David Raya has penned a new two-year Brentford deal, with a club option for an additional 12 months, and joined Arsenal on loan for the 2023/23 campaign.
In this extended interview, which was first published in March 2022, Raya discusses his role as a sweeper keeper and how he became so comfortable with the ball at his feet.
When David Raya received the news that he’d be out for 16 weeks with a knee injury, he returned to his car and burst into tears.
It was a devastating moment for the 26-year-old who had kept three clean sheets during his first nine Premier League appearances.
But it was Raya's bravery with the ball at his feet that was earning him plenty of admirers outside of TW8.
The deepest of deep-lying playmakers, he attempted 300 more passes than any other goalkeeper in the Championship in 2020/21 and continued to pull the strings following our promotion to the Premier League.
The importance of Raya’s positive starting position and pinpoint distribution was highlighted during Brentford's 3-3 draw with Liverpool in September.
Raya had more touches than any of his team-mates during our clash with the 2019 European champions and his diagonal ball to Sergi Canós – which was perfectly clipped over three Liverpool players – began the attack that led to the Bees' second goal.
“They are the best pressing team in the world, so we had a plan that involved hitting it long,” Raya recalls. “It wasn’t just hitting it long for the sake of it but hitting Ivan [Toney] or Ethan [Pinnock] to get us up the pitch. I had to be on it that day. It worked out.”
Jurgen Klopp reserved special praise for the Spanish stopper after the full-time whistle: "The goalkeeper could wear the number 10 shirt,” he said. “He has sent several incredible balls, exactly what you should do when you play against us."
One month later, during the dying embers of Brentford's defeat to Leicester City, Raya sustained a knee injury when rushing out to save at the feet of Ayoze Pérez.
‘Maybe it’s just a twist,’ he thought to himself the following day ahead of a meeting with a specialist. ‘Maybe just a couple of weeks.’ Raya's optimism turned out to be wishful thinking. A long spell on the sidelines awaited him and the timing could not have been crueller.
“It was my first long-term injury,” says Raya. “I always knew I’d eventually get an injury that would keep me out for a long time, but it was tough.
“The first three weeks were the worst. I went home for a while because I couldn’t do anything; I was on crutches and couldn’t bend my knee.
“It’s the small things; it took a long time to walk up the stairs! The sooner you accept the situation, the easier it is to get it done with.
“After that I was stronger because I knew what I was doing and didn’t have the uncertainty of when I was going to be back.”
Forced to spend a long time away from the group, Raya tells me that the mental battle was as challenging as the physical one.
“I came in a bit later and finished at four or five o’clock," he says.
“My whole life changed and I felt lonely because there were days when I didn’t see my team-mates; when they were coming in from training I’d often be doing something else. A lot of the time I wouldn’t even be able to eat with them.”
One person by Raya's side throughout the rehabilitation process was Brentford’s senior physiotherapist, Nick Stubbings. Raya is quick to praise his impact.
“I bought him a nice bottle of Spanish wine, just to say thanks to him. He was mainly in charge of my recovery. He spoke with the consultant and did the treatment and gym work with me. I came back three weeks earlier than expected.
“They [Brentford’s medical team] do everything they can to help the players and help the Club. They’re really, really nice people. I know Stubbo likes wine, so it was nice to find him a Spanish bottle. He can drink it whenever he wants, but I hope he can save a little bit for me!”
Raya made a memorable return to training in January. A grin appears when I ask him about that t-rex costume.
“I had it in my car for a couple of months! Me and my brother were going to do a little prank on our girlfriends when we picked them up from the airport, but we didn’t end up doing it so the costume was still in the car.
“The day I knew I was going to be back on the pitch, the idea just came into my head. I opened my boot to put something in there and saw the costume. I thought it would be a funny moment for everybody if I came out for training as a t-rex!”
The following month saw Raya return to first-team action against Everton, minus the dinosaur outfit. He has played every game since.
Having covered his comeback, our conversation now turns to Raya’s earliest memories of playing football. I’m keen to retrace his steps to understand how his ability on the ball has developed over the years.
“I started as a goalkeeper because I have a brother who is three years older than me and he’d always put me in a goal,” Raya says with a smile.
“I started playing when I was four or five years old for my town, but I always liked to play with my mates outside of that. With my mates, I always played outfield. I enjoyed playing further up the pitch and I think that’s why I’m comfortable on the ball.
“In Spain we have a lot of futsal pitches. Next to my house, on Sundays, there were always young guys playing on the futsal pitch. Five versus five, seven versus seven, winner stays on. I always played outfield in those games with my friends and my brother.”
Raya continued to progress through the ranks at UE Cornellà.
His distinctive accent – Catalan mixed with Lancastrian – provides a clue as to what came next.
When Hugo Fernández made the switch from Cornellà to Blackburn in 2010, an agreement was made between the two clubs that allowed Blackburn to take other players on trial.
Raya's then-goalkeeper coach, Cesar López, encouraged the Ewood Park club to take a closer look at him and, in January 2012, David officially joined Blackburn’s Under-18s.
He admits that swapping Pallejà – his home town, which is a 20-minute drive from Barcelona – for Blackburn, posed a bit of a culture shock.
“I had just turned 16,” Raya recalls. “There was a cloud over Blackburn - it was always raining! It was completely different to home.
“I came to England with my mum and dad. They stayed for a few days, then left. I was lucky enough to have Hugo Fernández there and he was very supportive.
“I lived in a house with house parents. There were two semi-detached houses together. The first-year scholars lived in one house and the house parents lived next door. They worked in Blackburn and looked after us.
“Across the road lived the Mols family. The kids were born in Malaga and Stefan, the youngest, played for Blackburn as well. They would speak Spanish and they are like my family in England. They are my family. I always go and see them and they come down here as well. That was my support. My mum, dad and brothers would try to come every month as well.
“The hardest bit was the weekend. We’d play on Saturdays at 11 o’clock. After that, all of my English team-mates would head home for the weekend. There were three or four of us who would stay. We couldn’t really do anything; we had to be home by nine.
“During the week I was busy with training, English lessons and gym work, but at the weekend I’d be sat in a small room on my own. I was lucky that I could go across the road to the Mols family but it was definitely the hardest part of the week.”
Working with goalkeeper coach, Steven Drench, Raya continued to develop with the ball at his feet following his move to England.
“Steven was very positive distribution-wise. He could kick! He could hit anybody. We worked a lot but I think it’s also something natural for me so it’s easier to learn and then put into practice.
“In the academy, up to the under-21s, it’s more footballing based - you’re taught to play out from the back.”
Raya’s move to England took a great deal of courage – it’s a trait he personifies on and off the pitch and was major factor behind Brentford’s decision to bring him to the club in July 2019.
Such strength of character is a prerequisite for the way that Thomas Frank’s side play football, mainly because it’s not always going to go to plan. No risk, no reward.
Against Manchester City last month, Raya’s pass was seized by Raheem Sterling. He made a top save to deny the England international but Kevin De Bruyne reacted fasted to curl home from the loose ball.
“With football, and everything in life, you can do 100 things right but you’ll always be punished for the one thing you do wrong,” says Raya. “I make mistakes, everyone makes mistakes. To be honest, I don’t care. I try to play the way that we play.
“For the Fulham goal [in the 2020 play-off final], I was in that exact position for every free-kick that season. I claimed so many crosses from there, but of course it was the play-off final so it was always going to be across the media.”
“Against City, we were trying to play out from the back and got caught, these things happen. You learn from them. There are going to be mistakes - goals and passes I could do better for. That’s part of football.
“I know what Thomas thinks and I know what Thomas wants me to do. That’s the main thing. I’m happy with that. There are loads of mistakes all over the pitch but because I’m the last in line, if I make a mistake there’s more of a chance it ends up in a goal.”
During stoppages in play, Raya will often race over to the touchline to speak with Brentford’s coaching staff, including goalkeeper coach Manu Sotelo. His desire to understand the bigger picture – and how he can impact the game – speaks volumes for his leadership and tactical intelligence. In his own words, Raya wants to be “the first attacker and the last defender.”
“What we discuss depends on the moment of the game,” he explains. “Should we play long or short? On goal-kicks, where is the spare man? If we’re hitting long, where shall we do it? My view from the back is completely different to watching the game from the side of the pitch. From the side you see more.
“If there’s a change during the second half, I need to know how it impacts what we’re doing. If Christian comes off, for example, and he’s been on the near post, I need to know who’s then doing that job.
“It’s hard for me to speak with those on the touchline because I’m far away, so I use every opportunity I can get. I’ll have ideas in my head. Shall we try this, shall we try that? I want to help the team as much as possible in every way.”
Having missed so much of the season, I get the sense that Saturday can’t come soon enough for Raya. One thing’s for sure, he’ll have a major part to play between now and the end of the campaign.
“I knew I wouldn’t return at the same level that I was playing at before I got injured,” Raya concludes. “I’m still working on my fitness, my eye on the ball and my passing range.
“The Premier League is the toughest league in the world - it’s so, so difficult. The quality in every squad is incredible. It’s a first season in the Premier League for most of the squad. Before the season started, we had two players who had played in the Prem before, Sergi and Ivan, and they’d only played minutes! We were complete rookies in that sense, but with experience you come to know how hard the division is.
“It’s the focus needed to take it each game at a time. Each game is really important, no matter who we’re playing against. This league is incredible and it’s so difficult to play in, but we’ve shown that we are capable of getting results. I know that we will get the results in the end.”