“He’ll just think that’s his level. That it’s where he belongs. That’s just Robert.” The rise and rise of Robert Sánchez

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“We’re going to try and give you the list, as we do, in an original way. Let’s start with the goalkeepers”.

Spain head coach, Luis Enrique Martínez, stood in a mocked-up changing room, iPad in hand, angling it up to scan the first of a series of QR codes pinned to the wall. On his screen appeared three faces, the first two familiar to the Spanish public — the third not so much, “David de Gea, Unai Simón, Robert Sánchez.”

Brighton and Hove Albion’s Robert Sánchez had never been named in any Spanish squad before, at any level, by any method. Now, barely a year after playing third-tier football, he was suddenly in the running to be part of a major tournament.

In England, congratulations were swiftly posted by former clubs, Forest Green Rovers and Rochdale.

In Spain, the news caught even some seasoned reporters by surprise, and the scramble for information was on.

Google Trends measures search interest on a scale of 0 (‘insufficient data’) to 100 (‘peak popularity’). Once Luis Enrique had made his ingenious reveal, Spanish-based searches for ‘Robert Sanchez’ which had never previously risen above a measure of 5, instantly hit the top of the scale.

Sánchez did not feature in those March World Cup qualifiers but retained his place as the same three goalkeepers were announced in Spain’s Euro 2020 squad at the end of May. What’s more, with Simón and De Gea having both endured complicated ends to their domestic seasons, Cadena Ser’s Antón Meana was soon reporting that 23-year-old Sánchez was not just along for the ride, but that Luis Enrique was seriously considering him as Spain’s first-choice.

Mark Anderson was the man who recommended a 15-year-old Queens Park Rangers prospect called Raheem Sterling to Liverpool. It was in his capacity as Brighton’s Head of Academy Recruitment that his head was turned on a 2014 trip to Valencia. Scouting another prospect on Levante’s youth team, Anderson couldn’t help but notice the boy from Cartagena who stood out with his fine physique and confident use of both feet.

A 17-year-old Sánchez arrived in Brighton with barely a word of English but quickly adapted at a club where Spanish players have a long history of settling well. Another signing from the Valencia goalkeeping scene, albeit an Australian, would take the gloves on Brighton’s promotion to the Premier League. Mat Ryan became a fan favourite for Chris Hughton’s side, often performing heroics behind the equally committed pair of Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk.

Sánchez earned some valuable first-team experience with a loan spell at Forest Green at the start of the 2018/19 season. Despite some errors, his 6ft 5in frame stood up to the physical nature of League Two football and he caught the eye with his willingness and ability to deal with aerial balls.

That loan was curtailed as Ryan’s call up for his national side in the Asian Cup had left Brighton short on cover. The following season, he was back out earning first-team minutes again, this time with a loan to League One Rochdale, under the tutelage of manager Brian Barry-Murphy.

“I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like him in the air before,” Barry-Murphy tells Fútbol es la Leche, relating an away game at Rotherham by way of example. Beset by injuries and forced to field a youthful line-up, Rochdale were bracing themselves for the physical and aerial bombardment that came but weren’t quite expecting the result. “They had 38 crosses in that game, and Robert caught something like 31 of them. By the end, they were just trying to keep the ball as far away from him as possible — the crosses were barely hitting the box.” Against the odds, Rochdale took a valuable three points with the only goal of the game.

Despite not being much of a fan of the Spotland playing surface — “He hated our pitch and our training ground was even worse!” — Sánchez also impressed Barry-Murphy with his ability to play out, “He’s very good with his feet. If teams start bringing huge high pressure, he can just go beyond that. I don’t think we’ve fully seen the range of his passing yet.”

He describes Sánchez as a ‘perfectionist’ when it comes to goalkeeping, even down to the acoustics of a well-timed save. “He used to say to me, ‘Boss, I want the sound when the ball hits my gloves to be perfect’”.

Barry-Murphy hails from a part of Ireland where the people famously do not lack self-confidence. As the joke goes, the Cork person with an inferiority complex thinks they are only slightly better than everyone else. But even Barry-Murphy hadn’t seen anything quite like his young goalkeeper. “Even when we were struggling down the bottom of League One, he’d be telling us he was convinced he’d play for Spain. And we would just say, ‘Yeah, he’s probably right.’”

That self-confidence and larger-than-life personality ruffled the occasional feather in the dressing room. Still, Sánchez was well-liked, particularly with a specific section of the North West public. “Every kid in the region was obsessed with Robert. Honestly, he was like the Pied Piper at times,” laughs Barry-Murphy, “He had so much time for kids, he was always chatting to them or away presenting something or other. Even my daughter absolutely adores him.”

An easily recognisable figure around town, it wasn’t unusual for Sánchez to be recognised in the street and end up extending the chat in a local café.

When lockdown struck and the EFL season was cut short, Sánchez returned to Brighton. There, Graham Potter’s front-foot philosophy was crying out for a different style of goalkeeper. After a 3-0 loss at Leicester in December, Potter turned to Sánchez to replace Ryan, and the team has benefited from Sánchez’s calm presence ever since.  

Plaudits followed, and broader recognition became just a matter of time. Indeed, it became somewhat of a race if reports are to be believed that Gareth Southgate’s England set-up began making serious inquiries about Sánchez’s availability. Regardless, Luis Enrique put the matter to rest, naming Sánchez in that March squad, the first since he had earned the starting spot at Brighton.

While Barry-Murphy thinks Sánchez’s emergence is “a great story”, it’s not something that surprises him. “We always said that once people saw him, it would happen — there’s nothing really like him around. Particularly in Spain.”

A long time admirer of Spanish football, with family ties to Spain, Barry-Murphy is particularly excited to see Sánchez making his international debut.

Asked if Sànchez will be daunted if he was thrown straight into action for one of the world’s biggest football nations in one of the world’s biggest football tournaments, Barry-Murphy is unequivocal: “He’ll just think that’s his level. That it’s where he belongs. That’s just Robert.”

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