Isco to Vardy and back again - how Charlie I'Anson became English pioneer in Spain
Murcia (Spain) (AFP)
There are twice as many footballers from the island of Curacao playing in England's top divisions as there are English players in Spain but Real Murcia's Charlie I'Anson is happy to be in the minority.
I'Anson, born in Luton and brought up in Malaga, is one of three Englishmen to have kicked a ball this season in Spain's top three tiers, including its lowest, Segunda B, which spans into four separate leagues.
"Players from England often ring me up," I'Anson said, in an exclusive interview with AFP.
"They ask what it's like, and they're interested, they just never make the jump."
The likes of Isco and Jamie Vardy have appeared on I'Anson's winding journey to this point but the 24-year-old's immediate focus is Real Murcia, whose fight for promotion to the second tier begins with a play-off at home to Elche on Sunday.
Named "Charlie" on the teamsheet, he will share a changing room with players from Nigeria, France and Brazil, but not England, whose representation in Spain is dwarfed by the 30 Spaniards in the Premier League alone.
"First of all it's the money," I'Anson said. "Players at the bottom three or four Premier League teams earn more than players playing for the teams that finish fourth or fifth in Spain.
"And secondly, I think it's the language. English people aren't comfortable trying to learn, they think it's too hard. But it's easier than they think."
I'Anson began learning aged seven, when his parents took him and his older brother to Malaga, and after joining the local team, Atletico Benamiel, he crossed paths with a young Isco.
The pair remain friends, even if their interaction on the pitch was more short-lived.
"Isco was quickly put up two age groups," I'Anson said. "You could see the world class player he is now even then. He had the same movements, the same walk. He was different class."
- Paella and roast beef -
Isco was spotted by Valencia and I'Anson caught the eye of Nottingham Forest but Forest were then putting their faith in Jamaal Lascelles, the now Newcastle captain, and wanted I'Anson to convert from centre-half to full-back. He took up an offer to join Grimsby instead.
"It was a completely different way of football," I'Anson said. "In Spain, I used to cry because coaches would tell me to keep playing it out from the back and we would keep conceding goals.
"In England, they were more developing athletes. You'd have to stay on in the gym after training. Basically they wanted to beef you up."
I'Anson made 17 appearances for Grimsby in the National League and witnessed the blossoming Vardy while the Leicester striker was still at Fleetwood.
"He scored the winner against us, in the last minute," I'Anson said. "It nearly kicked off as well, it was a nasty game I remember."
Grimsby offered I'Anson a two-year deal but refused to pay an extra 100 pounds a month, so he upped sticks again and returned to his family in Spain.
He joined Elche in 2012, and played two matches in the top flight, but when the club discovered he had broken his foot in pre-season of 2015, their support evaporated.
I'Anson has since been to Valencia B and Granada, after loans with Alcorcon and Oviedo, but his adrenaline will be pumping a little faster when he faces Elche for Real Murcia this weekend.
"They treated me badly," he said. "I really want to show them what they've been missing."
Even if they come through the two-legged tie, Real Murcia will have to navigate a further four matches, over six weeks, to gain promotion.
It is an exhausting system, and one which allowed I'Anson only six days off in the summer last year.
Unlike most footballers, however, his ambitions are not limited to wins, promotions and trophies. He wants experience too.
"Ever since I was young I always thought I'd love to play in England, Spain, France and Italy," I'Anson said. "I know it'll be hard but if I can do it, great. It'll be like my own grand slam."
He speaks fluent Spanish and thrives on the local culture, while still finding time to watch his beloved Tottenham on television.
This summer, he will be tuning into the World Cup, when he affords himself the luxury of two countries to support.
"It's impossible to pick between the two, my blood is English and my life is Spanish," I'Anson said.
"Whatever team does better I say I'm supporting so I'll be happy if either wins."
I'Anson's sense of neutrality extends to English and Spanish cuisine too.
"I love paella," he said. "But my mum lives over here so if I'm lucky she still makes me a roast beef on a Sunday. I think I get the best of both worlds."
© 2018 AFP