Around Europe: Globetrotting Quique Sanchez Flores returns to Valencia where it all began

In this week's Around Europe column, Ian Hawkey focuses on the Espanyol manager who will return to his former club on Sunday.

Quique Sanches Flores will take his Espanyol side to face Valencia, the club he previously played for and managed.  Oli Scarff / AFP
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For the globetrotting modern football manager, a sense of dislocation comes with the vocation.

New jobs, in new places, come around so frequently that the feeling of where the heart belongs erodes.

But for Quique Sanchez Flores, whose 13-year senior career spreads across eight clubs in two continents, Sunday’s trip down the Mediterranean coast will truly feel like a homecoming.

Sanchez Flores, not so long ago a gatherer of Cups with UAE clubs, is currently in charge of Espanyol, and has them firmly, safely in mid-table of the Spanish top flight.

On Sunday they travel to a club in severe discomfort, brittle Valencia. Quique, as he is known throughout his native Spain, can expect a warm ovation from those Valencia fans who remember him as player there and as one of the many managers who have manned the dugout at the Mestalla stadium in the last decade.

When he was a boy, Sanchez Flores followed Valencia as a fan. It was an unusual attachment, given that he was born in Madrid and his father, Isidro, had played with distinction for Real Madrid.

But a boyhood affection for Valencia was nourished by his godfather, the great Alfredo Di Stefano, perhaps the finest footballer of the 20th century.

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As Sanchez Flores, now 51, recalled: “It all started in the 1970s, when Alfredo was coaching Valencia. His wife, Sara, started sending me Valencia things — signed balls, scarves and so on.

“So the link was established then. I admired my godfather, Alfredo, and my interest in football was developing.”

He would become a teenaged Valencia wannabe. Sanchez Flores, a dynamic full-back, joined Valencia’s youth academy at 19, moving south from Madrid.

This was no favour from Di Stefano, who had by then left the club after his second spell in charge, having won a Primera Liga title in his first and the European Cup-Winners Cup in his second.

When Di Stefano returned for a third stint, his godson was well established in the first-team, although the club were mired in the second division.

It was 1986. Valencia won promotion, the godfather grateful to his godson’s excellence up and down the flank.

“As the coach, Alfredo was tough with me,” Quique said. “I think partly to confirm that I was not being preferred at all because of my personal relationship with him.”

After a decade at Valencia, Quique eventually joined Real Madrid, where Di Stefano and his father, Isidro, had won European Cups together.

He had cultivated an interest in management. Young, articulate and photogenic, he had his first senior management job before he turned 40, keeping Getafe, newly promoted and low-budget, in the Primera Liga. Impressed, Valencia asked him to take over there, after standards had slipped since they had won the league twice in 2002, 2004, their first such triumphs since Di Stefano’s title.

Quique twice qualified Valencia for the Uefa Champions League, but the spell ended in his third season in charge, and, as he joined a long list of distinguished men to bid goodbye to the manager’s office at Paterna, the club’s training headquarters, he thought back to something Di Stefano, who had a sharp tongue, used to mutter. “Alfredo used to say: ‘Valencia is one of the best clubs in the world, with some of the worst directors’.”

Supporters would echo that now. They have been protesting against the owner, Peter Lim, outside the stadium in recent weeks, a period that has seen the departure of Cesare Prandelli as manager, the third man to vacate the seat in 13 months.

Gary Neville has been and gone, so has Paco Ayesteran, and so the weary players will take orders from Salvador Gonzalez, on his third spell as reluctant caretaker manager since November 2015.

The days when Sanchez Flores was securing top-four finishes seem very distant for Valencia, whose fortunes have plummeted rather further than the former manager and popular player.

Sanchez Flores went on from Valencia to win a Europa League with Atletico Madrid, a Portuguese League Cup at Benfica, knockout trophies at Al Ahli and Al Ain in the UAE and is happy to be back in Spain after a season in the Premier League with Watford where he was, a little impatiently, let go after only 12 months of promising work.

Joining Espanyol meant the globetrotter returned closer to home. On Sunday, he goes back to where it all began.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK — JULIAN DRAXLER

No transfer within Europe in the current winter widow has made as much impact as that of the young, feted German. Paris Saint-Germain paid Wolfsburg for a reported €36 million (Dh140.8m). On Saturday he should make his Ligue 1 debut for France’s champions at Rennes.

In with a bang

His first appearance certainly met the great expectations. Draxler scored a fine solo goal in PSG’s 7-0 thrashing of Bastia last weekend in the French Cup, latching on to a pass from Javier Pastore after a well-timed run from deep. He then carried the ball at pace into the Bastia penalty box, choosing his moment coolly to finish with his right foot. Appetites have been whetted.

Long-awaited switch

Draxler had become impatient to join a heavyweight club, and pressured Wolfsburg, who he only joined in 2015, to listen to PSG’s keen interest in him last summer. Wolfsburg wanted to continue to build a team around him; relations between employer and employee deteriorated after their summer disagreements, and he played only a marginal role in the first half of this Bundesliga season.

Teen sensation

That put the brakes on the upward momentum that has propelled most of Draxler’s senior career. He is a prodigy, who made his bow in the Bundesliga six years ago this weekend, as a 17-year-old who had come through the productive youth ranks at Schalke. By that April he was starting a Uefa Champions League semi-final, Schalke’s defeat to Manchester United.

World champion

Draxler seemed unusually mature then, confident on the ball, two-footed, ready to dribble past seasoned opponents, a young man who chose his passes wisely and with precision. Germany’s manager, Joachim Low gave Draxler his debut with the national team at the age of 19 and took him to the 2014 World Cup, where, although he played only a few minutes in the tournament, he ended up with a winners’ medal.

Managers praise

Unai Emery, the PSG manager, has, like Low with Germany, plenty of creative attackers to select, with Angel Di Maria, Lucas Moura, Hatem Ben Arfa and Pastore on the Paris roster. But he speaks highly of his new recruit’s unique talents. “Julian’s ability to get into positions near the opposition goal are a great asset, and his delivery of the final pass is excellent,” he said.

Paris’s new pin-up

Edinson Cavani, prolific at centre-forward for PSG this season, should enjoy having Draxler playing off him. And PSG fans are ready for a new hero, after the departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic last summer. They also need urgent reassurance that the top of Ligue 1 can be reclaimed, the French champions having spent the winter break in third spot in the table.

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