Vicente to graft for ambitious Seagulls
"It wasn't the best day to train," smirked Vicente Rodriguez with some understatement, settling down inside Brighton's American Express Community Stadium with heavy rain and gale-force winds battering its pristine exterior. If it's a rude awakening for a 30-year-old taking his first career steps outside of his home city of Valencia, he does well to conceal it. "The weather's not a problem when you really want to train."
If Championship leaders Brighton ooze ambition and hunger, their exotic new signing is a perfect fit. Yes, that is the Vicente, Valencia's dazzling left-winger in the all-conquering Rafael Benitez era. After being stymied by injuries in recent years while Los Che endured institutional crisis - even aiming an extraordinary broadside at the ineptitude of the club's medical staff in September 2007 - Vicente is itching to make a mark in English football, and seems unflustered by some of the reduced trappings of life outside of the top flight.
Rather than wearing a suit and carrying a notepad, the new man's interpreter was dressed down in jeans and a polo shirt– it was his new team-mate and fellow Spaniard, Inigo Calderon, or 'Calde', as the right-back is known in the dressing room. Calderon admitted he likes having a fellow Spaniard around the place to talk to, but his pleasure at Vicente's arrival is mainly just down to the fact that the former Spain international is "a really, really good player."
Whatever Vicente's fitness issues in recent years, which saw new Chelsea signing Juan Mata supplant him in the Mestalla pecking order, few would argue with Calderon. His keynote season, the imperious 2003-04 campaign, saw Valencia win a La Liga and UEFA Cup double, him score a career-best 14 goals (including the UEFA Cup final opener against Marseille), set up a host more and even be touted as a potential successor to Ryan Giggs at Manchester United.
"A few clubs were interested a few years ago and I was close to moving," he said frankly, with little wistfulness, "but things happened to stop it. But I always wanted to come here to discover the football culture which you have here - it's totally different."
Now Vicente has his wish, though Calderon's lottery-winner reaction to the move is reflective of many in and around the club. The winger's arrival on the south coast is another example of how manager Gus Poyet's profile and personality has combined with the club's infrastructure improvements to make Brighton a serious proposition.
"The main thing was chatting with Poyet," Vicente said, "and he explained about the club and the way the team plays, the stadium … everything about the football rather than the money. It gave me a good feeling. The team plays passing, attacking football which will suit me. They like to enjoy playing and so I think I'm at the right club."
Vicente is relieved to be in an environment, and under a coach, where he is trusted, after having recent problems with Unai Emery at Valencia. "The first four or five years at Valencia were the best of my career, of course, winning titles at home and in Europe, " he remembered, "but the last year was hard, because I didn't have a great relationship with the coach. It wasn't the way to finish a good and long career at Valencia, but I felt good to play and I left because I want to play more."
He will certainly get that chance with the Seagulls, though he admitted he is only at "40%" fitness at the moment after spending the summer working alone with a personal trainer, and hopes to be in position to make an impact in "two or three weeks". Yet he expects to be lifted by his surroundings, as much as Brighton expects to be inspired by him, in the smart new stadium which he already "loves". He remains ambitious. "I think I can play four or five more years at the top level," he insisted. "I'm not coming here to play one year and retire. I'm here to play well, do important things and try and get the club in the Premier (League)."
Vicente admits that a few of his countrymen inspired him to follow his English dream, including erstwhile Valencia team-mate David Silva. "David's a very good friend but I didn't talk it over with him before coming," he told ESPNsoccernet. "I just went for it. I played some great football with him. He's a great lad and he's done really well over here. Brighton is a real opportunity for me and I want to take it."
He shakes his head when asked if the masterplan includes an eventual recall to the world's premier international side. "No, it's very difficult. There are some great players coming through of 21, 22 (years old) … it's time for the younger players to have their chance," he says philosophically. "I had my time. I played 40 times for the national team and loved it, but I'm only thinking about doing well for this team, and getting us into the Premier League. We like it a lot over in Spain – it's very competitive, a lot of fun, with some big teams in it. We really enjoy watching it."
If he hits anything approaching peak form at the AmEx, Vicente's compatriots will be enjoying the top-flight adventures of him and his Brighton colleagues on Spanish television next season.