Williams Velasquez. You know him right? Watford player. World Cup runner up. Don’t recall? How about Eduardo Montenegro? Luis Suarez? No, not that one.
Watford fans used to be intimately familiar with every player on the club’s books. Until a few years ago there were only ever about 25 of them. But with the riches and profile that Premier League football brings, coupled with an owner with fingers in a Greggs-worth of pies, the squad list now spreads far and wide, and features some names that even the most ardent of fans would have to Google.
You’ll find a bunch of them holed up in north-west Spain, plying their nascent trade at Valladolid B – the new Watford B, which I guess makes them Udinese C? Let me explain.
The informal relationship between the two clubs started last summer, when Gino Pozzo flew to Castile to wine and dine with the club’s President Carlos Suárez and General Manager Miguel Ángel Gómez. Around that table the power brokers discussed the arrangement that would take seven players from ‘Watford’ to the city for a year.
Five years had passed since the Pozzos facilitated a similar mass export of talent, when Udinese, fresh from a season that would prove to be the apex of their rise to the upper echelons of Serie A, plumbed their rolodex of registered players to chuck an assortment of 10 to Watford (with another two coming from the Pozzo’s holiday home in Granada).
That cohort paved the way for Watford’s establishment as a top tier club, provided a host of fan favourites and even a couple of legends, but those hoping to catch sight of a similar wave of success at the Estadio José Zorrilla, by the banks of the Pisuerga (or more accurately next to a big Carrefour), will be disappointed. Not one of those seven players has mustered a single minute of action for Valladolid, which plies its trade in the Spanish second division.
Indeed, while Watford received a range of players entering their footballing primes or trying their arm at a different culture after a difficult start to life in Italy, those that headed to Spain in the summer were rather more developmental. Rather than trying to symbiotically develop our players and give Valladolid a boost, the Castillian club is more acting as a warm-weather (and visa-friendly) academy, with Granada no longer part of the Pozzo family.
Thus, six of the players headed straight to Valladolid B, referred to more commonly as the Promesas. Valladolid’s 12,000 season ticket holders get free entry to see this reserve side, stationed one tier of the pyramid below the first team in Segunda Division B, but only a few hundred actually turn out to see the team of youngsters – the oldest of which is 25, with most a few years either side of 20.
In an altogether more spartan ground than the José Zorrilla, these kids play for their futures. Like reserve football in England, it is development that counts more than results, though the threat of relegation does add a bit of spice come Spring. And it is there that we find our heroes: Luis Suarez, Williams Velasquez, Eduardo Montenegro, Juan Becerra and Jaime Alvarado.
The lone player to be sent to the first team, the Gambian Sulayman Marreh, had his loan terminated in January after only making the seven-man bench once in the first half of the season. He is now at fellow Segunda side Almeria, which means that for the purposes of this article he is dead to us.
As at Watford all those years ago, the influx drew consternation among the Pucela fanbase, worried that this developmental side was being flushed with players who would be gone in a year and stand in the way of homegrown youngsters with Valladolid in their futures.
The Promesas had a good season in 2016/17, and the changes at the club saw several popular faces leave, replaced by these temporary names, many of whom had no experience of European football. Sounds familiar. A particular example, says Jesús Domínguez, Director of Valladolid fan site Blanquivioletas, is Miguel de la Fuente, a Spain Under-19 cap, who has found himself behind Suarez in the pecking order. Suarez “is a good player, but not our player”, says Dominguez. The way the season has progressed suggest these concerns were not unfounded.
After a start to the season that saw the side win just once in the first 16 games, a new coach and a host of new players were brought in to stem the tide. Amongst the upheaval in January, a sixth loanee, Jorge Segura, whom Watford bought from Colombian first division side Envigado in the summer but has represented Ecuador at under-20 level, returned to the Colombia and the more famed environs of Independiente Medellín on what seems to be a permanent deal.
Under the new management, with better players filling out the squad, the side has gone eight games unbeaten, though this turnaround in fortunes has had a mixed impact on the Watford exports.
Chief among the beneficiaries is Luis Suarez. A stocky yet fairly pacy striker, much like his toothy namesake, Suarez likes to play off the back shoulder of the nearest defender, with most of his goals stemming from balls played in behind the back line. Friend of ITWM (as of last week) Jesus Perez Baraja, who covers the side for Marca and El Desmarque, highlights Suarez as the pick of the crop.
The 20-year-old Colombian has scored 10 goals in 28 games this season, notching some significant goals in the last few months. “He has improved a lot,” says Perez Baraja. “Before, he was obsessed only with scoring goals. He didn’t pass the ball and missed several goals. But now, he is in his best moment. Obviously, the improvement of the team has helped him, but now he is adapting to Spain and is growing in Valladolid. If he continues as well as this, he could be a interesting player for the future.”
That he isn’t anywhere near a finished product can be seen from the Promesas’ 2-1 win over Gimnástica Segoviana in December. Suarez is the begloved number 10 skewing incredibly wide when through on goal three minutes into the video and dribbling into nothingness with attacking support at 4:14, but he also grabbed an equaliser with a timed run and finish reminiscent of Matej Vydra (4:24).
Suarez is one of two of the five to have played, along with Marreh, for Granada’s second team last season. The other, fellow striker Becerra has mainly been used from the bench, making only three starts and scoring a couple of headers, including the 95th minute winner against Segoviana above. Nicknamed ‘El Tanque’ as a kid, Becerra moved to Spain from the Udinese Football School in Barranquilla with something of a reputation in the successful youth ranks of Colombian football, but has yet to make much of an impact in the Spanish game.
Indeed Becerra, like the other non-Suarez loanees, has not impressed in performances for the Promesas. While they all, barring Segura, started the season as first choices, the poor start to the season has seen new faces join the club and usurp their starting roles. It is likely, says Perez Barraja, that several will follow Segura out of the club at the end of the season.
The Udinese Football School is also the alma mater of two of the other loanees at Valladolid, highlighting that this is not the first step of these players’ careers in the network, but the latest stop on a Silk Road designed to mine South America of one of its most famed exports. This is not a halfway house for stardom in the Premier League, but a way of oiling the pipeline between South America for Europe, while ensuring that the Pozzos are seen as the facilitators. By hoovering the promising kids of Colombia up and then moving them to Spain to get their work permits, Gino and family are making sure that when the next Juan Cuadrado, Luis Muriel or Cucho Hernandez turns up it is them holding the plane ticket.
Alvarado, at just 18 the youngest of the bunch, is a defensive midfielder that has played as cover in the centre of defence and signed with the Pozzo network in 2016, but though he enjoyed a run of games at the beginning of the season and, says, Perez Baraja, put in some promising performances, his playing time has also dropped off since the turn of the year. Montenegro, meanwhile, is a right winger that has barely made it onto the pitch.
The odd man out among the group is centre back Velasquez, who was the heart of the defence of the Venezuela Under-20 that pushed Dominics Calvert-Lewin and Solanke – both with reasonable game time up front in the Premier League this year – to the brink in last summer’s World Cup final. Watford had signed him several months prior, after he played a starring role in the South American U20s competition alongside compatriot Adalberto Penaranda, a long-distance victim of the Watford injury curse.
But, despite, making 12 starts this season, he has failed to nail down a starting spot for the Promesas, due to, Perez Baraja explains, a series of mistakes at the back and being used in a less familiar midfield role. Dominguez adds: “We expected a lot of Velásquez, because of his performances for Venezuela Under-20, but his season has been very bad. Because of his lack of experience he makes very serious mistakes for European football, he has been a great disappointment.”
Velasquez arrived with the highest of expectations among the retinue of loanees, and is probably the only one that the Pozzos considered a reasonable hope for Watford (though Udinese seems a more likely destination). But Perez Baraja notes he has improved over the course of the season and the 20-year-old seems happy enough with his progress. He told Venezuelan news site Meridano: “In Valladolid I have been very calm, taking advantage of the opportunities that they give me here. I have only played a few games, but it was because of the adaptation, but thanks to God I focused and played almost the majority of the last matches and I hope to continue like this next year.”
It would be nice to imagine one or two of these players finding their way back to Watford at some point in the future. But as the 31 players currently loaned out by Udinese (a few of whom have done time in London Colney) and several other ‘Watford’ registrees knocking about in Spain are testament to, we are now part of a import/export market that, while a bit weird, makes the Pozzo network what it is. And at least it makes for a good few hours on Wikipedia every now and again.