“Don’t try anything, just do it.”
Hector Bellerin was 15 and had just been pulled to the side of a Barcelona academy training session by coach Victor Sanchez.
“You’re on free-kicks in the next game. Think you’ll score?”
“Well I’m going to try,” Hector responded.
“Don’t try anything, just do it.”
Sanchez’s words have stayed with Hector since, his journey from La Masia to London testament to a quote reflected in the first few years of his burgeoning career.
A right winger who, in his own words, “didn’t know how to defend” when he arrived at the club in 2011, four years on and Hector has established himself as a regular in the Arsenal back four.
Praise has arrived from many sources, notably from Gunners legend Lee Dixon, who stated in last month’s edition of this magazine that Hector “will go on to become a really top full back”.
His development has been recognised back home too. Hector made his Spain Under-21 debut this March and was voted Catalan Young Player of the Year eight months later.
So there’s no doubt that the future promises much for Hector. But where did his story start? The charismatic defender sat down with the Arsenal Magazine recently to take us right back to the very beginning.
Hector, what were your first memories of football?
My first memories are jumping over some fences to get into the school next to my house with my dad. School would be closed at the weekend and it was the only chance I had to go and play football with him.
I was very young, so my dad would help me climb and would jump over with me. Sometimes the police would come and say “what are you doing, school is closed”. But that’s an example of how supportive my dad was for me. He loved playing football with me and those are the first memories I have.
How enjoyable were those times?
It was in another city that we used to live in when I was younger. I’ve been back a few times and every time I walk past that area, those memories come back to me. Those are the times that you remember.
He used to teach me how to shoot with the laces, because he used to love that. He always used to shoot with his. Those things stick in your memory. I think it shows that my family didn’t care what I wanted to do, they just wanted to help me with whatever.
Who would you pretend to be in those days?
At that time, I used to really like Raul, who was at Real Madrid. My grandad and my uncle supported them and had a big flag in their house. They made me watch all the games. He was the player that used to score all the goals back then and was the player that I would look up to at that time.
Did you ever see yourself as a defender when you were younger?
When I first started, I was playing futsal in my school team. The coaches just told me to move around the pitch and do what I wanted to do. I was the one that was doing almost everything in the team.
At the time I was only five years old or so. After, when I went to the Barcelona kids school, I was there for one year and it was all just about learning. We would play with three defenders and three attackers, and you would play each half in a different position. You never knew at that stage.
Once I got to the Barcelona academy, I started as a right back and then moved up to a winger when I was about 12. I stayed there until I moved to Arsenal. When I got here, I started as a right back. In my younger years, my positions always changed. I played as a centre mid, as a right back, as a striker, as a winger. You never really know but when you’re younger, the thing you want to do is score goals.
I probably felt more comfortable as a winger back then. But you know, it got to the point where I started playing at right back and I remember one of my coaches telling me that I could play as a top right back. Arsenal thought the same and decided on that path for me. It’s one I’m very happy with.
You mentioned your versatility, and you actually made your Arsenal debut in central midfield. How was that experience?
It was a bit crazy. I hadn’t actually played there since I was about seven or eight, when I played alongside Jon Toral and Sergi Samper. I can remember that West Brom game perfectly. I was warming up for almost all of the second half.
The boss called me over and said “you’re coming on as a centre mid”. I kind of looked at him, I didn’t know if he was joking or not. I said “really?” and he told me he was being serious because Mikel had to come off. The only thing he said to me was to be tight at the back, to play easy balls and do what the defenders told me to do. We didn’t score but they didn’t score either, so I guess it was an alright performance, and it was very nice to get the win on penalties in the end.
It was an unlikely debut, very unlikely, but I really enjoyed it. For me, it wouldn’t have mattered if I had to come on in goal. To make my professional debut for Arsenal was a dream come true.
Did having already played as a right back help you to make the transformation to the position when you arrived at Arsenal?
In my last two years at Barcelona, I played a few games there when we had no fit right backs. I even remember a year of two before I came to Arsenal, we played in the Nike Premier Cup, this big world tournament, and I played there as a right back, without having any real experience there.
We had such a good team that we didn’t even really have to defend. I got on the ball more and didn’t have to focus that much on defending, so I wouldn’t class it as a real right-back experience In my last year, I played two or three games as a right back and that’s when the Arsenal scouts saw me play.
They thought I had more potential there than on the right wing. But for me it’s never been about the position. It’s always been about playing football. That’s what I want. I didn’t mind what position I played in. I said to them “if you see me as a right back, I’m going to do whatever I can to be successful there”. At the moment, things are going well.
There were a few other clubs interested in you when you were at Barcelona. What made you choose Arsenal?
When you get to 16 at Barcelona, it’s the age that you sign your main contract. I was about to sign that but we knew there were a lot of other options because you always get them from other teams at that time.
Life has changed in so many ways. But everything is positive. I know there’s still a lot for me to do, but I can see all the work I’ve put in is starting to pay off for myself and my family
I didn’t have the option to come to Arsenal until I was right about to sign with Barcelona. When it came, they were so serious about it, more serious than any other team. They made me feel really wanted. I came here for a weekend. I met the boss and I remember I went to the game. We beat Man United and I remember Ramsey scoring. I still have all those images in my mind.
To be 16 years old, to be able to speak to the boss and get reassured that they really wanted me, plus seeing all the facilities at the training ground and how easy they were going to make it for me to adapt, it all made me tell my parents that I wanted to come here.
I remember I was on the plane back and I already said to my mum that I wanted to come to Arsenal. My mum was like “are you sure you can leave your family and friends?” But there was something inside telling me this was the right choice to make and at the moment, I’m very happy that I made that step.
We spoke to Francis Cagigao (the scout who identified Hector) recently and he mentioned that your character and maturity really stood out when you first met him. Was that drummed into you from a young age?
I’ve always had the support of my family. They have always been really caring, my parents, my grandparents, everyone. I was always the kind of kid that wanted to play on the street and didn’t really want to be told what to do. I’ve learnt things for myself but at the same time, I’ve had the help of my parents to give me that wisdom, what things are good, what things are bad. I think I had the best of both growing up.
When you’re so young and travel for an hour to Barcelona to train every day with people older than me, that made me mature in so many ways. When I came to London, I was only 16 and I was by myself. Looking back, that’s where I grew up the most, when I became a man. I think I’ve always been really well educated by my family. They’ve helped me a lot with everything and I think I’ve had the best of both ends.
There’s a quote from your the first programme questionnaire you completed at Arsenal, in which you name the best piece of advice you’ve ever received. Your answer was: don’t try anything, just do it. Your success seems to be testament to that.
Yeah, I remember that quote. It was from a coach that I had when I was 15, his name is Victor Sanchez. He was probably one of the people that influenced me the most in football. He’s now the assistant coach at Fiorentina and I still chat to him a lot. I can remember him telling me that I was going to be taking the free-kicks in one game.
“You think you’re going to score?” he asked me. I was like “well, I’m going to try”. And then he just said “don’t try, do it”. I didn’t actually score that weekend but that stuck in my head. It’s true too. Why try when you know you’re able to achieve? You need that confidence, not just in football but in life, and that quote has helped me a lot.
Your breakthrough at Arsenal came while you were still a teenager. How different has your life become?
Life has changed in so many ways. But everything is positive. I know there’s still a lot for me to do, but I can see all the work I’ve put in is starting to pay off for myself and my family. The fact that I can give a better life to my parents, my grandparents, my little cousin, my sister, that’s just thanks to football.
That is in a way the biggest change we’ve had. Now we can just relax and have a better life. For me that was my main goal when I was that football was becoming one of the main things for me. I’m happy that I’m reaching that.
You’ve said in the past that when you first got into the team, you just didn’t want to make a mistake. How long did it take before you felt comfortable and able to express yourself more?
It’s hard at the beginning because you know that you are playing alongside very big players and you don’t want to let them down. We have players that have won the World Cup, that have won the Champions League, that have won the Euros. For you to come in as a young player and see yourself surrounded by so much quality, you can think ‘what if I make a mistake now and we lose the game?’
They wouldn’t do that sort of thing, because they are your team-mates and your friends, but that thought always goes around your head, especially when you’re young. I think as you keep playing and you see yourself do well, you realise that it’s just football.
It’s the same game that you’ve been playing since you were young It gets to the point, I wouldn’t know exactly when, where your mindset goes from not wanting to make a mistake to just enjoying yourself. That’s when you really start playing well, you start enjoying your football and the results come. That’s the moment when you’re actually playing your game and doing what you like.
How do you try to improve when you’re not training? Has anyone particularly helped you?
If there if was a person who I had to identify as helping me a lot, that would have to be Steve Bould. I’m going to be honest, when I first came to Arsenal, I didn’t know how to defend. I was a winger but from the under-18s up, I remember him just showing me the basics.
Even then, I can remember him sometimes holding his head like ‘what is Hector doing?’ When we defended the FA Cup, I reminded Steve of all those times stressing in training, or when we lost the Youth Cup, which was such a big thing for us. He’s been one of the key people in my career.
He’s one of the reasons I’m here now. He was a top defender himself and has so much knowledge. Sometimes when he’s speaking, I just laugh because he so makes it look so easy and so obvious, and you haven’t realised before. I really enjoy learning with him.
You probably haven’t had a more tricky opponent this season than Douglas Costa when Bayern Munich visited the Emirates in October. What was that like for you?
It was a hard game and he was a hard player to defend against. It wasn’t just because of the quality he has. It was a game that we knew we weren’t going to have the ball in. You’re following the ball for two minutes, moving from side to side, and at the end of the day, that’s tiring.
Then, after those two minutes, the ball goes to Douglas Costa and you know you have to face a one-against-one with probably one of the top three players in those situations. He had some tricks and sometimes you just have to hold your hands up and say “wow, I didn’t even see that coming.”
As a top defender, you need to know what the striker is going to do and what the best way to defend him is. But sometimes there’s so much quality in some players that it’s difficult for every single defender out there. I’m not ashamed or anything like that because sometimes when you play against guys of that quality, there’s not much you can do about it.
But the fact that we came out with a win meant that it didn’t matter how we did it. Yeah, it’s important that you play well and that people enjoy watching the football, but if you go away with a 2-0 win at home against Bayern Munich, for me it didn’t matter how the performance was at the end.
Costa wasn’t the only player to pose an attacking threat that night. Tell us about that assist at the end…
Alaba played a slow ball and I knew that I could get there, which I did. I was lucky that Mesut was following the play. I just clocked him and passed it to him. I think it would have been better if the ball hit the net because there was a bit of time where people were wondering if it was a goal or not.
But it was such a beautiful night, not just for the players but for every single Arsenal supporter around the world. I think it was such a special night.
One winger who you know really well is Gerard Deulofeu. What’s it like to play against a childhood friend?
That’s what is so beautiful about football. With Gerard, we used to live very close to each other, so we would play in these five-a-side tournaments together during the summer.
We never played together at Barcelona because he is older than me but from going to playing five-a-side to the summer, to playing for Spain’s under-21s together and then playing against each other in the top league in the world was something that we would never, ever have thought of all those years ago.
It makes you proud, not only that you are doing well, but that your friends are too. I don’t think there’s much better than sharing that feeling.
Finally, if the goal of reaching the top keeps you motivated when you’re young, how do you stay professional when you reach the Premier League and establish yourself?
For me there’s a mix of things. One is a love for the game and a love of winning. Since I was a little kid, I always wanted to win. It didn’t matter what game I was playing, I just wanted to win. It was kind of a pride thing. That makes me go out there and give everything.
My family are also very important. When I was in Barcelona, my parents made all sorts of efforts to come to every single game. I can’t remember one single game where there wasn’t a member of my family in the stands. If it wasn’t my parents, it would be my grandparents or my uncle.
There was always someone there. For me there’s no better feeling than being able to provide for my family now and repay them for everything they did for me. Those two factors explain my motivation.