An exclusive interview with Villarreal's Spanish U-21 international striker
Manuel Domínguez speaks to Fer Niño, a Spanish under-21 international striker, about his brealing through at Villarreal, his best team-mates, a worthwhile experience at Mallorca, and plenty more…
Reaching the elite of world football is no easy task. But if there’s something even more challenging than reaching the top, it’s staying there.
There are many players who get their chance at the highest level, but few who can truly adapt to the pressure and demands of elite-level sport. But as in life, being able to ride the highs and lows is imperative.
This is certainly the case for our latest Scouted Football interview subject: Fer Niño.
The Villarreal striker who, at only 21 years old, has scored in LaLiga, the Copa del Rey and Europe, in addition to winning the UEFA Europa League.
However, after his initial breakthrough promised plenty, a difficult experience in Mallorca has forced an honest decision that’s seen him drop down to Villarreal B in the Spanish second division. A step back to take two steps forward.
“What I want is to enjoy my football and to learn – especially to learn. But this can only be achieved in one way: by playing. I don’t regret coming back home and being in the second team, it’s my decision and the only thing I’m thinking about is having a good season,” Niño explains.
The Yellow Submarine and a precocious torpedo
If there’s one moment that changes Fer Niño’s career, it’s undoubtedly his La Liga debut.
Javier Calleja’s Villarreal, a club legend as a player and coach of the first team at the time, travelled to Vitoria in the middle of January to play against Deportivo Alavés. The months of January in Spain are usually marked by the Copa del Rey, a competition conducive to rotations and minutes for the most promising youth players.
“I wasn’t even playing for Villarreal B, but Calleja knew me from his time with the youth teams. We just had a very good year: champions of everything with a great group, and Calleja trusted me to sometimes enter the dynamics of the first team. Training with those players that I followed on TV was already a dream for me”, Fer Niño remembers fondly.
Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images
Having made his Copa del Rey debut in that same week, Fer Niño took the trip to Vitoria in his stride, unaware that that day would mark a huge leap on his development:
“I was told to warm up but I wasn’t expecting to play. I remember clearly that Rubén Peña was the third substitution, he was already stripping off and I had returned to the bench.
“At that same moment Alavés equalized and Calleja told me that I was going to play. My heart was racing and I didn’t know where to put myself,” explains the striker, who took all of 120 seconds to repay his coach’s confidence and earn his side victory in Mendizorroza.
“As soon as I came on I received a pass from Manu Trigueros, controlled the ball and hit it with my soul, and with some luck the ball flew into the top corner”.
The fastest goal by a debutant in the history of Villarreal, and the second-fastest in the history of LaLiga, beaten only by Jonathan Soriano, former RB Salzburg striker, on his league debut more than 15 years ago.
A unique situation and one that can become problematic for teenagers unable to handle the limelight. Fortunately, in the case of Fer Niño, the world of football and the difficulties involved have always been present at home.
“It’s crazy. You go from nobody knowing you to being on everyone’s lips: at the gas station, supermarket, on the street … luckily my father has experience as a footballer [Fernando Niño, former RCD Mallorca centre-back with more than 100 games to his name] and a few hours later he called me to make it clear that I had not done anything yet. Everything had just started and I had to keep working as I had been doing so far.”
“This kind of advice is very important to keep your feet on the ground,” Fer Niño says.
Emery, Cazorla, and three goalscoring teachers
That strike against Alavés was far from an anomaly. Fer Niño was then able to establish himself under Unai Emery the following season, despite the presence of more proven, senior options in Carlos Bacca, Paco Alcácer and Gerard Moreno.
The young striker from Rota made an impression as Villarreal competed across three competitions. He netted seven goals during his first six months in the senior squad, including three in a UEFA Europa League campaign that the club famously won at the end of the season – beating Manchester United in the final.
“It’s a year that I learned a lot and I am very proud. I was lucky to have an elite coach who really helped me grow. The intensity that Unai puts into training is very high and he has the whole group very engaged, that seemed to me one of the keys to success,” says Fer Niño, who still feels Emery’s words behind his ear.
“I sometimes wondered why he demanded so much of me, but he always reminded me that it was because he trusted me and that’s why he wouldn’t let me breathe,” he says.
In addition to Emery, having such a different set of strikers to train with and compete against allowed Fer Niño to observe and learn from some of the best.
“They are three incredible strikers,” he explains. “If I had to take something from each of them it would be Gerard’s vision, Bacca’s technical ability and Paco’s eye for goal.
“Álcacer was incredible, he always knew where the ball was going to land. He was an animal in the penalty area.” But of the three, there was no hesitation about who the 21-year-old looks up to.
“Of the three, I’d say Gerard Moreno is the one you enjoy playing with the most. He has a very high understanding of the game. He doesn’t seem to see you, but he does. You just have to move to the right place and he will put the ball to you at the right time. What can I say, he’s great,” Fer Niño beams about the Spanish national team striker.
“Despite my physique, I like to be an active striker who gives continuity to the play. I’m not just a penalty box forward. I can run the channels, I look to participate and above all I leave my soul on the field, that is non-negotiable,” the 21-year-old explains when we ask him about his interpretation of being a number nine.
Back to former team-mates, another one of the outstanding names in which Fer Niño would marvel was Santi Cazorla.
The former Arsenal midfielder opted to return home in 2018 after twelve years away, to feel like a footballer again having battled a debilitating injury for several months.
Back at Villarreal, the Asturian returned and quickly found his best level once again, something that does not surprise Fer Niño who only has gratitude for Cazorla the footballer but, above all, a friend and team-mate:
“I have no doubt that he’s the best player I have shared a dressing room with. You train with him and you can’t guess whether he’s right or left footed, it’s incredible,” Fer Niño explains, who has seen first-hand the effects of injury on one of Arsenal’s greatest players of the last decade.
“His ankle makes a huge impact. You see it up close and you realise how incredible that he could continue playing football, let alone doing it at the highest level. It’s something you can only be capable of if you have the quality Santi has”, says Fer Niño, who recalls his first training sessions with him.
“From minute one he did everything he could to make me and other young players feel at ease in the dressing room, and it means more coming from a player like him. In the end, he was one of us too.”
Mallorca's experience, competence and learning
Aware of the competition he continued to face at club level, last season saw Fer Niño seek more regular minutes away from his boyhood club.
The call of Mallorca in the summer of 2021, a club he knew very well after his father spent several seasons on the Balearic island, was the perfect opportunity for a striker who wanted to embrace further responsibility for goals in LaLiga.
After a good start to the season, starting games and scoring a couple of goals, the young striker began to fall down the first team reckoning. It was a technical decision that ended up marking his season on a psychological level.
Photo by Aitor Alcalde Colomer/Getty Images
“I lacked experience in Mallorca, especially mentally. Until recently I didn’t understand that minutes in the first division is not so important, it’s about the consistency of those minutes. The level is very high and you can fall out of the team so quickly,” Fer Niño tells us.
The return of the injured Ángel in the middle of the season, in addition to competition with the other strikers, ended up knocking the Spanish under-21 international down the pecking order for the Bermellon coaches.
“I didn’t understand that by doing well, I had inadvertently slowed my development because I stopped playing (in LaLiga). I lowered my level a lot. You have to understand that in the first division, because the level is so high, you have to work three times as hard when you don’t play.
“I can now take this lesson with me, experiencing many things with Mallorca during a year which I enjoyed a lot. This just showed me that I have to keep working,” he explains.
With a backpack full of experiences and situations, Fer Niño returns to the groguet academy with the need to take flight again.
With a dream to play in the Premier League, the Spanish striker is set on finding the way to break back into the Villarreal first team. Starting every week for the B team in the Segunda División gives him a solid platform to do exactly that when the opportunity arises.