Shropshire Star

Wolves boss Julen Lopetegui opens up on his footballing passion and life outside the game

As far as Julen Lopetegui is concerned, his purpose was always to live a life in football.

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Born in the town of Asteasu, in the Basque region of Spain, football was surprisingly low on the list of priorities for Lopetegui’s family and peers.

Ironically for a man who now finds himself answering media questions every week, and sat down with a room full of reporters for this interview at the Wolves training ground, the Spaniard even once considered becoming a journalist.

For him, if he did not make it as a footballer, then reporting on the beautiful game is the next best thing.

“The reason was because with both I could see football for free,” Lopetegui said.

But putting his back-up option to one side, his first love was playing football.

“I was the black sheep of the family, it is true,” he added. “My father, he lifts stones and it is a particular sport of only the Basque Country.

“My brother played pelota, which is similar to squash, and was very important.

“In football I was the black sheep and always I dreamed I can become a player or a journalist.

“In my family we have a background of contests in sport. It was a different sport but a sporting culture.”

Lopetegui did make it as a footballer, coming through at Real Sociedad and then moving on to Real Madrid where he featured for their reserve side Castilla, and made one senior appearance.

He went on to play for four more Spanish sides but it was during the latter stages of his playing career that he began forging a career in coaching.

Playing for Barcelona between 1994-1997 and then joining Rayo Vallecano, where he finished his playing days in 2002, Lopetegui was already on his way to becoming a manager.

When asked when he first started thinking about coaching, he said: “In the last years as a player, maybe in the last five-six years.

“I remember when I was in Barca with Pep (Guardiola) we had in one pre-season with Johan Cruyff and he was a different coach.

“He was the first coach who made you think about modern football – why you are going to do this drill? All this was very interesting for me.

“Afterwards it was Louis van Gaal and it was the first time I was thinking about things and asking why we are going to do this drill and ‘why we played badly in this match’?

“And the last year I was a very starving player for the coaches because I started to ask a lot of questions.”

That inquisitive nature served him well as he went on to coach at different youth levels before getting the job at Porto – which took him on to bigger things as the Spain national team coach, as well as Real Madrid and Sevilla.

Having almost taken the Wolves job before the Spain post, and then initially turning Wolves down again this season before eventually taking the role, Lopetegui is now settled in England.

His ability to speak the language has improved with each passing week, but he’s taken an unconventional approach to grasping English.

“I didn’t have any lessons here, I always try to see one English series on TV with my wife,” he said.

“I have seen Peaky Blinders. A lot of series. Now Queen Charlotte. My wife chooses.

“After, my best class lesson is with you (the media) – I have to be ready. With my players too. I told them ‘always in English’.

“Maybe I make mistakes but I have to make effort with them in English. We are in England and I have to respect the language and the culture. If one English coach came to Spain it is the same. It is better to improve my English.”

The language is one thing, but the cultural switch of moving from Seville to Wolverhampton is huge.

Lopetegui has been spotted out and about in Birmingham and has visited Manchester, Liverpool and London since arriving in England, but the ‘support’ he has felt in the Black Country has been a driving force behind his successful first six months as Wolves boss.

“All the people are very polite and very kind to me. I have felt this since the first minute I was here,” Lopetegui said.

“For me it is going to be key. It is true. I repeat it a lot but it is not a lie. The support we have received is key. For me, for my players in the stadium.

“I have felt the level and the environment of the fans only getting better. From January, March, April, I feel that. It is has been key. It is not casual.

“We have had very good results at home and the fans are key and they are going to be key next season. If they knew the influence that they have on the team, we would do even better.”

Collector’s item: A football card of Julen Lopetegui in his days as Barcelona goalkeeper

Those words will be music to fan’s ears, particularly with Lopetegui’s future up in the air, but spare a thought for his family.

He may watch Netflix with his wife to help his English, but the vast majority of his time is dedicated to his career.

“My life is here. This is my home. My second home is when I sleep,” he added.

“We come here at 8am and we go home at 9pm. My wife respects me. They know the kind of life I have chosen. My family is very important to me and they respect my choice and they encourage me and support me.

“It is not easy to be a wife, son or daughter of a coach. In England or in Spain the bad responsibility is always for you. Sometimes it is not fair on them.

“I am very difficult to put up with after a defeat. I can see my face in the mirror the next day.

“One time I read (Antonio) Conte’s comments. He said: ‘After a defeat, I am dead for two days.’ I understand him and what he means. After we have to be very demanding the day after a defeat.

“Despite being very low in your spirit and soul, you have one responsibility with your players. You have to become an actor. It is very important because it is the first step to the next victory after a defeat. Sometimes it is hard after a defeat but it is very interesting as a coach how I’m going to develop myself and reset myself. It is important.”

Lopetegui is being very open about himself and his family life, but it is true to say he is extremely intense in his work.

Just watch him on the sidelines. He has done some work to tone it down, especially as Wolves kept being hit with disciplinary issues, but he often struggles to contain himself.

“It is about character. I am sometimes aware when I see myself I don’t like me. I think he is crazy, he is mad,” he said.

“Sometimes I think that but the next match I am the same, sorry, it is me.

“Each person has their character. I always show my face, I try to translate to my players to encourage them, each coach has his way.

“My character is more or less like this.

“I try to be honest and direct with the players and don’t ever lie. For me, it is important in life. I can have mistakes but you can never tell me I lie to you. All these codes in the dressing room are important.

“I was a player and the worst thing I can live with as a player was if anyone lied to me. I prefer to be honest. Sometimes the truth is not good for me but it is the truth.”

Away from football, Lopetegui has other loves in his life – even if he struggles for time to enjoy them.

He likes to read and play piano with his daughter – although he describes himself as a “frustrated pianist.”

But a huge passion of his is food.

Lopetegui owns a series of restaurants and has regularly travelled in England to try different cuisine since arriving in the country.

The head coach is extremely complimentary of the club chefs at Compton – “the best restaurant in the city” as he refers to it – and he enjoys cooking at home when he has the time.

“To cook, yes, I am a very good cook,” he laughed.

“I love to grill, I am the master of the grill, believe me I am a master!

“I like good meat on the grill, good fish cooked on the grill. Also a dish with white beans is very traditional in the Basque Country, but I like cooking a lot.”

This passion started at an early age, too, when he started working at his family’s restaurant – and the 56-year-old had the room captivated when he told a story of how football was a distraction.

“My family owns a restaurant and me, my father, my mother, all my brothers, my aunty, all of us work in the restaurant at different times,” he said.

“Before we could go to school we had to work – if not you can’t go to school! They were different times. Now my father and mother would be in jail!

“All of us worked in the family business and afterwards if you wanted to go and play football, first you had to finish your homework, not the school homework, in the restaurant!

“My favourite memory was managing the grill. I remember one day the restaurant was full of people so we had maybe 25 steaks, grilling over the flames.

“A friend of mine came with a ball.

“My job was to attend the flames on the grill, that was my only job.

“So my father told me to watch 25 one kilo steaks – big steaks! So I’m looking after the fire and saying it will be okay for a few seconds, I’ll play football, but it was more like 10 minutes and the steaks all went on fire!

“My father comes and they are all on fire. It was the equivalent of one week’s wages, all gone! It was my fault – can you imagine?”

But for all of these other passions, football has and always will be Lopetegui’s priority.

The task for Wolves is now to ensure that this long interview is not his last as the club’s head coach and that they find a balance and agreement for the upcoming summer transfer window.

The food on offer may be good at Compton, but the head coach will need more assurances to stick around next season.