Brentford goalkeeper David Raya says he has enjoyed every moment of his journey to the Premier League and pinpoints a loan move to Southport as an important step.
The 25-year-old will make his first topflight appearance against Arsenal tonight, which is a million miles away from where he started his time in English football, down in the National League.
Raya states the move helped to shape him as a player and believes others should take a similar path.
He said: “I reached where I am now because of that loan. You can’t compare it to the Premier League, but it’s just as important. It’s what football is all about. It shows anything can happen in football if you work hard and follow your dreams.
“Young players should see that side of things to make them realise how lucky they are to play football. When you have to fend for yourself down the leagues, it makes you appreciate things a lot more.”
The Spanish goalkeeper first arrived in England as a 16-year-old when he signed for Blackburn Rovers and admits it was difficult arriving at a new club and having to get used to multiple changes in his life.
“The first few months were tough, but I knew I needed to adapt. I moved here in January, so the weather was awful, and the days were very short. It was also a different country with a new language and new people.
“It made me mature a lot quicker than most people my age and made me the man I am right night. I have values now, which I wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Even as a teenager, Raya was keen to play first team football, and decided a loan move away from Blackburn was the best thing for his career.
“I wanted to be tested every week, I was at the stage where I needed proper football because under 21s wasn’t helping me, it was a bit fake and too easy.
“Having the chance to play proper men’s football was very special for me. I enjoyed every single minute at the club and have nothing bad to say about them. The fans were incredible and treated me like one of their own.
“It is impossible to forget being in the lower leagues because you discover what the bonuses means to the lads, as they had bills to pay or another job on the side. It made me realise how lucky I was to be playing at a professional level.”
Raya admits he knew very little about the Merseyside club or non-league football before heading to Haig Avenue in 2014.
“I didn’t know where it was or what league they were in, I’d never heard of them, but I was impressed with everything they were doing at the time.
“On my first day I didn’t know what to take. I didn’t have my own towel or my kit because I was used to having it cleaned for me. I was a little bit lost, but it made me change my values. It’s not as pretty as it looks on the outside, and it is more than just football.”
One of Raya’s standout games for Southport was an FA Cup third round tie against Derby County at Pride Park.
This was the final game of his loan spell and he put in an impressive display despite a late defeat to a Chris Martin penalty.
“Everyone played really well, even though we lost, it was a remarkable game, and it was very important to me. We gave it our all because we had nothing to lose, and we showed what we were capable of. Every time I go back there (to Pride Park), the memories return, so it’s nice to relive.
“Even if we had got the replay, I wouldn’t have been able to play in it because I went back to Blackburn. I remember the U21s were playing, and the gaffer used me as an example. When I made my debut, he told me: ‘you earnt this through the hard work you put in.’
“The Derby game made the boss realise I was ready to take that step into the first team.”
In 2019 Raya made the move to his current club Brentford, which is something he hasn’t regretted.
“It was a good chance to carry on with my career. I felt I had become too comfortable at Blackburn and needed a new challenge with a team who plays out from the back, which is my style.
“As soon as I stepped through the door you could see the club was on the rise and wanted to move forward. I was very impressed. We have got better each season and hopefully it’ll be the same this year.
“I like to live with no regrets and just live with my decisions. If I make a mistake, then I make a mistake. If you don’t try, then you don’t learn. If you don’t fail, then you don’t learn. That’s the only way to success.”
Brentford reached the Championship playoff final in 2020, but fell short against Fulham, which Raya says was hard to come to terms with.
“Mentally it was hard, but we had to move on. The staff did a great job. People asked if we had ‘fear’ in the playoffs again, but we had a year more experience and knew what to do.”
In this year’s playoffs, Brentford showed grit and determination as they came from behind to win the two-legged semi-final against Bournemouth, before beating Swansea in the final to reach the top flight.
“We showed the same character that we had all season. Believing in yourself is important, because if you don’t then no one else will. You need to have confidence in yourself in a tough moment, especially when completing your goal at Wembley, where you dream of playing as a kid.”
Raya believes having patience has helped progress throughout his career, and states he was always confident he’d reach this point.
“I knew my time would come at some point and that I would play in the Premier League, no matter how long it took. It was an aim I had when I came over to England, and all the hard work has paid off. Completing my dream is something I will never forget.
“I am proud, but I couldn’t have done it without the people around me, it’s a good moment for everyone.”
Despite the new campaign kicking off tonight, Raya says he’s only just come to terms with being a Premier League player.
“During the summer I didn’t really sink in, but since coming back after the break I have realised what we have done.
“We are just going to be ourselves. We will attack and take it game by game, session by session. We want to do well and stay up, not just to be relegated again. We can’t wait to start, but most importantly the fans are also back. This is for them, this is who we play for.”
Written By Amos Wynn
Photos By Julia Urwin
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