Raya's road from Southport to north London

Raya's road from Southport to north London

OUR KEEPER ON THE FOOTBALLING JOURNEY THAT HAS TAKEN HIM FROM CATALONIA TO LONDON, VIA NON LEAGUE

Moving from your home town in Catalonia to an outpost in Lancashire at the age of 16 could have been a daunting prospect, but the unflappable David Raya took it all in his stride.

In fact, adapting to new surroundings and settling into new teams has come naturally to our Spanish goalkeeper throughout his career to date. Starting out in the footballing hotbed of north-eastern Spain, it wasn’t long before the budding goalkeeper was picked up by one of the region’s top academies and his journey really began.

“I always found it easy to join new groups and make friends,” he says. ”I’ve been part of a team ever since I started playing football when I was just four or five. My first team was my local side, called Corbera de Llobregat, and I was there for a few years before I got scouted. I was always a goalkeeper, but in school I played outfield as well, when it was the small-sided games.

“But I always had a passion for goalkeeping, which started from a young age. I’ve got a brother who is three years older than me and he was a striker so, because I was the younger one, when we played in the garden he put me in goal!

“But to be honest I liked it, and felt I had something there. My friends always said there was something there with me that made me a good goalkeeper, and I liked it, so it just stuck.”

It soon became clear that David’s talents could extend to performances outside of his back garden too.

He stood out in those early days in Corbera de Llobregat, and enjoyed being the player the rest of the team all turned to and depended upon.

“When I was young, yes it’s true I was often the one saving the team!” he laughs. “We won the league when it was under-8s, I think, and after my performances that season I got scouted to play for Cornella when I was about nine or 10.

“Cornella was always known as the third best academy in Catalonia – after Barcelona and Sevilla – and it still is. I moved there not really thinking about having a career or anything, but just enjoying taking the step up to an academy.

"I would be playing against the best teams in Catalonia, so that’s when you start to realise you are a good player, but you still have a long way to go.”

"I always had a passion for goalkeeping, which started from a young age"

Although still young, this was when football started to become more serious for the budding goalkeeper, but David says he found the transition to academy football to be seamless.

“I fitted in very easily to my new team,” he recalls. “At that age, you are all just kids, having a good time and playing football together. I always found it easy to go into a new dressing room, and enjoyed being part of a new team with new friends and making new relationships.”

As one of the star players in the side, he was often named captain too: “I enjoyed that leadership, and trying to be a role model for the team in terms of behaviour. That’s part of who I am anyway, and I like taking that responsibility. It’s never something that I’ve looked for actively, but if it comes to me, I’m happy with that."

Working his way steadily through the age groups at Cornella, it was only a matter of time before the big clubs came knocking, and it was then-Premier League side Blackburn Rovers who took a punt on the teenage keeper.

“That was a massive change,” he says of the move to Lancashire from Catalonia. “But I didn’t have any doubts about it at all. Obviously I spoke to my mum and dad about it, and they were very open when we discussed it, and they wanted the best for me. They said it was a chance I couldn’t turn down, because it might only ever come once.

"They said to try it, and if it doesn’t work out I’ve always got a home to come back to. But at least you can say you’ve tried. I think it was harder for them than
it was for me.

“The good thing for me was I had one of my ex-team-mates, Hugo Fernandez, already at Blackburn, because he had signed the year before. Blackburn and Cornella had a relationship where they sent players on trial, or short-term deals. So every six months Blackburn would send scouts over to watch us, and then decide which players they would bring over.

“So I first went over in 2011, on trial for four days. There were about 10 of us, and I was one of the oldest. I was about to turn 16 that September, but in England the age groups run from September to August, so I would have counted as an under-15 if I was to join that season, which is too young to move to a club abroad.

“So I waited until the following season, and joined halfway through so I could learn the language, and adapt before starting with the under-18s. I spent six months training with the under-18s – this was when Blackburn were in the Premier League – and playing for the under-16s at weekends. Sometimes I would train with the first-team too if they needed a keeper so it was a great experience for me.

“I’d say the moment I realised I could play football for a career was when I signed for Blackburn’s academy.”

Aside from dealing with the obvious differences in culture and weather, plus being away from his family, David didn’t speak any English either. But he threw himself fully at the new challenge, and embraced his new surroundings.

“I didn’t speak any English at all when I arrived – nothing! Everything was different for me, and I moved over on my own. My family were in Spain still.

“I was in digs, right at the academy training ground, so it was fine,” he says. “I settled very easily to be honest. I tried my best to speak English as much as I could and I tried to really be a part of the group. Obviously I had Hugo with me, which made it easier, and there was a family over the road from me that had lived in Malaga for a long time. I still call them my English family, because they also helped me a lot when I arrived.”

Not long after he arrived at Blackburn they were relegated to the Championship, but David continued to progress, before signing pro forms aged 18. It was then time for him to get his first taste of senior football, on loan at Southport in the Conference Premier.

“The three months I spent at Southport were some of the best times of my career in terms of learning and development,” he recalls with a fond smile. “I was 18, turning 19 at the time, and I was used to life at Blackburn, where they made your breakfast for you, they did your laundry, everything. But when I went to Southport I had to do everything for myself.

“For home matches I’d have my pre-match meal at home, and at Blackburn I wasn’t used to that. It was a big learning curve, and basically I had to grow up and toughen up.

"That was the intention of the loan, sending players to non-league. You learn a lot, because it’s proper football and you play against men, and wins are so important. Your win bonus combines with your wage and you need those wins to pay your bills. You realise how important that is.”

He played 19 times for the Merseyside club during his short-term loan, including a big FA Cup third-round tie away to Derby County, and at the end of that season he made his debut for Rovers in the Championship, away to Leeds United, while still a teenager.

"“It’s a dream to play here, one of the biggest clubs in the world"

After four more years at the club – and more than 100 appearances – he was signed by fellow Championship side Brentford, instantly becoming a regular and fans’ favourite, and helping them win promotion to the top flight in 2021. After two seasons excelling in the Premier League with the Bees, he moved from west to north London, signing for us on loan at the start of the season.

Again it’s a move that the Spain international has adapted to impressively quickly, making his debut just a month after joining, and barely missing a game since.

“My first impressions of Arsenal were amazing,” he says. “It’s a dream to play here, one of the biggest clubs in the world. It was a dream move for me and the step up was something I needed in my career. I’m 28 now and I wanted that step up to challenge myself. I wanted to play in Europe and to compete for and win titles. It was something I really wanted to do, to test myself.”

And how about adapting to a new dressing room and settling into a new team? “It’s been great. All the players have helped me. I didn’t know any of them personally before I arrived. Obviously I know them from playing against them, but I didn’t know them well, and everyone has welcomed me with open arms.

"The dressing room is great, and all the staff too, so everyone has helped me settle in. I’m still adapting to the club and the place, but so far it’s going very well.

“I think here we have a really good team spirit, not just the team but the staff as well, from the top to bottom,” he adds. “We are going in one direction, everybody wants the best for the club, for our people, and that’s the way it’s got to be for a successful team.

“For me it’s about togetherness – everybody is pulling in the same direction and we have each other’s back.

“We are all friends here. We can go out together, we can have lunch together, the staff too. We are all one group. We know what we want and what we want to achieve.”

Off the pitch, David has moved house and is settled with his girlfriend and admits he feels increasingly English – he even pronounces his first name the English way.

“I’ve been here for 12 years now in England, so I feel part of the culture and I feel like this is my home,” he says. “Obviously home will always be home, but I feel very happy here in London and in English football as well."

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