Friday 13 August 2021. An ‘I was there’ kind of day.
Arsenal are the visitors to TW8 for our first top flight game in more than seven decades. Under the lights and in front of a capacity crowd at Brentford Community Stadium, the stage is set for someone to make themselves a hero.
The Bees have started with purpose against their North London opponents. Midway through the first half, Ethan Pinnock nods down to on the left side of the penalty area. The Spaniard takes a quick look up and jinks to the right. You know what happens next…
Our first goal in the top tier since Len Townsend’s strike against Sunderland in May 1947, the scorer could not have been more fitting. One of our longest-serving players, Sergi won the hearts of Bees fans while on loan from Liverpool in 2015/16 and returned permanently in January 2017 after a brief stint at Norwich City. It proved to be a homecoming. Armed with dogged determination and an infectious smile, the 24-year-old has been a constant at Jersey Road during a period of great change.
While it had been a 74-year wait for Brentford, Sergi’s own experience of top flight football had come more recently. The winger made his debut for Liverpool in May 2016 as a late substitute during The Reds’ 1-1 draw with West Bromwich Albion on the final day of the Premier League season.
It would be his one and only appearance for Jürgen Klopp’s side. With First Team opportunities at a premium, leaving Merseyside was a necessary step in the journey. Sometimes you have to take one step back, to take two steps forward.
Thanks for talking to us, Sergi! You’ve just finished a photoshoot with EA for FIFA 22. You’re playing it a lot cooler than we would be, but it’s going to be such a buzz to see your face in the game, isn’t it?
To be doing these things is fantastic. We are around the best now. I had to take pictures to show to my family! I’ve been playing FIFA for a long time now – it’s always interesting to see the rating they give each of us! It’s going to be so good to see our faces properly in the game. I don’t play the other boys in the squad as they’re too good! Vitaly [Janelt] is very good and Marcus [Forss] also.
You were 16 when you moved to Liverpool. Steven Gerrard, Philippe Coutinho, Raheem Sterling and Luis Suárez were all in the squad at that time. What was it like to be around those players?
It was amazing. The atmosphere they’d created and the winning mentality they had was crazy. I was with the Under-18s, I wasn’t with the First Team much, but I remember training with those players sometimes. The mentality of Luis Suárez and Steven Gerrard was unbelievable. Gerrard would be making sliding tackles on everyone on a Monday morning! He wanted to win the small-sided games, no matter what. It didn’t matter who they’d played on a Saturday, come the Monday they were straight back on it. To see Gerrard and Suárez on a Monday giving it everything was quite shocking – that’s why they are where they are.
All of the First Team players were brilliant with me. Gerrard came to me on my first day to welcome me to the Club. If I needed anything, he was there. During one session [Daniel] Sturridge shared his water bottle with me, which was very nice of him! I was only a boy, I didn’t know if I should drink or not drink, and he came to me and offered me water. Those days were quite nice.
Even as a young player in the Under-18s set-up, could you feel the pressure and expectation that came with playing for a club of that size?
It’s just so professional at Liverpool. I’d come from Barcelona, but at the stage I was just a kid playing football and going to school. When I got to Liverpool, it was training, gym and games – we had to win and if you didn’t perform, you didn’t play. It all happened at once for me. The language was a big challenge as well. I remember thinking, ‘This is football, it’s not about having fun anymore’. I realised quickly that these were the levels I was going to need to maintain to become a professional footballer.
It was Jürgen Klopp who gave you your Premier League debut against West Bromwich Albion in May 2016. What are your memories of that day and the period building up to it?
It was very nice. I was told by Klopp after training that I’d be in the squad for the West Brom game. They had some injuries, and the Europa League Final against Sevilla the following week, and I’d been pushing hard in training after my loan here [at Brentford]. It’s two weeks I’ll never forget. The intensity that Klopp and Pep [Pepijn Lijnders] have in training is fantastic and the squad is completely together – it’s like a family. I know that it’s Liverpool, they are one of the biggest clubs in the world, but under Thomas [Frank] at Brentford we are doing similar things that I remember from my time at Liverpool. Thomas’ mentality is very similar. It was fantastic to make my debut at West Brom with my family in the stands – I will never forget that.
Liverpool finished eighth that term – the sixth time in seven seasons they’d finished outside the top five – but they’ve since had great success under Klopp, winning the Champions League in 2019 and the Premier League the following campaign. Did you sense that he was building something during your time there?
Klopp likes to help the players and have a good relationship with them. He and his staff do a fantastic job; to have a family atmosphere at such a big club is not easy to achieve. You could feel that something was building at Liverpool.
When Thomas first took the team here, we didn’t win for ten or 11 games, but after his first season you could feel that something was going on. It was the same at that time at Liverpool; you could see in training that Klopp was doing things that were going to benefit the club in the future, everyone just needed to be patient.
It must have been a tough decision to leave after three years with the club…
I knew that I had to take one step back to take two steps forward. My grandad didn’t like it! He didn’t want me to leave Liverpool - they’re a big club and that offers a lot of stability – but it was the right decision.
Has the Play-Off Final and everything that has followed given you a feeling of validation that you made the right call in leaving Liverpool?
No, I knew it was the right decision when I joined Norwich. Even when I wasn’t playing there six months after I signed, I knew it was the right decision. I’m so thankful for everything Liverpool did for me, and I’m so grateful they let me go; to become who I am today, I had to leave. It was very difficult to be a regular player for the First Team at Liverpool, so I thought it was the right decision at the time, one month later, two months later and today. I have no doubts. I’m so grateful for how Liverpool treated me while I was there, but I had to move on.
You’re one of our longest-serving players, having signed permanently in January 2017. That must make everything that’s happening right now even more special for you…
Don’t forget, we were not only promoted because of the football we played, it’s because of the strength of the relationships everyone has at the Club. Inside the Club, the players and the staff have a relationship that is just fantastic. We are more than just team-mates and staff - we are family and we are friends. That’s what got us promoted, and that’s why it means so much to everyone. Brentford gave me the opportunity to be a professional footballer and I’m so, so thankful for that. Being promoted with this group of players and staff – the physios, the media guys – we are all one. You got goosebumps when I scored against Arsenal, and I got goosebumps when Ivan [Toney] scored during the Final at Wembley. We have been building together for a long time.
You come from a close-knit family. How much do they motivate you and how special was it to share the Play-Off experience with them last season?
They are everything. Thomas, Brian [Riemer], Pontus [Jansson] and the boys always ask me before the game, ‘Are your family here?’ They know that if my family are at the game I’m going to play well! [Laughs] That basically explains everything. I recovered from the ACL injury thanks to them. What I have, and what I have achieved, I owe to them. I wouldn’t be anyone without them. I thank God that I can share my experiences with them because that makes it even more special.
They try to be here all the time. During the COVID situation it’s been quite difficult, but my mum lives in Liverpool and my sister lives in Leeds – she’s at uni there – so they try to be around me a lot. We are a group and we have to be together all the time, it’s how it has to be.
You said in a previous interview that you’re a “bit of a dreamer”. That Arsenal game was the stuff of dreams, wasn’t it? Talk us through the emotions of that night…
In the dressing room before the game, I had that feeling inside of me: ‘Are we ready or are we not ready?’ Full house, Arsenal, first game in the Premier League. As a kid I remember going to a restaurant in my hometown to watch Barca against Arsenal in the Champions League Final. [Thierry] Henry was playing. All of sudden, I find myself playing against them. Our pre-match meeting is about them. In the end, we left the dressing room and played our game. We had a plan and we made it happen. It was an unforgettable night. We will always remember our first game in the Premier League.
The sound of the ball hitting the net… I just lost it. I wasn’t thinking. I remember jumping and sliding on my knees. The boys came and joined me. I saw my uncles in one of the boxes, jumping around with Spanish flags.
I just wanted to play more in that moment. Then we scored the second goal and the stadium was as one. The singing, everything. It was amazing. It wasn’t until I got home that I realised how big it was, what we did that day. I couldn’t sleep that night - it was six in the morning and I was still texting my family! Everyone in Spain was watching the game and I got so many messages from the fans.
That might be the greatest knee slide we’ve ever seen!
I regretted the celebration straight away! I saw the clock, it was on 22 minutes, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, now I have to play 70, 75 minutes!’ I felt it straight away! I had to play the rest of the game with my knees all over the place! There’s no money that you could pay to experience that moment. If you told me five or six years ago that this was going to happen, I would not have believed you. But that is gone, now I want to live more moments like that. It’s like an addiction.
How do you come back down to earth after a night like that?
That weekend was quite mad, but then Monday arrived and we had to have the attitude that nothing had happened. It’s quite difficult but you have to find balance; when you win and you score you’re not [Lionel] Messi, when you lose and you perform badly you’re not the worst player in the world. That’s the challenge and that’s what has taken us to where we are now.
You’ve featured on the right of a back five this season. You’ve done it before, but it’s one thing playing there in the Championship and another in the Premier League. How have you found it?
Well, I’m finding it difficult, but I’ve prepared myself physically and mentally after my injury to play at this level. Before the injury, I didn’t know where I was going; I didn’t have a base and I didn’t want to work hard enough. I’m honest about that. Now I know who I want to be and where I’m going and that’s so important. The way I’m working now, the way I’m trying to focus myself, I think I’m a pretty good defender actually! I listen to Brian and Thomas and do the best job I can.
How much of an impact has Brian made from a defensive point of view?
He’s fantastic, one of the best coaches I’ve ever trained with. The intensity is outstanding – there’s no days off. The mentality he’s put into Brentford is amazing; we enjoy defending now. It’s the attitude you must have to face this challenge. It all comes from Thomas and Brian and it’s taken this team so far. When I was here five years ago, you wouldn’t have thought that about us. We were scoring goals but losing games. Now we know that if we score three goals, we’ll win the game. You have to.