The Ex-Files: Pablo Couñago
Tuesday, 14th Oct 2014 15:23
In the 16th part of our regular series, The Ex-Files, Blair Ferguson caught up with Spanish striker and prominent Roy Keane detractor Pablo Couñago.
It was in the summer of 2001 that future fans’ favourite Pablo joined the Blues for the first of his two spells, signing on a Bosman free transfer when his contract at Celta Vigo came to an end.
The then-21-year-old had been spotted playing international football alongside players who were to become some of the game’s biggest names, having been the joint-top scorer as Spain's U20s won the 1999 FIFA World Youth Championships in Nigeria.
He says some of those future stars were obvious to pick out even then: “During my time with the national team, when we were 17 to 18 years old, you could see that players like Xavi were special and you expected some of the others one to get there as well, and sometimes they get bigger than you expected.
“I think Xavi for me, and the other players, was always special, even when he was so young so it wasn’t a surprise.
“At that time there was Xavi, Iker Casillas was one of the keepers, Carlos Marchena, a important defender from Valencia, Joaquin, who is now in Italy, Iniesta, Jose Reina was the second keeper, so these were important players who went on to have very good careers.”
It was in Spain's U21s, as he scored twice in a 4-0 victory over England at St Andrew's in February 2001, that Town manager George Burley first saw Couñago play.
“I don’t remember exactly how it came about because it was a long time ago,” said Couñago, laughing as he tried to recollect. “I think it was a few months later when we started getting interest from a few clubs from England and a few clubs from Italy as well.
“For me English football was always the best option if I had to go anyway from Spain. It was always better than Italy and some of the other countries, so it was an easy decision to get into English football with the offer coming from Ipswich, and it was a good chance for me to play in the Premier League with a club who put a lot of trust in me.
Playing at the San Siro in that difficult first season
“It was a difficult choice because you are used to being at home with the family and I was in a good position with my club in Spain, but at the end of the day you have to make decisions and I think to go away from home was the best decision because it was a good opportunity.”
Couñago arrived ahead of Town’s difficult second season in the Premier League and made 19 appearances, but unable to find the back of the net, frustration set in, as he explains.
“Yeah, of course there was frustration, not only because the club got relegated but also for me because I was a young player in a new country and because I only played a few games, but it was more frustrating for the club to get relegated.”
It would be the second season that the Spaniard would really find his feet when he scored 21 goals in all competitions, including an early UEFA Cup hat-trick in an 8-1 win against Luxembourg side Avenir Beggen.
“The second season was much better for me personally because I had adjusted to English football and it was a great season, and the season after too.
Scoring against Avenir Beggen
“Of course, there was still frustration because the idea was to get the club back to the Premier League as soon as possible but it was difficult to do.
“But there are always so many teams fighting for that chance and it was difficult in my time to do it, like it is right now.”
Despite being at a club he clearly loved, and clearly still loves, by the summer of 2005 - the Blues’ push to get back into the top flight under Joe Royle having ended at the play-off semi-final stage against West Ham twice - it was time came for Couñago to move on, although he didn’t want to go.
“I think the problem was my contract because it was a Premier League contract and it was a difficult time for Ipswich. They forced me a little bit to go to another team and I wanted to play football and enjoy it as much as possible.
Netting from the spot
“It was difficult for me and I do understand it was a problem for the club to keep me there with the contract I had in the Premier League.
“At the end of the day it was a contract that they had to respect, and I feel like they were pushing me to go and because I didn’t go they didn’t treat me as well as they could, but it was business and I didn’t take it personally because I knew the problem.
“I was a little bit upset because I had a lot of good times and it was a shame to finish the relationship like that but I understood the problem and why it was like that.”
The move saw Couñago return to his native Spain with Malaga. His spell consisted of 10 goals in 54 appearances, but the Spanish outfit were relegated from La Liga in the first of his two seasons.
Celebrating with Alan Mahon and Shefki Kuqi
“It was a good opportunity to play in the Spanish league and I was a little bit upset with everything that happened with me at the end of the season with Ipswich, so I tried to come back to Spain to feel more comfortable.
“I also wanted another chance to play in the Spanish league and it was a good chance to go to Malaga in La Liga. I knew the feeling that I had in England with Ipswich was going to be hard to find but I tried to come back to play football and enjoy the game.”
After an injury-affected spell in Spain it was time for a return to Suffolk, by now under the stewardship of Jim Magilton, a big factor in Pablo returning.
“Jim was an important part of the decision,” he recalled. “For me it was an easy decision because I knew the league and it was always something that I loved, but it was even easier to make the decision when I knew Jim Magilton was the manager.
“I knew him as a player, so I knew a little bit about what to expect from him as a manager. Of course, it is different when you are a player, you manage in some ways but when you are the manager you have to do it differently.
With Jim Magilton
“Whenever I played with him he was always a manager on the pitch and he helped the other players all the time and I knew he wanted to be a manager. But when you are a manager you have to calm down a little bit because you are the reference for that team.”
Whilst Couñago speaks with respect in his voice regarding Magilton, he gives an honest and considered opinion on why he sometimes struggled in management.
“I think he went from playing to managing too quickly because it is something that you have to learn with time.
“You have to be careful with the step from player to manager because as a player you only have to think about being a player and going to training and doing everything to help the team.
“When you are a manager there is more, you have to think what to do with the players and with the team. I think it is harder than being a player and it is difficult to change that status.
“I think it was quite tricky for him because he was playing one season and the season after he was managing and making that step is difficult. There is a lot of responsibility and it was difficult for him to try and control the character he had.
“When you are a player you have that character and it can be very good but when you are a manager you have adapt because that character can be against you.
“I knew him as a player and as a person and I never had any problems with him, but it’s not the same when there are other players that you don’t know because they don’t know how it is, and I think it got difficult for him and the players.
“Maybe he thought it wasn’t going to be that difficult but one minute you are a player with good friends around the dressing room and next you are the boss and handling that is very difficult.
Celebrating another goal
“For me it was simple because I knew him and how to react with him and I always tried to help him but at the end of the day it was hard for him.
“He went to QPR and he had problems as well. For him I think it was more to do with his winning character because it is difficult to handle that as a manager because you have to be clever and you have to calm down a little bit more. When you are a player you can react but as a manager you have to react differently.”
When Magilton departed Portman Road a manager in a similar situation joined in the shape of Roy Keane. As has become clear from Keane’s book and Pablo’s subsequent comments given to TWTD last week, the pair didn’t see eye to eye.
"When you are a player and go into management it changes a lot. I didn’t know Roy Keane as a player, obviously I knew what he did as a player, but as a manager I think he is the kind of person that thought everyone had to play hard and run, and just do as much as you can.
Late on during his time with Town
"I think in football that is important but when you are running like the other team and fighting like the other team the one that is going to win is the one who is cleverer with and without the ball.
"He is the kind of person who thinks he knows everything and he was never going to understand anything about what other people told him, about how we could improve another way.
“When such difficult characters go into management you have to do whatever they say or life is going to be difficult.
“He won everything as a player but when he tried to do it as manager there was nothing, he will have a chance to be a manager in the future because of what he did as a player, but not as a manager.
“After the Ipswich job he didn’t get another job for a while because the other clubs start to know what you are like, and I don’t think he will get success in football as manager because he’s not that kind of character. He’s better as an assistant because he doesn’t have to do anything and he can be kept to one side.
"When you are in football you have to do as much as possible and I always tried to do as much as I could but for me people that don’t have respect in football or have respect for you, you don’t mind if they are bigger than you or smaller than you.
"Ipswich was like a big family and there was a good atmosphere around the training ground and he changed that. There wasn’t that feeling, a good atmosphere to work in, a good atmosphere of happiness.
“I think back on the time I spent with him at the training ground, it looks sad, it looks really different and he changed things and they didn’t work.”
With Keane’s views on Couñago very apparent the striker was sent on loan to Crystal Palace, by now managed by his former Blues boss Burley, in August 2010.
“It was a difficult moment for me because [Keane] was trying to get me out of the club,” he recalled.
“I don’t know if it was because he didn’t want me to have that good relationship with the fans, because he said to me he never understood the relationship I had with the fans, why they sang my name, why they loved me. I think it annoyed him.
"It was a big surprise for me, how it looked like he was jealous of that. For me it was like ‘what’s going on here?’, someone like Roy Keane, one of the biggest names in Manchester United history, and now he is getting annoyed because the people like me.
"In that time he was saying so many things about me, that I was training badly, that I wasn’t professional and I never said anything about that because I have respect for football. But he said things about me as a player that I didn’t like, but I had to understand them because he was the manager.
"When I heard him saying things like I wasn’t training properly and I wasn’t professional, that hurt me a lot because it wasn’t true. But I didn’t say anything bad because I’m not that kind of person, I always felt frustration because it was difficult for me.
“He was the kind of person who could have everything and was never going to be happy. They look so big and strong standing there but really they are weaker than anyone.”
Despite the difficult spell with Keane, Ipswich is still a club Couñago speaks about fondly. When the subject of his favourite Town goal one from December 2007 immediately springs to mind.
“The backheel against Charlton was probably one of my best, it was one of the most different ones.
“A backheel form the penalty spot is quite unusual to see. It was special because of that, probably one of the top three for sure because it was so different from a normal goal. It was one of the best of my career.
“I had my back to goal and I controlled the ball with my left foot and it was bouncing and in that moment I thought why not try it. I tried it and it was a good goal, it hit the post and went in and the keeper could do nothing. Normally with the ball like that you think turn but this time I tried to shoot and it was a nice backheel.”
Something else close to Couñago’s heart are the Ipswich Town fans, barely has the question finished before the answer begins.
“It was amazing for me, my time in Ipswich with the fans. They respect the players, they give everything to the players. Even when we were relegated form the Premier League they made the players keep going.
“After that you always try and give everything back to them and then they started singing my name in the stadium and I never expected that to happen in my life.
“Even when I left and came back again they started singing my name straight away, it was unbelievable for me.
“It was difficult to explain because when you are a kid and thinking about being a footballer you never think that you are going to be in that kind of love with the fans, and I have been lucky enough to feel that in my years at Ipswich and I can only say a big thanks.
“Whenever I get asked which place I enjoyed the most my first thought is always Ipswich and Portman Road, they gave everything to me and whatever I give back is never going to be enough.”
Since leaving English football, Couñago, now 35, has travelled the world playing the game he loves. He has spent time back in Spain with CD Choco, in Vietnam with Đồng Tâm Long An and also in Hong Kong, where he scored the winning goal in the FA Cup final for Kitchee. He is currently with Finnish side FC Honka working under his Town team-mate Shefki Kuqi.
“When I finished the season with Crystal Palace in the summer of 2011 I felt like I wanted to have an experience in other countries and know about their style of life, the style of football,” he explained.
At Town with Shefki
“It was my aim to stay here in England and I had some options in the Championship and League One but I thought I could go all around the world and see what it was like there.
“A few months ago Shefki called me and in the beginning I said no but he pushed me and I came to Finland because of that. I have been lucky enough to be a player and see places all over the world and this is another chance to learn another style of life.
“It’s been great, it’s another style of life, totally different to places like Vietnam, and it’s great to see that football is so big for the people there as well.
“And its going to get bigger and bigger every year. It was a different experience but that was what I was looking for it’s been a good experience to have.”
Due to red tape relating to his transfer, he has been limited to fewer than ten games in what’s been a frustrating first season in Finland.
And at Honka with Shefki
“I came in May but because of the transfer I couldn’t play until August and now there are only three games left and if everything goes well I will come back next season,” he adds.
“It was frustrating because I was fit and ready and wanted to play and because of paperwork I couldn’t, but there is nothing you can do apart from be ready for when you can play, which I was six weeks ago.
“I want to start playing and enjoying this new experience and try and help Shefki because he has asked me to come.”
Couñago could be forgiven for being wary of working under another ex-team-mate, but it seems as if Shefki has adapted well to life as a manager, as he explains.
“Like I said before, it is difficult for him to change from a player to a manager but I think he is clever enough to deal with it because he knows to be more relaxed with players and works with the people around him.
“It has been a difficult season for him because he was doing so many things with the club outside of football, but I think we are doing a lot of things well and hopefully he will still be here next year.
“He took over near the start of the season and it is always difficult to get the club, without having pre-season to prepare.”
So, for the moment Couñago will continue to experience new things and travel the world courtesy of football, and only when he stops enjoying the game will he move on to new things.
“For now I am still thinking as a player because I am still fit enough to play and enjoy the game and I’ll keep on going until I don’t enjoy it any more.
“I think I can still play for another two or three years and I only want to be in a place where they want me and respect me and enjoy football, if I can do it here it will be nice, if not I will go home. I don’t mind playing at a lower level, all I want is to enjoy playing football.
“Maybe in two, three, four years, or maybe even six months if I feel it is the time to finish, I will finish. Maybe then I will start thinking about being a coach or being involved in football somewhere else because it is what I want.”
You can read all the previous Ex-Files here.
Photos: Action Images and Pablo and Shefki at Honka Jorn Urup Nielsen
Photo: Action Images
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|fredbarber added 17:03 - Oct 14|
I remember that Charlton goal. Right in front of the away end at the Valley.
For the me either though its was difficult time for him under keane, his best goal has to been the 97th min winner against Coventry.
Ole Ole Ole Ole Ole Pablo Pablo !!!
|muhrensleftfoot added 17:26 - Oct 14|
He had more talent in his little finger than most of his team mates. I think it's true though that his work ethic left a bit to be desired. George & Jim liked him, but Joe Royle wasn't so keen. I'm sure Mick McCarthy wouldn't have played him regularly for the very reason that he didn't work hard enough. If he had applied himself, I reckon he could have been part of the great Spanish era. He gave us some great moments, but was frustrating too.
|naa added 17:29 - Oct 14|
The point he makes about needing some skill to supplement the graft is a very good one, and one that Keane obviously didn't understand (which shocks me considering the teams he played for).
Mind you, he didn't exactly put in 110% did he?
But I loved him. I'd pay to see skill over effort any day of the week - any decent team needs both.
|Dozzells_Bobblehat added 17:52 - Oct 14|
The most intelligent footballer at the club in years. No he didn't put in the running that some others did but you need different sorts of players to make up a team.
He can't have been that lazy or a bad trainer if Magilton and Burley(at Palace) both re-signed him!
IMO we could have built our side around him playing just off the front two.
|TractorCam added 17:53 - Oct 14|
Fantastic read. ole ole ole oleeee
|TOWNNNNNN added 19:15 - Oct 14|
Really, legend?.. Some people have really low standards!
|chorltonskylineblue added 19:30 - Oct 14|
At times, particularly towards the end of his second spell with us, for me he was the only reason worth paying the entrance fee. He could turn on a sixpence and he created real trouble for opposition defenders withou being a battering ram. Two ex-team mates have hired him. If he was that lazy in training, I can't see that happening can you?
Does anyone have evidence that Big Joe didn't rate him? Was it more of a case that we didn't have two beans to rub together at that time and Joe had to move him on to get other players. If so, more a case of circumtances than Joe not rating him.
Ole, ole, ole, Pablo, Pablo! TWTD shirt was my fave!
|MattinLondon added 19:51 - Oct 14|
If he was playing with better players Pablo would have scored a lot and created a lot more as well. Just unfortunate that a lot of his team mates were not as technically gifted as him.
|rgp1 added 23:34 - Oct 14|
I always felt that because of the numerous managerial and personal changes when he was here we didn't always see the best of pablo. At times he did appear lazy, however we he played well he was quite literally unplayable.
|PortmanTerrorist added 23:46 - Oct 14|
At times when very little football was played at FPR, Pablo shone through with his ability, commitment (that does not equal sweat always) and his understanding of what the Club meant.
Legend is an over used word, but Pablo deserves his place - what would he have looked like with a really good team around him I wonder ?
|TOWNNNNNN added 23:56 - Oct 14|
What would he have looked like with a really good team around him?.... We will never know as no one else wanted him, surely there was a reason for that? I mean we couldn't give him away..
|shoopdelang added 06:43 - Oct 15|
Not always consistent or effective, but certainly one of the most talented players we have ever had at Ipswich
|No_Great_in_Britain added 08:25 - Oct 15|
I have never seen anyone better at holding the ball up so that the midfield could join the attack than Pablo Counago. The ball would be glued to his feet & defenders really struggled to get the ball off him. I may draw criticism for saying this but in my opinion he is the most gifted footballer the club has had over the last 12 years and if he had the consistency to perform away from Portman road on a regular basis he could of gone on to become one of the greatest players in our history?
|dirtyboy added 08:45 - Oct 15|
Probably my favourite player during his time with us, I know a few have referred to him as a legend and the older contingent will not be too happy, but it's all relative.
Probably similar to Lee Trundle for Swansea fans.
Pablo was very skilful and a joy to watch.
|Razor added 10:05 - Oct 15|
Yep, alovely player and a lovely man who I think was not fully appreciated until he left.
My favourite goal that I can remember was the goal agains Pompey on Good Friday, in their promotion year under Harry, when we won 3-0 and slammed one in on the angle at Churchmans End, oh and one at QPR---so many!!
|SouperJim added 11:34 - Oct 15|
Pablo is a modern legend, of course he could never match what the likes of the beat achieved, but within his era he was a special player.
I've got a lot of respect for Pablo and you can tell by the way he speaks that he is a really decent guy and loved his time here. Yes you can argue that he could have done more in the game if he had applied himself, but it's his choice what he does with his talent and he chose to enjoy football in the way that he did and continues to do so. I for one am thankful for that, otherwise we would have never got to enjoy watching him play at Portman Road. The fact that he is still going now, playing for an ex-team mate to "try and help Shefki", speaks volumes.
I hope Pablo comes back to Portman Road one day, in whatever capacity, just so we can sing his name again and let him know that he will always be loved here and we will never forget him.
|Carrotblue added 13:06 - Oct 15|
Pablo a legend do me a favour, lazy at away games did nothing to help team mates on a cold wet northern night
Mariner Wark Hunter Beattie Crawford Phillips they are legends
|Walk_the_Wark added 13:10 - Oct 15|
Joy to watch for skill and hold up play. Sadly we won't see players like this again until boring Mick goes
|Radlett_blue added 20:18 - Nov 6|
Don't really understand what he said about his contract - it expired in 2005 so a new deal would have been possible if wages were agreeable to both sides. The fact he was on PL wages from 2001-05 is irrelevant.
|MVBlue added 13:49 - Nov 10|
Sadly Walk_the_Wark you will have to 'put up with' Daryl Murphy. Don't be baiting the best manager we've had in 10 years.
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