There have been several moments this season that have illustrated the quantum leap Watford have made. Walking away from Everton on the opening day disappointed with a point, for starters. Then there was completely wiping the floor with Liverpool on that memorable afternoon in December and then, without batting an eyelid, the breaking of the club’s transfer record for the second time in six months to sign Nordin Amrabat.
None, though, at least in our eyes, were a patch on a meeting we had with a player on Thursday. And it wasn’t just any old player. In the club’s pristine new media room, which puts those at Chelsea and Everton to shame, Mario Suarez walked in. The same Mario Suarez who scored a goal in a last 16 Champions League tie last season, the one who played against Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo in the next round and the very one who observed the Spain national anthem alongside Isco, Cesc Fabregas and David De Gea against Holland as recently as March.
Here he was talking, in between broad smiles, about his unbridled excitement at joining Watford (yes, little ol’ Watford), how thankful he was at becoming the first player the Hornets have ever laid a private jet on for and how he scrolled through his phonebook and called Radamel Falcao, Thibaut Courtois and Fernando Torres to check on life in the Premier League and living in England. As you do. The fact this dizzying conversation took place with a canvas print of Sir Elton John and Princess Diana as the backdrop only added to the sense of surrealism. We left laughing, laughing at the heady level this largely unheralded club in a corner of south west Hertfordshire is now operating at.
And to top it all off, the most headline-grabbing signing is a damn nice bloke. Unlike most interviewees, who can’t get out of the building quick enough, Suarez sat and chewed the fat long after the tape recorders had been switched off. He even asked the assigned member of the club’s media team when the interview would be published. There maybe a nicer guy in the Watford dressing room but we are yet to meet him.
“It’s an amazing dressing room,” said Suarez. “I speak Italian with Behrami, Spanish with Britos, Paredes and Anya, and English with the other ones.”
Nobody is more qualified to discuss the language of football than Suarez. He came through the famed Spain youth setup at the same time as gold nuggets like Juan Mata, Gerard Pique and Javi Garcia. Suarez was even the nominated penalty taker for the U20 side.
He played more than 160 times for Atletico Madrid during a halcyon period where they, thrillingly, sought to change the balance of power in Madrid. He scored the goal that took their last 16 tie with Leverkusen to extra time and then penalties, and was trusted by Diego Simeone to take a spot-kick in the shootout. He took number two and emphatically found the top corner. He has nerves of steel. Yes, he didn’t make the starting XI for the Champions League final with Real in 2014 but how many can say they have been to a Champions League final let alone been on the bench for one? You are not doing too bad when Koke, Tiago and Raul Garcia are keeping you out of Simeone’s side.
“Simeone and Quique are really similar,” said Suarez. “For both, the team is more important than a player. Simeone wants a team who gives 100 per cent every day in training, in every game. Quique is an amazing coach. He prepares very well for every game, every game is different. He sees a different thing in every opponent. He’s always thinking about how to find weakness in the opponent. He’s always thinking about football. He did amazing things at Getafe, Valencia and Atletico. He’s doing amazing work here in six months. I hope he continues like this and we can continue for a long time.”
Their time together at Atletico was all too brief. Suarez was signed from Mallorca in the wake of the Europa League win over Fulham in 2010 but by the following summer, Sanchez Flores was gone. They’ve remained in touch and, for a while, shared the same agent. Manuel Garcia Quillon, like most top agents, has a long-standing relationship with Gino Pozzo, Watford’s owner. Chief executive Scott Duxbury expertly and efficiently wrapped up the £4.1m deal for Suarez, but it was Sanchez Flores who opened the possibility of signing a player of his calibre.
“I have other offers,” said Suarez, with a nod to the interest in him from West Bromwich Albion, Liverpool and Valencia. “But I made it very clear I wanted to come here from the first time I talked to Quique. It was a dream to come to the Premier League. I was very happy in Atletico but in the summer I didn’t have the real possibility to come to the Premier League. I went to Fiorentina and it wasn’t good. When I speak with Quique the first time I am very clear. And then when I saw Watford on TV I saw they are doing an amazing season. When I watch Watford play I like it. Watford is going in a good direction. They told me about the town, the club, the city the organisation, Gino Pozzo and the project. When I watched the games of Watford you can see it’s a team where nobody is more important than the team. Everyone gives 100 per cent. That is important in football and in life.
Apart from his groomed beard and a touch of grey hair, has Sanchez Flores changed much since Suarez last worked with him?
“He’s speaking English,” Suarez joked. “He’s very similar. He has more experience but he brings the same passion for football. He is passionate about the Premier League when we spoke but he’s passionate about Watford, with the fans. He’s really happy here.”
It’s early days but so is Suarez. After an extended stay at The Grove, he’s about to become a neighbour of Heurelho Gomes, his wife will give birth to their first child in the summer and their beloved French bulldog should arrive from Florence next week.
“My first target is to give my best,” said Suarez who turns 29 next Wednesday. “They gave me four and a half years contract so I want to give my best for the owner, for the club, for the fans. We can do beautiful things here.”
Suarez’s game is not always a thing of beauty. He tries to model himself on a combination of Redondo and Patrick Vieira but his record of 61 yellow cards in five and a bit seasons suggests his game is more like the latter. It took him two and a bit appearances to pick up his first yellow in a yellow shirt on Saturday. But Suarez can give it out as well as take it. He’s as tough as old boots. He was left unconscious following a first-half collision with his own Atletico teammate Cristian Ansaldi in a 5-1 friendly win over Wolfsburg in 2014. Suarez required lengthy treatment and was taken to hospital. The club, in rather alarmist fashion, tweeted he had suffered “a traumatic brain injury”.
“I did it on a Saturday and the next Saturday I played against Real Madrid in the final of the Super Cup,” said Suarez, wondering what all the fuss was about. “It was more [worrying] for my family than me. I don’t remember one moment of it. These things that happen are things of the work we do. My wife and my brother were worried but the doctors and sporting director told my family everything was OK.”
Suarez has a sister and a brother. “My brother used to play but he works in business. My father said he was good but he preferred to not play football.”
Suarez, on the other hand, loves it and we get the feeling it won’t be long before Watford fans love him, too.