“In the end, what happened to us last year was very useful for us not to repeat it this year,” confesses Kiko Casilla. The Catalan goalkeeper has been part of the squad that has returned Leeds United Football Club to the Premier League, 16 years later. In a year and a half at the English club, the Tarragona native has experienced both sides of the coin.
He was part of Real Madrid’s squad and had more than a year left on his contract. Why did you decide to leave for Leeds?
I thought my stage there was over, there was nothing more to do, and more so when they signed Courtois. I was like when I was twenty, a third goalkeeper, and I couldn’t see myself anymore. The English league had always caught my eye and I thought my goalkeeper profile might fit quite well here. It was a very difficult challenge: trying to get a team up after sixteen years of not being in the Premier League. I played it a bit and accepted, and in the end it cost a lot but after a year and a half it was possible to get to the Premier.
Leeds we could say is the opposite place in the world in Alcover, right?
I’m not used to it yet. No one gets used to it, especially when you are on the coast and like to see the sun and the sea. It’s hard, it’s not easy, not by a long shot. It’s the worst I’ve brought here. And not just me, but my wife and children. You can be three weeks without seeing the sun, or a month. And these three weeks are spent raining all day. In the end it’s this, get used to it or you’re fucked.
Last year they were about to advance to the Premier League but lost the last game of the Premier League play-off. Now how do they see this situation?
Last year was very hard. We had to play it and it couldn’t be done. This year it was yes or yes. This year, moreover, is the year of the centenary and making a great year was very important for the club. The project with Marcelo Bielsa was as follows: this year we either did what we did or everything was in great danger, and not only the project, but the club financially. It was all or nothing. We had a lot of pressure. Either we went up or the team could have a really bad time from now on, because it’s not the same to play in the Championship as in the Premier.
It has also been a difficult season.
It has cost a lot because it is also a very long league, and about this year with everything that has happened to the virus, because even longer and more difficult. Before we were very good, and before the virus we had 5 or 6 consecutive games winning and we saw that there were 8 games left and we saw it quite on track. And then everything comes to a standstill because of the virus and you have to start again from scratch. And looking at last year, which was just the last month when we did it wrong, the ghosts come back to you a little bit.
In addition, they have had to stop due to the pandemic.
In normal seasons you stop for a month and you already notice it and you find it hard to start again, imagine now that we have been two and a half months, three, without doing it. Yes, it is true that we had very good control over the subject of the physical trainers who sent us everything. But in the end what changes the most is the day-to-day of not training with your teammates. But hey, I think the team came back well. The first week, ten days, cost, of course, but we quickly picked up the momentum.
He personally experienced an unusual situation. The federation sanctioned and fined him on charges of racist insults to a rival without clear evidence. How did this decision affect you?
It affects you a lot, and it was a very long process. This happened around November or so, and it took almost five or six months to make the sanction. And of course, during these months because the press fucked me a lot. And then you go to the stadiums and they tell you things that you are not and that in the end mentally affects you a lot. And aside from that, when you know that of all that is said and said there is nothing true it hurts you even more. And when they finally punish me they do it because I allegedly said something. Nor have they been able to prove it. To me this is injustice. But you are not in your country, you have to shut up and move on.
The club and teammates supported him.
Totally. Also, knowing this that I was having a bad time and not only here in England but also in Spain my former teammates, coaches, a lot of people have turned their backs on this and you realize that you are not as bad as they say.
There is no doubt that one of the protagonists of this promotion is his coach, Marcelo Bielsa. What is it like working with him?
He is a very intense coach. He likes everything to go very well, always training 100%, he never lets you breathe. It is always maximum and total requirement. If Marcelo had not had this intensity when training the matches, they would not have come out the way they did. As a coach there are difficult days, like everywhere, but now you see him with the satisfaction that has remained and you see that all that he did, that sometimes you may like more or less, in the end is for an end .
This intensity does not have to be easy to assimilate at times.
You see it and assimilate it. There is no more, or you assimilate it or you assimilate it. (laughs) He’s picky… It’s a 47-game league, very long, and he knows when to lower the piston a bit and when not. But when it can and should be done, as you go to the maximum. In the end you get used to it. Yes, it is true that at first you are a little surprised by everything because maybe you are not used to training styles that you have never done and it is difficult for you to take it and get used to it. But when you get the hang of it, it’s okay.
Sixteen years later, Leeds are a Premier League team. How was the celebration?
It’s been three days on the street since we went up, from what we’ve seen on social media it’s been three days in a row non-stop. Clearly it’s not the time to do it, but let’s see who tells someone not to celebrate. See how Marcelo hugged the players, how this weight has been removed. It was an ara mai. See how you saw them a year ago suffering and crying for not being able to climb and now you see them as we have achieved it.
Espanyol, of which he was part, is now just the opposite of what he is experiencing.
I have experienced similar situations, perhaps not as difficult as the one we have experienced this year. I know what they must have heard and it is a very difficult situation. With this pressure to see that you can go down it is very difficult. It hurt me a lot, not only because it’s another parakeet, which I consider myself, but also because I have a lot of friends in there, on the team.
The fact that four coaches have passed through the bench I guess has not helped either.
The club with the change of coach what he is looking for is a reaction. What happens sometimes is that for years everything goes wrong for you. This year they were playing UEFA and look. They have lived good and bad in months. You start to be down there, you’re not well, you change coach, you keep going and things don’t go well and for things you lose pertusses and you don’t add up… All this gets stuck inside you and it’s getting harder and harder to play and you play very tense. And in the end what happened has happened.