Dani Parejo: ‘Miguel Brito fell asleep during an Unai Emery talk one day’

Valencia’s midfielder talks about his loan spell at QPR – ‘dad, we need to go back to Spain’ – playing for Unai Emery and the Europa League return against Arsenal

Dani Parejo didn’t just see that English football was different, he felt it. It was August 2008, he was 19, had just joined Queens Park Rangers and was only nine minutes into his debut, coming off the bench against Barnsley, but that was enough. He’s played 437 matches since then, but he hasn’t forgotten that day at Loftus Road. “The first time anyone tackled me was a direct red,” he laughs. “When I left the ground, I said to my dad: ‘where have we come to? We’ve got to get back to Spain’.”

It took another four and a half months, but Parejo did leave swiftly, having played just four months at QPR. He admits he was glad to be back, heading home to play for Real Madrid, and when he’s asked about his time in England, the very first question, he smiles and offers a one-word answer: “different”. Yet the man who’s now the captain of the Valencia side who face Arsenal tonight says it was good for him. And at least that tackle got a red, he concedes, cracking up. Others didn’t.

As for him, he took the experience home. And, he says, QPR’s “lovely, very cool” hooped shirt. There’s also a fondness for the culture, the noise, “the way they live their football, a thousand fans or more at every game.” Even for Brentford, where he lived with his parents by the river. Warmth too when he recalls his mum getting to grips with the food and the language. “She doesn’t speak any English,” he says, “until she goes to the market: onions, carrots, green peppers… all that she knows perfectly.”

Nor was she the only one. Asked what Iain Dowie said to help him adapt, Parejo laughs: “I didn’t understand much to be honest. I didn’t understand much when the English spoke and he was Irish, wasn’t he? So, it was even harder. But the way he gesticulated, the body language, you could see he was a funny bloke. He was excitable: he never stopped moving.”

Dowie was just the start. Parejo returned to Madrid, under Juande Ramos. Expectations were high, perhaps too high and he talks eloquently about how “sometimes you feel like closing the door and saying ‘I’m not leaving home for a fortnight’.” As a kid, he had been singled out by Alfredo Di Stéfano, who refused to go to Madrid’s B team games if he wasn’t playing. Instead, Parejo was soon off to Getafe and, in 2011, Valencia.

It may have taken a while – his first Spain cap was last year – but he’s been arguably the country’s best midfielder this season. And it’s taken a lot of managers too, which may be part of the reason. Parejo’s calculation of eight in a decade falls short: there have been eleven coaching spells in five years alone. “That doesn’t happen in England, eh?” he shoots back. The two he’s been closest to are the Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde and Valencia’s current coach Marcelino García, a man so obsessed with weight that Parejo jokes: “He doesn’t let us eat.”

That prompts more English memories: “I didn’t have the habits I have now but it was incredible: croissants, donuts, they would cook with butter…” Parejo says. Ah, but did you like it? “I liked the taste,” he replies, grinning. “If you put it in front of me now, I wouldn’t eat it. But back then, I would. On the bus people would have a bag of sweets or a packet of biscuits. I thought it was normal.”

And so to the managers, including Wolves coach Nuno Espírito Santo and the man returning to Mestalla tonight: Unai Emery.

Parejo chases Arsenal’s Sead Kolasinac during last week’s semi-final first leg. Valencia trail 3-1 going into Thursday’s second leg at the Mestalla.
Parejo chases Arsenal’s Sead Kolasinac during last week’s semi-final first leg. Valencia trail 3-1 going into Thursday’s second leg at the Mestalla. Photograph: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

“Unai signed me and I had a year with him. I was young, it was my first season at a big club with these demands: it’s hard,” Parejo admits. “Unai’s a very good coach who’s done incredible things; it’s admirable. They say coaches are a little different, and he’s a perfectionist: there’s a lot of work, a lot of videos, talks, and it’s true players can get tired of it, that he’s a bit pesado, heavy-going. When you get an outline of the opponents it helps, of course, but a footballer’s attention – anybody’s attention – can wane if it goes on for 20, 25 minutes.

He laughs. “Miguel Brito fell asleep during a talk one day.”

Parejo says he recognises Emery’s hand when he watches Arsenal, although he analyses shifts too: “It surprised me to see three centre-backs sometimes; he never did that here. But he has always liked to play with a doble pivote, two in the middle. The best coaches adapt and he hasn’t been there long, so it will take a while still.”

Emery qualified Valencia for the Champions League three years running. He was not always popular at Mestalla but after his departure it took three years to return under Nuno and Parejo recalls Nuno’s first season as one in which they played at an “extremely high level”. He adds: “the following year, the expectations were so, so high… and in week nine they sacked him. We were still alive in the Champions League, only a few points off [top four], but in Spain that happens.”

“It’s been difficult here,” Parejo continues. “Lots of changes of coach, very unstable, big news stories every three days, the sporting director resigned, the coach went, Voro, the delegate, came as coach, then he went, then he came again. There was instability …”

Into all that came Gary Neville. “It was a surprise although Phil was coaching assistant. When things weren’t going well, there were rumours but when it happened no one [else] seemed to be linked to the job. I imagine Gary spoke to [Valencia owner] Peter Lim and to Phil. We weren’t in the best situation and the míster didn’t speak Spanish and didn’t really know Spanish football, so it’s difficult to get your message across. It’s not the same when someone translates it. When you have to really push a player – eff-this, eff-that, I-don’t-know-what – it shows.”

Neville had no experience of management and was not really a coach, Parejo concedes. “He was assistant with England,” he says, “but it’s not the same as being number one. I’ve never been in that position, but I can’t be easy. It must be tough to come to a different country and a different culture with a new language and be at the forefront of everything.”

Parejo celebrates scoring for Valencia at Sevilla earlier this season.
Parejo celebrates scoring for Valencia at Sevilla earlier this season. Photograph: Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

One of Neville’s decisions was to take the captaincy off Parejo. “It was a mutual decision,” he says. “First the ‘problem’ had been Nuno and then when Nuno went some of the supporters looked at me. I was exposed, the visible face, the ‘problem’. If we lost it was my fault. He’d been Manchester United captain and knows what it’s like. It reached a point where I said: ‘I like enjoying football, fighting for my team and I’m not. Wearing the armband matters – you represent the club – but what’s happening isn’t necessary. I’m having a bad time and it’s hurting the team and it’s hurting me.’ We took the right decision in that moment.”

Are you enjoying football again now? “I am, I am,” Parejo says. He’s captain again, there’s stability at Valencia, patience re-established as a virtue, and with two weeks left they’re three points off fourth, have a Copa del Rey final to come, and there’s Thursday night’s game against Arsenal. Parejo knows it’s difficult after the 3-1 defeat last week but believes Valencia can still go through. “Arsenal are a great team but if you want to lift the trophy you have to get past the best. We’re still alive in everything and we’ll be fighting to the end.”