There is a mantra that the coaches and players of the UD Las Palmas academy live by: sleep with the ball and wake up with the books.
In order to steer the youngsters of the academy towards the professional level, it’s necessary to put in the hours, to retain a passion for the ball and to study too.
This is especially the case at La Casa Amarilla – The Yellow House, in English – which is the UD Las Palmas residency, a property two kilometres from the Estadio Gran Canaria where roughly 20 teenagers from outside Las Palmas stay at any one time. There, they live, train and study together, hoping to make it in the world of football.
At The Yellow House, there are several inspirational posters on the wall, showing the alumni of the UD Las Palmas academy who have gone on to achieve big things. These role models include Juan Carlos Valerón, Rubén Castro, Roque Mesa, Jonathan Viera, Vitolo and Sandro, as well as Pedri, the FC Barcelona midfielder who stayed at the residency just a few years ago.
So many of these players have a creative style and that’s not a coincidence. Manuel Rodríguez ‘Tonono’, the long-time director of recruitment and training at the academy, explained why, stating: “We have always been associated with talented and creative players, those who like to have the ball. For me, it’s essential to encourage spontaneity and creativity. We can’t restrict the freedom and initiative of the youngsters. I think this is something we have to pay a lot of attention to, especially nowadays, when the game is played less and less in the street, because the street is still the great university of the development process. Logically, we must introduce quality to the process, but all while promoting creativity and spontaneity to lead to a more creative style.”
This creative style is part nature and part nurture. Explaining how the academy coaches can play their part, Tonono added: “In the early stages, we put emphasis on learning to play the ball through the game, with the player beginning to analyse, decide and execute, which are three fundamental aspects in the training process. The youngster then begins to play, to learn how to play football and to dominate space, time and trickery.”
Promoting creativity and maintaining youthful passion for the sport is absolutely vital at Los Amarillos’ academy, hence the slogan that all the youngsters know by heart. As Tonono stated: “Mozart would say that when he stopped playing the piano for one day, he noticed it. When he stopped playing for several days, others noticed it. So, we have a slogan that is sleep with the ball and wake up with the books. If a youngster really wants to reach the professional level, there’s a need to spend a lot of hours with the ball and we mustn’t get in the way of this creativity as we should encourage spontaneity and decision making.”
Essentially, the approach of the coaches at UD Las Palmas is to intervene infrequently but decisively. On this, Tonono added: “I always say that there are three main enemies in the learning process: fear, boredom and, sometimes, the coach. That is why we, although it may seem very harsh, have to avoid being terrorists in that process. I think this is essential to encourage creativity at all stages, but especially in the early stages, in what we call the initial stage and the elementary stage.”
Academies across Spain are currently receiving extra investment thanks to the Boost LaLiga initiative, and Tonono is keen for these funds to go towards hiring and training the best coaches, as well as improving the facilities.
Discussing investment in the UD Las Palmas academy, the director explained: “I think it’s essential and I think LaLiga clubs should be very happy with Boost LaLiga. For those of us who have been immersed in this world for many years, we really think it’s the right thing to be doing and it’s something to celebrate. The great club investments aren’t only in physical infrastructure, which LaLiga is also promoting and which I’m very happy about, but also in coaches, in the people who inspire, who have passion, who have knowledge and who have the ability to transfer that knowledge.”
Recruiting talents like Pedri from the Canary Islands and beyond
It’s clear that UD Las Palmas have a methodology that works and that helps produce some of the most expressive and talented players in Spanish football. However, it’s also important for the club to recruit well.
Currently, UD Las Palmas have agreements with 112 clubs from across the archipelago. Most are clubs on Gran Canaria, but there are also some from Fuerteventura, Lanzarote, El Hierro, La Gomera and Tenerife. On the relationship with these smaller and neighbouring academies, the UD Las Palmas director said: “We consider ourselves as a leader in football in the Canary Islands and, for us, it’s essential that we have a connection with grassroots and regional football. Logically, we have to be very involved and cooperate. We don’t want extortion agreements; rather, we want to have cooperation agreements, because we learn a lot from these clubs.”
There are even some players who move from the Spanish mainland to The Yellow House, which is testament to the academy’s excellent reputation. In any case, Los Amarillos don’t bring in players until they reach the cadete level, which is 15 years of age, as they believe it is better for players younger than that to remain in the family environment.
This was the case with Pedri, who grew up on the island of Tenerife but who UD Las Palmas kept a close eye on for many years. When he was the right age, he was brought in to The Yellow House, before he quickly rose to the first team and later earned a transfer to FC Barcelona, a place in the Catalan side’s starting XI and a starring role for the Spanish national team.
Tonono is proud of what Pedri has achieved and believes there are others in the academy who can also reach professional football in the next few years. He said: “Pedri has the creativity and magic of a Magic Johnson and the precision of a pool player. There are a number of very good players who I hope can reach the professional level and whose talent I hope we can enjoy, with their creativity and their style. I hope that they continue to develop naturally.”
The Pedri example sums up the success of the UD Las Palmas academy. They recruit well, educate their players and promote them at the right time, producing talented and creative footballers.
For Tonono, this is exactly what UD Las Palmas must continue doing. As he concluded: “There is a key triangle which is to recruit well, to educate well and to promote well. There are many clubs that work very well in scouting and training, but their efforts might not blossom because they don’t promote well. For us, it’s essential for this triangle to be unbreakable, not broken on any side.”