(Editor’s note: a version of this story was published in May 2022)
At the beginning of the summer, it felt like David Raya was destined to join Tottenham Hotspur, yet he is now preparing for life in the red half of north London.
Raya had made it clear in public that the time was right for him to leave Brentford. Spurs, who were moving on from their long-term first-choice goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and ushering in a new era under Ange Postecoglu, would have been a good fit.
They made an enquiry about Raya’s price but never bid and went after Guglielmo Vicario instead, while a loan move to German champions Bayern Munich did not interest the 27-year-old. Raya was left in limbo and facing the prospect of spending the final year of his contract with Brentford on the bench. That was until Arsenal swooped in.
Inaki Cana, Arsenal’s goalkeeping coach, worked closely with Raya at Brentford, but his appeal extends way beyond that. According to Opta, the Spain international made more saves (154) than any other goalkeeper in the top flight last season, recorded the second-highest number of catches (51) after Emiliano Martinez, and kept 12 clean sheets.
Arsenal could be battling to win the Premier League title this season and hope Raya can push Aaron Ramsdale to new heights or take the No 1 shirt from him. For Raya, this move is the pinnacle of a career that started out in Barcelona, with stops in Southport, Blackburn and Brentford along the way.
Raya grew up in Palleja, a 20-minute drive north west from the centre of Barcelona.
Despite living so close to the Camp Nou, he supported Real Madrid during his childhood and idolised their goalkeeper, future World Cup-winning Spain captain Iker Casillas. He would spend hours playing futsal with his older brother, Oscar, on a pitch next to their house, which explains his natural ability with the ball at his feet and should help him fit seamlessly into Mikel Arteta’s style of play.
Local club Cornella, who are in Spain’s third tier, scouted him when he was nine after watching him playing with his friends.
Andres Manzano has been associated with Cornella for 30 years, as a player, head of academy and now general director. Manzano, who helped oversee the developments of Inter Miami and Spain full-back Jordi Alba and Spartak Moscow forward Keita Balde, a Spanish-born Senegal international, recalls Raya stood out even back then.
“His agility, reaction speed and reflexes were impressive,” Manzano tells The Athletic. “He had a very good long pass, too, especially with his right foot. He was very communicative, he was not shy and was really passionate.
“He was a leader because of his attitude. If you had asked me if David would become a professional footballer, I would have said yes. You knew he could do something special because he was really disciplined. He is a shining example to our academy players.”
Manzano believes Cesar Lopez, Cornella’s now-retired goalkeeping coach, is one of the “secrets of Raya’s success”. Lopez spotted the kid’s potential early on and would make him train with older age groups to challenge him.
A decade ago, Blackburn had an arrangement with Cornella where they would take the Spanish club’s most promising young players on trial. It was a setup organised by Steve Nickson, who was Blackburn’s head of academy recruitment until he joined Newcastle United in 2011 in the same role and is now head of first-team recruitment there for Eddie Howe.
Raya was invited over to Lancashire at the age of 16 but encountered some resistance when he turned up.
“Blackburn were worried he wouldn’t grow to 6ft,” Manzano says. “But he has very big hands. I told them to measure his size with his hands, not just his head!”
Phil Cannon, Blackburn’s academy manager at the time, was undeterred at least and decided to sign Raya anyway.
The teenager was soon allowed to work with the Championship club’s first team and John Keeley, their goalkeeping coach at the time, was immediately impressed.
“You could just see right from the word go that he had talent,” Keeley tells The Athletic. “He would train his socks off every day and he did his gym work properly, too.
“He had obviously done a lot of ball work with his feet (before coming to Blackburn) — I had nothing to do with that. He just found it so easy and that came from his upbringing. But, once training had finished, he would still practise his kicking with me.”
Raya was staying in digs and on the weekends most of his team-mates would return home. The Spaniard would go to the training ground with a couple of other players who stayed behind and compete against them in head tennis or long ball competitions. Once a week, Steven Drench — the academy’s goalkeeping coach — would challenge his protege to a game of footgolf, too.
To address the concerns about Raya’s size, Blackburn came up with an intense fitness programme. Raya would do multiple gym sessions each week that were focused on bulking up his physique and increasing his power. Keeley would then put him through drills to test the strength in his thighs and “stop him from diving backwards”.
The pair worked a lot on improving his ability to claim crosses, too. Yet, it was not just on the training ground where Raya showed dedication. Blackburn’s staff were impressed with his progress in his English lessons.
During those first few months at Blackburn, Raya’s parents, grandfather and brother would come to visit him, along with Manzano.
Moving a thousand miles from home to another country at 16 could have been overwhelming. Raya complained about the food and the weather, but he was determined to succeed — he had ignored interest from Spanish clubs to go to England and achieve his dream of reaching the Premier League. On one visit, Manzano remembers Raya pestering the coaches after training had finished if they could stay out on the pitch and work with him for longer.
In September 2014, a 19-year-old Raya was sent out on loan to gain experience. He joined Southport, then in the fifth-tier National League, on an initial one-month deal. Southport had only won three of their first 14 matches that season and parted company with manager Martin Foyle following a 5-2 loss at home to Woking.
Gary Brabin was watching from the stands and a few days later, he took charge. Southport were fourth-bottom and part of Brabin’s plan to get them out of relegation trouble was to encourage the team to play out from the back. He found the perfect goalkeeper for that style in Raya.
“I instantly took a shine to David,” Brabin says. “It was rare back then in the lower leagues to get a foreign goalkeeper. I liked the fact he was different. He had a bit about him and he was backing it up with the way he was training.
“He was confident, agile and his feet were unbelievable. Some people go into their shells when they’re performing in a game, but I never thought that with him for a minute. He was unbelievable from that first day of working with him. He could do everything we asked for.
“A few weeks (after Brabin took over), I saw Blackburn’s staff at a game where I was scouting. They asked me how I rated him. I said, ‘Honestly, he is your best goalkeeper at the whole club’. They were taken aback.”
Following Brabin’s appointment and with Raya in goal, Southport went on a six-match unbeaten run in the October and November and started to move away from the bottom of the table. The loan deal was extended until the January and he also helped the Merseyside club through three ties to reach the FA Cup third round, where they drew Derby County away.
Derby were third in the Championship at the time under former England manager Steve McClaren, having lost the previous season’s play-off final, and should have swatted their non-League visitors aside, but Raya put in an incredible performance with a succession of impressive saves.
Although Derby won 1-0, finally finding a way past Raya from the penalty spot three minutes into second-half stoppage time, all of the attention was on Southport’s budding Spanish superstar. Keeley watched that match and believes it was a “defining moment” in the goalkeeper’s career — that was his final appearance for Southport as Blackburn recalled him straight afterwards.
Brabin left Southport himself a couple of weeks after that FA Cup tie to join Everton’s academy setup. He told the Premier League club to take a look at Raya and they did make an enquiry, but by that point, the youngster was part of Blackburn’s first-team plans.
On April 4, three months on from his last match for Southport and with Blackburn safe from relegation but 10 points away from the play-offs, he made his Championship debut away to Leeds United.
“He had put in some really good performances for the reserves,” Keeley says. “We gave him his debut at Leeds and straight away he made an unbelievable save. I honestly believe that gave him the confidence he could perform.
“We all know what his kicking is like — it’s out of this world. But six minutes into the game at Elland Road, he started taking all of the free kicks on the halfway line! He was 19 and it didn’t faze him.”
Manager Gary Bowyer had seen enough and decided to make Raya first choice for the 2015-16 season — even though he didn’t turn 20 until the September.
“His technical ability really stood out,” Bowyer says. “We hadn’t seen somebody that good at that age with the ball at his feet. He was composed and cool with the ball.
“We always questioned his height: ‘Would he be big enough?’. But he more than makes up for that. He has a fantastic work ethic. He does everything right. He wanted to get better and learn. He didn’t take shortcuts. He pushed himself on the training pitch and in the gym.”
However, things did not go according to plan that season. Raya was in the side for the first five league matches and Blackburn failed to win any of them. He was dropped and did not play for the first team again that season. Paul Lambert replaced Bowyer in November 2015, then stepped down at the end of the season after delivering a 15th-place finish.
Owen Coyle took over as manager, but Raya’s chances remained limited. After showing so much early promise, it felt like his career was stagnating.
Coyle was fired the following February with Blackburn second-bottom and under replacement Tony Mowbray they were relegated on goal difference three months later.
That drop down into League One finally prompted the club to put their faith in Raya, though.
He only missed one of the 46 league games in 2017-18 as they secured automatic promotion and was narrowly beaten to the golden glove award by champions Wigan Athletic’s Christian Walton, who kept 19 clean sheets to his 17.
Mowbray kept Blackburn up the following season, which is when Brentford started to take notice of Raya.
Thomas Frank had become Brentford’s head coach in October 2018 when Dean Smith took the Aston Villa job and the Dane was determined to implement a progressive style.
Frank can remember the exact moment he knew the club had to sign Raya: February 2, 2019. Blackburn were the visitors to Griffin Park. Raya started in goal for Blackburn and helped them take a second-minute lead. He collected a cross and initiated a counter-attack by rolling the ball out to midfielder Lewis Travis, a move that ended at the far end of the pitch with Bradley Dack tucking away Adam Armstrong’s cross.
Brentford’s recruitment department and Cana had already extensively scouted the then-23-year-old, but this moment of intelligence and quick thinking erased any doubts they had about his ability. He went on to concede five times that afternoon as Brentford romped to victory, but it did not bother Frank. The goalkeeper’s interactions in the box and his confidence coming off his line stood out compared to the club’s other targets at that position.
The Spanish goalkeeper joined Brentford on a four-year contract that summer for £3million and he signed an extension just over 12 months later until the end of the 2023-24 season. Midway through Raya’s debut season at Brentford, Cana left to become a member of Arteta’s backroom staff at Arsenal.
Raya’s first season in west London was, unfairly, defined by the Championship play-off final.
Brentford and Fulham were goalless after 90 minutes at Wembley and went into extra time. In the 105th minute, Fulham were awarded a free kick 40 yards out.
A member of their coaching staff pointed out to Joe Bryan that Raya had taken up a high starting position. The defender’s set piece deceived him and snuck in at Raya’s near post to give Fulham the lead. They went on to secure a 2-1 win and a place in the Premier League. Arsenal tried to sign Raya that summer at Cana’s insistence, but he stayed at Brentford and helped them get promoted the following season via the play-offs.
When Raya was called up by Spain in March 2022, Frank referenced that Fulham game and the resilience his goalkeeper showed to bounce back from it. “That was devastating for him,” Frank said. “I clearly remember I went to him straight after and said, ‘You just have to be braver and have an even higher position next year and do it better’.
“Then we got to the Premier League, he’s performing unbelievably well in the first eight games, then he had another slap in his face with a big injury. He’s come back stronger on both occasions. That mentality is so important, you’re only building stronger with your setbacks.”
After suffering a knee injury in a 2-1 defeat to Leicester City in October 2021, Raya broke down in tears in his car when the doctors told him how long he would be out. During his time away from the pitch, the club’s goalkeeping coach, Manu Sotelo, kept him stimulated by getting him to do exercises with tennis balls and encouraging him to analyse footage of his performances.
It is no coincidence that Brentford suffered a dip in form when Raya was on the sidelines for four months. They lost nine of the 14 matches he missed, conceding 29 goals. Raya’s return, along with the arrival of Christian Eriksen, stabilised Brentford and they won seven of their final 11 matches to avoid relegation. That form prompted Luis Enrique to hand Raya his debut for Spain in a friendly against Albania. He was an unused member of their squad at the World Cup, too.
Raya was one of Brentford’s standout performers last season and a major driving force behind their ninth-placed finish. He kept clean sheets against Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City and Frank described him as “one of the best keepers in the league”.
Raya was a member of Brentford’s leadership group along with Pontus Jansson, Christian Norgaard and Ivan Toney. He captained the side on multiple occasions and would regularly come to the bench during breaks in play for advice from Frank and Sotelo.
He told The Athletic in February that “keepers see football from behind, so I might see stuff that from the sideline they don’t see, even from the top. Or even the other way around — if they see something that can help me or the team.
“Maybe I have to be higher because (the opponents) are playing balls in behind. Maybe it’s about our defensive set pieces. In the second half, when the substitutes are coming on, I need to know what the new player’s role is going to be. I need to know how to organise the defence and the attack.”
Raya’s leadership will have appealed to Arsenal, but it is the goalkeeper’s passing range which is truly world-class. Following a 3-3 draw with Liverpool in September 2021, Jurgen Klopp described him as a “No 10” because of how he dictates play with his distribution.
Raya caused his new employers a lot of problems when Brentford visited the Emirates Stadium in February as he kept finding Ivan Toney in good positions from goal kicks. He played a crucial role in the striker’s opening goal in a 2-1 victory over Manchester City at the Etihad, too. In the reverse fixture on the final day of the campaign, Raya’s quick free kick caught Pep Guardiola’s side completely off guard and resulted in Ethan Pinnock scoring the winner.
Those moments of intelligence change games and Arsenal will be hoping Raya can provide plenty more of them in their quest to end a 20-year wait to lift the title.
(Top photo: Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)
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