The cynical view of football in the Middle East is that it acts a wealthy retirement home to players who want an easier life but Pablo Hernandez found Qatar to be different. Out there, he was cast as a role model to local footballers; someone to learn from in a country which is staging the World Cup in six years’ time.
When he took the transfer, Hernandez did not think of his move from Swansea City to Al-Arabi as the start of the slippery slope and both last season’s spell with Rayo Vallecano last season and this week’s loan to Leeds United kept him in touch with the bigger stage. He was 29 when Swansea sold him in 2014, a Spain international. There were many who felt Hernandez had more to offer.
“It’s different in Qatar, although I played one year there,” Hernandez said. “It’s different football but the people in Qatar, they are trying to do good things for football because they have the World Cup coming in six years.
“Of course it’s not the same football, not the same level. I know this. But for me it was a great experience because the professional players who go to Qatar – when I arrived they said to me ‘you are an example to the local players’. For me it was a big responsibility.”
At Leeds, Hernandez will have a similar duty. United’s squad is of Championship standard and full of emerging talent but as Hernandez has discovered in the past few days, and as head coach Garry Monk openly admits, the group is an inexperienced one. Now 31, Hernandez is one of Monk’s most senior players. Having played with him and managed him at Swansea previously, he might also be one of Monk’s most trusted.
Hernandez’s spell in Qatar was punctuated by loan spells and he remained in Europe as often as not. After a temporary spell with Al-Nasr in Dubai, he spent most of last season on loan at Rayo Vallecano, back in La Liga four years after leaving Valencia for south Wales. Rayo Vallecano were relegated but Hernandez was back in familiar climes and in a division more befitting of his talent.
“For me, all the people think the Spanish league and the Premier League are the best leagues in the world,” he said. “Rayo Vallecano is a small team but I enjoyed it there. I played many games, and the fans were amazing. The finish was not the best because we went into the second division but it was great to go back to the Spanish league. Now it is the same, coming back to England.”
To Hernandez, English football is the full package – a high standard, historic clubs, large crowds and excellent organisation. The call to him from Leeds was made by Pep Clotet, Monk’s Spanish assistant who also coached Hernandez at Swansea. “When Pep called me about his opportunity I said ‘yes I want to go’,” Hernandez said. United signed him on a six-month loan from Al-Arabi but will convert that deal into a permanent signing in January.
Hernandez was a winger in his earlier years, both at Valencia and Swansea, but Monk has signed him as a number 10, in competition with former Leeds player-of-the-year Alex Mowatt. Pre-season in Qatar started later than United’s and Hernandez completed only two weeks of training before arriving in England. He is available for the first game of the season at Queens Park Rangers on Sunday but admitted his match fitness might not allow him to complete the full match.
At number 10, however, Hernandez will be happy. “In Qatar I played more in the number 10 position,” he said. “I’m ready to play number 10 or as a winger or wherever the boss tells me but number 10 is more like where I’ve played in the last few years.”
The position is, by anyone’s standards, an art-form and the job of specialist. “I think in that position you need to keep calm and keep the ball,” Hernandez said. “If you score many goals then it’s good for the team but more important is to keep the ball – to play fast and play forwards, not backwards, and to play for the team.
“This is a young group with many young players and you need a mix of young players with experienced players. But we’ve have that too.”
Swansea broke their transfer fee to sign Hernandez in 2012 but his time there was hot and cold. Some said that his best form came in the very short period when he played under Monk’s management, just before he left for Qatar.
“I liked his methods for training and for games,” Hernandez said.
“He’s good for the players. He’s calm when you’re on the field. If you look and see your coach looking nervous, it makes the players nervous.”
Nerves will come naturally at Loftus Road on Sunday as Leeds begin their seventh consecutive season in the Championship and Hernandez believes a strong start is crucial.
“There are many teams in the fight to go back to the Premier League but I’m an optimist,” he said. “The group here is good and it’s important for us to start very strong. I know it’s a long competition but the start is very important for your team. Start strong and start good.
“It’s been hard work for me this week because I only trained for two weeks before I came here.
“In Qatar the pre-season starts later. I know it’s difficult for me to play 90 minutes because I’ve not played any games in this pre-season.
“But I’m ready if Garry decides I can play.”