you go, I go too!"
It is certainly a counter-intuitive way of broaching an issue that has become increasingly pressing since Palacios' dominant displays in Wigan's midfield – first against Tottenham Hotspur last Sunday and then again in the 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford on Wednesday night in which he clearly got the better of Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes. But beyond Bruce's joshing there is some proof of how dearly he had been hoping to keep the 24-year-old a little longer. Then the manager disappears from the canteen and re-emerges with a brochure for luxury apartments in the well-heeled Bowden district of Cheshire. "Lots of space, nicely finished," Bruce says, leafing through it with him. A considerable improvement on the player's current digs in Warrington.
It seems Palacios will not be needing the apartment now and the English lessons he had started this week will come to a halt, too. He is expected to move on this weekend either to join Harry Redknapp's brigade or another anonymous Premier League suitor for a sum of £13m plus. That will take him full circle in his brief but astonishing 18 months in English football, which began in north London – where Arsène Wenger offered him two weeks' trial and was impressed but had no room in his midfield ranks – and may conclude there. Palacios is understood to fit perfectly Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy's idea of a prime transfer target – a young player who is going to get better. Though £13m seems a lot, Spurs fear that another club may come in with a bigger bid.
Bruce, whom Wenger tipped off about Palacios, provides a memorable, makeshift demonstration of the player's abilities. Rising from his seat, he uses the canteen drinks machine as a defender to illustrate the way Palacios moves. "It's the way he manipulates the ball," Bruce enthuses. "Amazing. And what did we pay for him – a million – was it a million pounds, or dollars?" He is looking at his club's reserve team manager Keith Bertschin, who is none too sure about the price either and that seems to sum up how, in just a season and a half, Palacios has arrived from nowhere to become one of the league's most discussed talents.
Bruce knew that Wenger was worth listening to but he had a job putting the Arsenal manager's pronouncements to the test.Palacios lacked the paperwork to be tried out in an official game so Bertschin, working alongside Bruce at Birmingham at the time, rang an old mate at Coleshill FC, Warwickshire, to see if they would put up a side for the Blues to try him out. There was no charge for spectators – that kept the game unofficial – and the pitch was awful but Bruce had seen enough after 45 minutes in which Palacios scored twice. "We took him off at half-time for the good of his health because of the pitch," Bruce relates. "We'd seen what we needed to."
Later, Palacios grins at the mention of that game. "I remember it very well because I hadn't played any games in England at that stage," he says through an interpreter. "It was a difficult time – a new country where I didn't know the language and I was nervous. A little bit shaky. But I knew I had the ability to play in the Premier League. I knew what I was capable of. I'd scored plenty of goals with the Honduras national team but everyone was waiting for my first one here."
His own odyssey had started two years ago when agents in Geneva were alerted to a number of individuals playing for the Honduras national side by scouts who sent in a bundle of video tapes. Palacios looked the most promising of them all. He was already a big name in central America by then and is still remembered in his home country for the goal he scored from the halfway line playing for top club side Olimpia against Marathon in 2006. They still know him as "The Magician". There were trials for Palacios at Red Star Belgrade, Italian side Cagliari and Monaco before Arsenal.
Palacios met Cesc Fábregas at Arsenal but after Bruce made him feel at home at St Andrews Palacios impressed with his bull-like tackling, excellent passing range and ball control. His mentor quickly moved on though, hired in November to lead Wigan's relegation fight and to the player's bewilderment his successor Alex McLeish was reluctant to play him or sign him permanently when the player's six-month loan period ended in January last year. "I certainly owe Birmingham something because they were my window to the Premier League so I don't want to do them down," Palacios reflects. "But when Steve had left Mr McLeish changed everything and I only played one game for him. The six-month option Birmingham had on buying me expired on 1 January last year but they just wanted to extend the loan period. As soon as Steve heard that he came in and said: 'Pack your bag. Come to Wigan'. I thank Birmingham for all they gave me but I needed something concrete."
It was a time when Palacios certainly needed some empathy and when football's riches were being placed in their true context. On 30 October 2007, just as he was starting to forge his new life in the Midlands, five armed men entered the Palacios family home in the town of La Ceiba, back in Honduras, and abducted Edwin, the youngest of his four brothers. Eulogio and Orfilia, the boy's parents, were bound and locked in a room. Palacios briefly returned to Honduras – the reason why McLeish had little sight of his skills having taking over at Birmingham – to help the family pay a £125,000 ransom and there were newspaper reports of Edwin's release. But it proved a false dawn. Edwin, 16, has been allowed telephone contact with his family but he remains in captivity.
Though Eulogio, a coach and former player in Honduras, has recovered from heart problems brought on by that incident, Palacios is still unable to talk about the issue and the way the big smile drops from his face when the subject is, even indirectly, introduced demonstrates how he is still feeling. Has the support of Bruce and the companionship he has found in Lancashire helped amid the trauma? "It helps in some ways – but nothing can help much," is as much as he feels able to say. "Hopefully in the future it will be better."
Palacios' experience is not unique. Joseph Yobo's brother, Norum, was seized in Nigeria last July and released when a ransom was paid. So, too, the brother of Internazionale striker David Suazo in 2002 and in 2004 the mother of Brazilian striker Robinho. But his achievements in the face of this adversity are extraordinary. Palacios prefers to dwell on the happier aspects of family life. His father, who played for the Honduran club Le Mercedes, runs a youth football team in which all five Palacios boys have played. Milton, 27, and Gerry, 26, both play for the Marathon league side but Jonny, 20, is the family star already. "He plays already for Olimpia, the top team in Honduras, and he is going to go for the national team," Palacios says. "I've tipped Steve off. Whenever he hears me talk about a 20-year-old central American player, his ears prick up."
He is right on that score. Though the Wigan manager has been unable to bring in whomever he chooses from central America – imports must have played in 75 per cent of their national team's games over two years before they can secure visas – the discovery of Palacios has prompted him to embark on a search for central American riches. "The Brazilians don't want to come and play for Wigan," Bruce explains. "But the central Americans will. We tell them we'll put them in the shop window and Wilson proves our case."
So though the two will probably part company this weekend, manager and player have much to thank each other for. "With Steve the relationship has always been very good and very close," Palacios reflects. "His personality is to be among the players, always inquire about how they are. Him being an ex-footballer, he knows what the dressing room is about. It's been in my mind every match to do my best so everybody can go up to Steve and say: 'You brought Palacios here and he's a good player'."
Bruce's strategies to keep him might persist, but Palacios admits, frankly, his dreams lie beyond Wigan. "The truth of it is that life is hard in Honduras," he says. "The streets are not covered in gold and people like me who make it out always have to think when they're playing professionally, can I go somewhere else to get some money for my family. Wigan are proving, from the league table, they are a good team. But as a footballer I always look for the top. A different club, one day."
My Other Life: English lessons, eating out and house hunting
"The English lessons have been as much as I can fit in, that and listening to English music on the radio, which has helped the English a bit. I'm just starting a new course of English lessons – four afternoons a week – so that's going to keep me busy.
I socialise with Antonio Valencia and Maynor Figueroa and we spend quite a lot of time together outside of the club. We like to try different restaurants, though there's no particular favourite one – Spanish of course, but also Portuguese food suits us all – and Italian. There are some good places to eat in Warrington, where I'm living. I've been spending some time thinking about where to get a house or apartment and my parents are coming over from Honduras soon."
Latic America: A rich seam
Palacios is one of a number of Latin American and Caribbean players to move to the JJB in recent years...
*Antonio Valencia (Ecuador)
Midfielder impressed against England in the 2006 World Cup. Loaned to Wigan from Villarreal after the tournament, where his success ended with Steve Bruce making the deal permanent last January.
*Pascal Chimbonda (Guadeloupe)
Caribbean-born defender recruited from French lower leagues in a £500,000 move from Bastia in 2005. Named in PFA Team of the Year before acrimonious switch to Spurs in August 2006.
*Hugo Rodallega (Colombia)
Prolific forward who succeeded in gaining a work permit after £4.5m move from Mexican outfit Necaxa this week. Expected to make debut against Liverpool later this month.
*Maynor Figueroa (Honduras)
Left-back joined on loan from Olimpia last January, before making his move permanent last month. Scored first goal against Spurs last weekend in 25th match for club.
And one that got away...
*Hendry Thomas (Honduras)
Former team-mate of Figueroa at Olimpia. The defensive midfielder was due to join the Latics this month but the club lost their appeal against his unsuccessful bid to secure a work permit.
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