Luton-born centre-half raised in Spain is carving out a career in his adopted homeland after a short spell with Grimsby Town
The queue at the Martínez Valero stadium snakes round the shop. It is 72 hours until Elche face Barcelona at the Camp Nou; it is also 72 hours until Reyes, when the three wise men reached Bethlehem and Spanish children get their presents. Parents are stocking up. There are mugs, scarves, hats and books chronicling their return to the First Division a quarter of a century later. Then there are shirts: white with a green stripe, names and number to order: "Fidel, 16"; "Botía, 3"; "Manu del Moral, 14". And "Charlie, 26."
Charlie Dean I'Anson – just Charlie on his shirt – is 20. He is the only Englishman playing in Spain's First Division. A plasterer's son from Luton who watches every Spurs game in the local pub and began his career at Grimsby Town, he talks like a Londoner. At least he does until Elche's president walks in, pats him meatily on the back and starts chatting. And then Charlie I'Anson talks like an Andalusian.
In May 2012 I'Anson decided he would try his luck abroad. He had been away two years and it had been hard. "I didn't know anything about life there but even if I rang up my mum and said: 'Cor, mum, I don't like this,' I had to keep going because I wanted to play," he says. Now it was time to head home, so he did: to Spain.
It was here that I'Anson grew up, here, too, that he became a player. "I came to Spain when I was seven," he says. "My mum and dad started a life here, near Málaga, and we went to a Spanish school. It was harder for my brother who's two years older but we had really nice Spanish friends. After about a year, we both spoke perfectly.
"I probably only played two years in Wealdstone. My dad tells me about it and I remember coming home covered in mud, playing in the rain, sliding about, great fun. But my development was in Spain: it starts with fútbol sala, then seven-a-side. When you're young, you don't know how the game's played but they insisted. You keep passing and you're losing it and they're scoring and you're crying and thinking: 'what's he making me do?' You can't understand, but when you get older you do."
"I watch little kids at the club where I played at home [in Spain]. You think: 'God, look, he keeps giving the ball away and they've scored but he doesn't care. He still asks for it and keeps playing. That runs through the whole system. When you're young you're not playing for a competition, winning doesn't matter. It's about making better footballers, playing the right way.
I'Anson was spotted playing in a youth tournament in Spain. It was a huge opportunity and he moved to England, alone, at 16 to join Grimsby. He made his first-team debut at 17, scoring against Mansfield Town, and played 17 times in two years before heading home. Having just turned 19, he departed.
"Their youth system was good," he says. "Neil Woods and Robbie Stockdale liked to play: it wasn't all long ball, gym work, the physical side. It also developed my football playing on grass. It'd always been little moulded [studs] on astroturf. And I also knew going to England was a way of growing up and being a man – and of getting into football.
"It is easy to be home, comfortable, and when you train badly you think: 'ah well, I'll go out with my mates.' But if you're alone, you go home and think. It's hard, but it works better sometimes."
While he was at Grimsby, I'Anson got a call up for England C but the game never went ahead. "I was so proud anyway. You see the letter come through the letterbox, show your family: 'Jesus, look!' You never forget." So what if one day Spain and England both come? He bursts out laughing. "I don't know anyone who's coming. I wish someone would. I'd love the choice. But it's not happening now."
Cross-fertilisation was valuable; new lessons had to be learned. The mere mention of refereeing has him giggling. "Different," he says, "very different." And style? "The Spanish say English, the English say Spanish. I developed here but some things are in your blood. Some in Spain see a 50-50 and they're not having it. In England, they love it." So which is it? I'Anson's not sure, but he is not huge for a central defender and his dad thought him better suited to Spain. The move back was risky, though.
"There was a point when I was thinking: 'what have I done?' From having a deal on the table to going back to Spain where no one had seen me play for three years. People might say no, not even a trial. I'd been back a month and I thought: 'uuff'. I played four games against Andalucían teams from the Segunda División B and thought I did well but no one replied. Then I was lucky: I trained with the B team at Elche, Elche Ilicitano, and the manager liked me."
Last season, I'Anson was captain as Elche Ilicitano won promotion to the Second Division B. Now, he straddles both sides: he trains with the first team but most weeks plays for Elche Ilicitano. His first-team debut came against Espanyol but he will not travel to the Camp Nou.
Elche won 2-1 on his debut. "In the first five minutes, with 30,000 there, the ball came over long and the sun was blazing in my eyes," I'Anson says, smiling. "The ball bounced and Sergio García was going through but I got back to block. The fans didn't start shouting at me, which helped. You can think: 'Oh what have I done?!' But you focus on the game: it's the same pitch, the same ball. You'll make mistakes, that's natural. Every human being does.
"When I was younger I'd get down or managers would make decisions and I was all: 'why's he done that?' I've been taken off in the 15th minute before: me and another 19-year-old at Grimsby, thinking: 'what the? Oh, great, blame the young ones.' But you deal with it, whether you agree or not. It makes you stronger."
For now, I'Anson is learning. Already a qualified coach, there is depth to what he says. He analyses systems and set plays, and explains working on his weaker left foot: "You can think it'll get better by itself, but it won't." There is determination too. He is the fourth centre-back, behind Alberto Botía, David Lombán and Sergio Pelegrín and competition is tough. "They don't treat you as a YT but as another player … and as a threat. It's their jobs as well. It's hard. But I'm improving and next season I want to fight for that shirt." Green and white: Charlie, 26.