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  • Writer's pictureThom Harris

Dani Parejo: A winding journey to the perfect destination

For a player who makes the game of football look so effortless, Dani Parejo’s rise to the top has been anything but.

A style so languid, a technique so smooth, a talent so prodigious – with four international appearances and two Champions League goals – it all just feels as if it could have been so much more. Yet, as this majestic midfielder approaches the twinkling twilight of a 16-year career – even with the club of his heart in the rear-view mirror – it finally seems as if Dani Parejo has found a place to settle. A peaceful place, just 60 kilometres up the coast, where football comes first. All that he ever wanted before.

High praise, higher expectations…

Right from the start, the boy from Cosleda had the world at his feet. By the age of 16, Real Madrid legend Alfredo Di Stéfano had already labelled a spindly, ponytailed Parejo as the best player in the club’s academy, a “phenomenon”. By 18, he was pulling on the famous white shirt at a professional level, representing Real Madrid Castilla in Segunda, alongside the likes of Juan Mata and Álvaro Negredo. Things seemed to be going as planned.

However, while Mata moved east to Valencia and Negredo south to Almería to continue their footballing education on Spanish shores, Parejo suddenly found himself at Loftus Road. Making 18 fruitless appearances for Iain Dowie’s Queens Park Rangers at the age of 19, while Di Stéfano boycotted Real Madrid B-team games in protest of the loan deal, it was a move perhaps emblematic of the inconsistency that would characterise a tumultuous career. Returning to the capital early to warm the first-team bench for the rest of the season, his brief spell in London marked the first of many frustrating twists and turns for Parejo. He left Los Blancos the following season as heated discussions raged on in his wake.

His next adventure made rather more sense, as the youngster followed his former coach Míchel to Getafe in 2009. Providing two assists to a young Roberto Soldado on his first ever LaLiga start, he would slot right into a dynamic midfield, contributing seven goals as Los Azulones finished sixth, qualifying for the UEFA Europa League. And with 22 starts across the season, racking up nearly 2000 minutes of first-team football, the midfielder finally got some precious time in the Spanish spotlight. The season that followed, another filled with flashes of brilliance, was the one that tempted Valencia to take a €6 million chance. The rest, as they say, is history.

A Valencian love-affair

Almost to prove Di Stéfano further correct, Parejo’s arrival at Valencia, to cover for the departing Juan Mata – with his ex-Real Madrid Castilla teammate on his way to join Chelsea for £23 million – was one more damning indictment of an early loan move that put him a year or two behind his talented peers. His first season at Mestalla, marred by nightmarish performances, drink-driving charges and family outbursts, were further symptoms, perhaps, of a bumpy progression to the pressures of top-level, first team football.

Quickly becoming a scapegoat for Valencia’s slip and slide out of the top three, it looked as if Parejo’s career in Spain’s third city could have been over before it really began. Yet, testament to an ever-hardening outer shell, the midfielder began to claw his way into the side – turning 357 minutes across 13 games under Mauricio Pellegrino into 15 consecutive 90 minutes under Ernesto Valverde, in the second half of the 2012/13 season.

Nonetheless, the revolving doors continued to spin at the club. Seven managers came and went over the three years that followed, as Parejo battled yet more dizzying off-the-pitch instability while trying to establish himself on it. The 63-game stint of Nuno Espírito Santo was the midfielder’s most prolific spell, as the Portuguese coach made the 25-year-old club captain at the start of the 2014/15 season. An impressive 11 goals and eight assists followed, as he sharpened his ability to time those late runs into the area, perfecting too his trademark, rolled finish into the bottom corner, and his devastating set-piece deliveries.

Once again, though, just as things seemed to be looking up, Espírito Santo’s resignation and Gary Neville’s appointment dragged Parejo back down to earth. Stripped of his captaincy, bearing the brunt of the criticism for every defeat, heckled in the streets, and pushed closer and closer to an exit, Parejo was kept out of the team by Neville’s successor Pako Ayestarán – who himself only lasted 12 games. It was only the arrival of Parejo’s 11th coach at Valencia that saved him from the brink. Marcelino García Toral.

Selling his vision, the new manager made the now 28-year-old the centre of his plans. A new role, slightly deeper alongside Geoffrey Kondogbia or Francis Coquelin – demanded that the midfielder control the game in possession, and hassle and harry without it. A more physical, fired-up Parejo emerged, reinstated with his captaincy, as he contributed seven goals and eight assists in a remarkable redemption season, so soon after all had seemed lost.

Valencian journalist Paco Polit, however, earmarks Marcelino’s second season as Parejo’s “career-defining” campaign. That new, fierce determination was embodied by the “legendary January tweet”, defiantly stating his belief in his teammates, refusing to give up on the season despite sitting in 11th place after 19 games. In addition, Paco underlines his “amazing” performance in the Copa del Rey final, limping off after 65 minutes in tears – his 56th appearance of the season. Leading the side to a fourth-placed finish, and lifting the club’s first trophy since 2008 – for Paco, it was the season that saw Dani Parejo “become a legend of the club”.

Marcelino’s inexplicable sacking, however, just three months after that cup win and a second consecutive fourth-placed finish, proved to be one twist too many for Parejo. His vocal support for his former manager, as well as for general manager Mateu Alemany, saw him on Peter Lim’s blacklist. “Meriton gave away some of their flagship players in order to suffocate the residual resistance against Lim’s decision making”, Paco affirms, leading to the shock sale of Parejo and Coquelin to Villarreal – for a combined total of €13 million. And so, just like that, nine years and 363 appearances at Valencia came to an end, with an official club statement of just 72 words adding a final pinch of salt to an already stinging wound.

A fresh start

Even as he posed for pictures in his new yellow shirt, the tears looked as if they had barely dried. Yet, as the games passed by in Villarreal, and as Dani Parejo began to feel footballing peace, at last, things started to look up once more. “There isn’t an atmosphere here like there was in Valencia,” said Parejo. “ I used to wake up thinking about what would happen today or tomorrow, because every week there was a problem. I’ve freed myself a bit, and I’m enjoying it.”

A small-town club on an earth-shattering European adventure, Villarreal couldn’t suit the midfielder much better. Stability and consistency at the highest level – where he deserves to be - with a style of football built around his quality on the ball, Unai Emery’s possession-based machine has given the midfielder one last chance to shine. And, with that unbelievable Europa League triumph last season, along with this campaign’s dazzling Champions League run, it feels as if Parejo’s understated brilliance is finally being understood across the globe.

Whenever he receives the ball on the half-turn, you can almost hear the metronome tick, the clogs turn. Slowing the game down, pulling players towards him before twisting and turning into space. Dropping the shoulder, nipping into pockets, dictating and changing the tempo of the entire game – so alluring and enchanting to watch, yet so devious and wicked to defend. A curious technique – fluid, lilting, almost nonchalant. A goal last season at home to Real Sociedad sums it up; hitting a bouncing ball in his stride that almost moves in slow motion as it glides towards the top corner, only revealing its true power as it crashes into the net. Countless free-kicks over the years, sent flying past despairing goalkeepers, all as he leans back – laughing in the face of coaches across the world.

As Villarreal social media officer Thomas McIlroy attests, everything goes through Dani Parejo. “He’s a very intelligent player, he’s always in control – Unai Emery always speaks about how he wants to dominate the game, and Parejo is really key in that respect. Not only that, but he’s really starting to contribute in terms of goals and assists, arriving in the box at the right time. When he’s on form, Villarreal tend to be on form as well, so he’s arguably one of the most important, if not the most important player in Emery’s system.”

The stats back Thomas up. With the third-most key passes in the league – 30 more than any of his teammates, 180 passes into the final-third - 44 more than any colleague, and the second-most progressive passes of anyone in LaLiga, his ability to drive Villarreal forward is unmatched. On top of creating 36 chances from dead-ball situations, and sitting fifth for expected assists, his creativity is bolstered by 99 switches of play, underlining his vital role when it comes to dictating his side’s attacking intent, taking the initiative to move the ball around the midfield and to provide a reliable, versatile outlet in the middle of the park.

What could have been

With his second-ever Champions League goal kicking things off against Juventus last month, helping to set up a mouth-watering tie with Bayern Munich this week, the boy from Cosleda finally looks to be fulfilling a long-awaited destiny. A player so remarkably, brilliantly simple, dragged on the most complicated of career tracks, you just have to wonder what would have become of Dani Parejo, and indeed of Valencia, had a few important people just been given a little bit more time.

Nevertheless, while his Valencian epic ultimately came to a bitter end, it was a story for the ages, and a story that will be remembered fondly, despite everything, by all involved. And, while Villarreal might never truly be the club of his heart, at 32 years old, they may well, finally, be the club that he was looking for. The club that he has always needed.

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