Exclusive: Q&A with La Liga expert Graham Hunter
The Boot Room has had the pleasure of interviewing Spanish football expert and highly respected author Graham Hunter.
Hunter has become a household name thanks to regular appearances on Sky’s La Liga coverage and his first book, Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World , was a best-seller in 2012. He is widely regarded as the top football analyst and commentator for the Spanish football revolution since moving his family to Barcelona just over a decade ago; credit, where credit is due.
His most recent publication, Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble, has been equally as successful. Here, he has used his unique friendships to tell the inside story of how Spain won the 2010 World Cup and the last two European Championships. His access-all-areas pass at all three tournaments has resulted in a remarkable eye witness account of the greatest achievement in the history of international football.
In the following Q&A session Hunter expresses his views on the differences between the Premier League and La Liga, Manchester United’s David de Gea, Diego Simeone’s England prospects and much more.
What did you find so alluring about Spanish football and what compelled you to write about it?
That’s quite a long, complicated answer. I was always fascinated by continental football. I loved Ajax in the late sixties to early 70’s and was virulently anti-Bayern when they succeeded in winning three European Cups in a row. I wanted to understand who these clubs were, how they’d done it. And I recall being stunned by the Derby v Real Madrid midweek ties in European cup of about 1975. Riveted.
Cruyff always fascinated me and thus so did his move to Barcelona, followed by that of Maradona, when we began to see more continental football on TV, and then Steve Archibald going there. By this time I’d been to the 1982 World Cup and loved the atmosphere at Spanish football grounds but also in the bars and cafes and in the football papers. The more I watched Spanish club football the more I was taken by its flair and technique and the very theatrical idea of it, as opposed to our tribal kind.
Aberdeen beating Real Madrid in 83 did no harm either. By the time I was a journalist I was convinced that Spanish football was a brilliant hybrid of what I liked watching and characters I wanted to write about – Cruyff, Pep, Butragueño, Hugo, Laudrup, Stoich. Not to the exclusion of some of the football in Italy or France, but Spain drew me. So when I began to go to interview Capello, Robson, Raddy Antic and the likes in 96 I was sure that La Liga was special.
How do relations between players/managers and the press differ between Spain and the UK?
There is much more access, much more interaction. The great majority of those in Spanish football still treat most of us with respect and openness and as an integral part of the football industry in this country.
This ‘access’ to interviews, to press conferences, to training was a great part of my idea to move to Spain. The access to training has declined over the years, sadly, but there is generally a more friendly and more ‘let’s talk about football’ attitude here in this country. I’m not knocking British footballers [well certainly not all of them] but the clubs and the agents and the Press Officers at some clubs in the UK need to stop being unnecessarily mono-visioned.
There are, of course, some notable exceptions in the UK. I’ve got sympathy for the superstar players in that they could easily fill their every waking hour with interviews and photo shoots. Also, I’m aware that not all in the journalistic profession act in a way that encourages fruitful, two-way relationships. But I think Spanish football still teaches its coaches and players that they can benefit from mature, respectful relationships with the media [or those branches of the media who earn that].
What are the real differences between La Liga and Premier League and does it mean some players can only perform well in one or the other? And, which current Spanish, Premier League, ‘imports’ are you most impressed with?
I honestly believe that the Spanish game remains both more tactical and more technical. There is a vast, vast disparity in the number of junior coaches in this country who have sought, and obtained, professional qualifications before they coach. There’s also a huge degree of football sala (Futsal) played here at a young age.
The overall effect, plus the will of young players to mimic what they see for their clubs and country, is that Spanish footballers tend to grow up with a better tactical and technical awareness. The football here is played with less hurricane momentum and that leads to greater thought, tactical thinking and promotes more emphasis on technique.
In saying this I’m not trying to do down the Premier League. There are hosts of things that Spain could learn from the English top flight and almost every Spaniard who takes his career over there comes back saying so. But the skill and tactical gulf I’m talking about is the very reason that English football is engulfed in a ‘where are we now’ and ‘how can we make the national team successful’ debate. I believe that English football is more forgiving of errors of position or technique.
By imports I suspect you mean Spanish to England? I’ve always loved Santi Cazorla as a footballer and as a guy to meet and speak to he’s both very funny and very generous. Juan Mata, too, always impresses me. I’d build United’s attacking play around him to be quite honest. Bright young man. [ David De Gea’s improvements have been enormous, good to know there’s an Iker replacement around the corner. But let’s settle on Cesc [Fabregas] and [Diego] Costa.
Cesc’s ability has too often been underplayed. I think he’s an enormous footballer and I was angry at how off hand his treatment at the Camp Nou was by some fans and media. As for Costa, what a cool guy he is off the pitch. Mr LaidBack. On the pitch he’s my kind of footballer. To the extent that back in 2011 when he was with Valladolid I recommended him to Newcastle as their Carroll replacement. Love watching him play.
What’s your take on the David de Gea – Real Madrid situation? Do you believe he will stay at Old Trafford, or will the opportunity to play for the Galacticos prove too enticing? Also, how highly do you rate him?
I’m not sure he’s made a firm decision either way so who am I to second guess him? IF there was an operation going on then it would be my job to try and find out and reveal it but I think he has a conundrum.
From those I’ve spoken to who know him he’s loyal to United but also tempted by Madrid. I do not think that’s in any way contradictory. Just human. Think it’s clear that there are some family wishes to go back to Spain, a multitude of players have proven that saying ‘no’ to Madrid is difficult but right now they have two good keepers and DDG is no1 at United.
Part of his figuring needs to be ‘can I oust Iker at Madrid?’ ‘How do I best guarantee myself no.1 spot with Spain. Honestly? At his age I’d be advising him to stay another couple of years at United, learn, win trophies, then return to the best offer there is in Spain. I rate his development very highly. He has changed, greatly – used to be dozy, drop concentration, he is in much better physical shape now, learning to cope with pressure. There’s lots of development left though.
How do the challenges faced by Louis van Gaal with Manchester United compare to his two spells with Barcelona? Also, what can the Old Trafford faithful expect from the Dutchman in the future?
I don’t see a lot of similarities. When he took over from Bobby he had a ‘made’ squad, one which had won trophies, which had just been renewed, where he was able import some high class, peak of their career favourites of his. That Barcelona was different from now. When he took over the second time the entire club was in a mess. Genuinely in awful shape. That’s not true of the United infrastructure now.
It’s not better off without Ferguson and Gill but the club isn’t on the point of not being able to pay the salaries like FCB apparently were in 2002/3. Van Gaal was an ill thought out replacement when he returned but, even then, he had some really key youth product ready to promote or advance in Valdes, Iniesta and Puyol [who he prevented from leaving] which I’m not sure is identical to United albeit Adnan and McNair get their games.
When he went to United he was someone who’d reinvented his worth, his reputation, his vibrancy with AZ, Bayern and Holland. I think there was a sense that United were getting someone who’d put things right AND give flair. I believe it’s reasonable to expect that if he gets them fourth and is allowed to dictate how United buy there will be better football and trophy challenges next season. But if he’s NOT allowed a good say in who’s bought next, if he doesn’t get top four then I see storm clouds ahead.
Do you think Atletico Madrid can become an established force in Spanish football in the long-term or is their recent success a limited phase like Valencia from 2000-2004? Can you see any other clubs challenging the ‘now-top three’ in the future?
There have always been challenges since I came here. Depo, Valencia and Atleti winning title. But some of the challenges – Valencia, Sevilla, Villarreal – just haven’t been quite strong enough when the financial disparity handicaps them so much.
Atleti are so heavily in debt that the answer to your question revolves around them not having a miss-step. If you look at their buying and selling since the QSF era it has been exceptional. Keeping that going is the key. To remain competitive for trophies and to keep selling for more than you buy, while earning big Champions League revenue. That’s a neat trick.
Do you see Diego Simeone managing in the Premier League one day, if so, which would be the best club for him? On the flip side, which English top flight manager’s style is most suited to La Liga?
Yes. No doubt. Ambitious man, he’ll move there in due course. Although don’t rule him out of the Inter job at some stage. Simeone would be ideal for Liverpool or Chelsea, when they need replacements in the future.
Brendan Rodgers – good student of the game, speaks Spanish. Wenger, past his sell by date at Arsenal for a host of reasons. But with a football director to buy for him it would rejuvenate Wenger the coach if he were to move to a big Spanish club.
What kind of an impression has David Moyes made on La Liga in his spell so far and how does the future look with him in charge at Sociedad?
His personality is winning. Honest, forthright, dignified, sometimes fun. He’s moving the club towards safety but he’s unfortunate in having inherited a club where the fans want lovely football but they also want to be more robust than for the last 9/10 months. So, that’s a process.
It’ll take until next autumn to really see ‘David Moyes’ football at RS. Proper buying, weeding out those who shouldn’t be there, a pre-season and then a handful of games.
After Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who do you envisage being the next big stars of Spanish top flight football?
They are there already. Isco, Rafinha. James, Gayá.
You’ve probably seen #AdviceForYoungJournalists circulating Twitter in recent days. What’s your best piece of advice for someone looking to establish themselves in the world of sports journalism?
Ask the difficult questions, make the phonecalls, speak directly to the subjects whenever possible, be accurate, be brave, be honest. Have a point of view, DO NOT follow the herd, and don’t be afraid to be different. Tell the truth, honestly, as you see it whether it is the prevailing view or not.
Finally, who is your favourite for the La Liga title this season?
I tipped Madrid at the start of the season. I didn’t fancy Atleti and still don’t. Barcelona look, right now, very, very threatening. Let’s put it like this, unless Madrid sort out their injuries and attitude very quickly then … Barcelona.