It’s the date that will always be etched in Sergi Canos’ mind: Sunday, May 15, 2016.
Liverpool debut. Premier League debut. Dream come true.
It may have only lasted 10 minutes, the Spaniard replacing Sheyi Ojo towards the end of a pretty nondescript final-day stalemate at West Brom, but when you’ve been where he’s been, and seen what he’s seen, then who cares?
"That day, all the work and the sacrifices, all the days I went home and cried to my mum – it was all worth it," Canos tells Goal, almost five years on.
"I played with Liverpool in the Premier League! Ten minutes, one minute, a half-hour – it doesn’t matter. This was the dream. We got there!"
Canos is 24 now, and plays with Brentford in the Championship. He’s older and wiser, and speaks with maturity and an impressive sense of perspective throughout the course of our hour-long interview.
He’s got a great story to tell, too. From rejecting his boyhood club, learning his trade at Barcelona’s fabled La Masia academy, moving to Liverpool as a 16-year-old without a word of English, toughing it out in the Championship and working his way back from the most serious of knee injuries, Canos has seen it all.
For one so young, he’s already packed plenty into his career. And he’s certainly seen both sides of the sport.
“It’s definitely not all glamour,” he says, with a wry smile. “I was watching Fernando Torres’ documentary the other day and he said that if he had a kid who wanted to be a footballer, he would say no, because he knows how hard it is. That made me think.”
Canos’ parents did not discourage their son. Far from it. Instead, they supported, they guided, they advised, they sacrificed.
Canos was born and raised in Nules, a small town in the province of Castellon. He grew up a Valencia fan, idolising the likes of David Villa, David Silva and Juan Mata, but it would be in Barcelona where his own career would take off.
Not keen on Valencia or Villarreal – "They called every year, without fail!" he says – he instead joined Espanyol as a 12-year-old.
That meant a six-hour round trip every weekend with his father for games, sleeping in the car as they made the 300km journey up the coast. He puffs his cheeks out at the memory, but he loved it.
“It was a long drive but it was a great experience,” he says. “It made me grow.”
Within a year he was on the move again, this time to Barcelona, where he moved into La Masia.
“It was amazing, the best decision I ever made,” he beams. “It was the right time, the right moment. It was like scoring a tap-in; you just have to be there!”
At Barcelona, there was talent everywhere he looked.
“Carlos Alena [currently on loan at Getafe] is one year younger than me, but he sometimes trained and played with us,” Canos remembers. “And Adama Traore is one year above me...”
What was Traore like as a 15-year-old, then? “The same!” he laughs. “He was unbelievable.
“Everyone had that doubt, whether he’d be as good as he is now, because [as a kid] he was stronger and quicker than everyone else. But now, he is just doing the same!
“When we were there, everyone was talking about his final pass, his final decision, but he got better and better and better.”
So, too, did Canos, representing Spain at youth level. He was quick and he was direct, and he knew where the net was. And, at La Masia, he began to round off the edges.
“At Barcelona, you learn how football works, rather than how to play football,” he says. “It’s the touch, the angles, how to receive a ball in the pocket, when to open wide, when to be on the last line.
“For me, it’s the best Academy in football if you want to learn and want to become a footballer.”
Canos, though, would “become a footballer” away from Camp Nou. In 2013, aged 16, he chose to leave Barca and join Liverpool.
“Two years before, Hector Bellerin and Jon Toral went to Arsenal,” he says. “They are two years older than me but we used to be together in La Masia, so we were friends.
“Seeing them go, it was like 'Wow!' It’s proper football, you know? If you go to Arsenal or Liverpool, you don’t have to play in the U17s, 18s, 19s and then maybe Barca B, then maybe the first team.
“It [the pathway] is too long [at Barcelona]. Unless you are amazing and score three goals every weekend, it’s too long. For me, it was a fantastic opportunity to go to England, play for the U21s and maybe one day the first team calls you and you go and train at 16 or 17. Fantastic!
“I saw that, and I always said to my dad that if something like this happens then I want to go. And Liverpool came.”
His adaptation period on Merseyside was tough. He didn’t speak English, his coach, Rodolfo Borrell, left within a few weeks of his arrival and he found the training, in particular the physical side of it, extremely difficult.
“It was like ‘boom!’ you go from a heated room, nice and comfortable, and you open the door and it’s freezing cold,” he remembers.
“Everything was so professional, they were doing body fat, they were doing gym, you know? Some of my team-mates would do pull-ups with 15 kilos on their belt! I was looking at them like 'How is this possible?!' I couldn’t even lift myself!”
He lived initially with house parents in West Derby – "an old couple, they were like my grandparents!" he remembers – before his family moved across to join him.
He used another Spaniard, Pedro Chirivella, as a translator in the dressing room, and admits he was taken aback by the standard of player he was suddenly training alongside.
“There was a thing in Spain where people would say English players are not as good as us, that they don’t have the quality,” he says. “Then, I train with Liverpool U18s. I was like 'Wow! Why did I ever believe everyone in Spain?'
“You see Ryan Kent doing stepovers, Harry Wilson scoring free kicks with his eyes closed, Sheyi Ojo running down the wing. I was like ‘How am I going to play here?!' I came because I thought it was easy, and the first three wingers I saw training with me, they are better than me!”
Bit by bit, though, he adjusted. He even joined in with the senior squad in his first season, called up to Melwood by Brendan Rodgers, to train alongside the likes of Luis Suarez, Steven Gerrard, Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling.
“The first day I went, it was one of the best training sessions I’ve ever done!” he smiles. “Brendan called me over afterwards and said they were very impressed, very happy. Even Luis Suarez said to me 'You’re going to be coming every day now!’”
And what about Gerrard?
“He trained like he was playing on a Saturday – he was doing sliding tackles!” he laughs. “He made one on me and I was like ‘Oh my god!’ I was happy that he’d done it to me. I wanted to go and tell my friends!”
Canos progressed well, and moved to Brentford on loan for the 2015-16 season. His debut came at Elland Road, an experience he’ll do well to forget.
“I was sitting on the bench, and the things they were saying behind, I was like ‘Wow!” he says. “My dad said after the game that it was better than any ground he’d ever been to in Spain. We’d been in Camp Nou, Bernabeu, Mestalla, nothing compared to Leeds. He was like 'Is it going to be like this every weekend?!'"
After 39 appearances and seven goals on loan, he returned to Liverpool. He trained with the seniors under Jurgen Klopp, and made his Reds debut in that final-day draw at West Brom. By then, though, he’d already decided that his long-term future lay elsewhere.
“I got a bit tired of Liverpool,” he says, diplomatically. He joined Norwich that summer.
At Carrow Road, he encountered the likes of James Maddison and Ben Godfrey but found, in Alex Neil, a manager who seemed to have little faith in his talent.
“I didn’t understand it,” Canos says. “Why pay £3 million ($4.25m) and not even have me on the bench?! I wasn’t demanding to play. The team was not doing well, but I just wanted 10 minutes, 15 and let’s see what happens.
“[Neil] just said that he didn’t think that Jacob Murphy was going to be so good that season. And because Jacob was so good, I just had to wait for my chance. Then, they lost 10 in a row and I never got to be on the bench. I knew I had to move.”
And so he did. Back to Brentford, where he felt happy and at home, and where his form returned immediately.
He’s made close to 150 appearances since. It would have been more, too, were it not for the ruptured anterior cruciate ligament he suffered in October 2019 at Nottingham Forest. He was, he believes, “in the best moment of my career” when it happened.
It would be more than nine months before he would play again, but he believes the break helped him.
“My mentality changed completely,” he says. “Now, I understand why top players are playing in top leagues. I understand how much it takes.
“It’s very difficult to have that mentality. I used to see Ronaldo in his documentary saying ‘I have a gym, I do the ice bath every day, blah, blah, blah’ and I would say ‘Why do that? No point, you are Cristiano Ronaldo, you will score anyway!’
“But no, I was so wrong. It’s not like that. You have to have that mentality.”
Canos’ form this season has been stellar, and so has Brentford’s. Beaten in the play-off final by Fulham at Wembley last season, Thomas Frank’s side currently occupy the second automatic promotion spot. With 14 games remaining, the Premier League is within sight once more.
“It would mean everything,” Canos says. “That’s where I want to be. When I came down to Norwich and Brentford, I saw the Premier League as so far away, because I didn’t have the right mentality. But thanks to the injury, it made me realise ‘ok, what do you want? Where do you want to go? Where is the limit?’
“I know this sounds like a publicity thing, but I asked these questions after the operation and when my rehab started: 'What am I doing this for? What’s my dream?'
“I want to play Champions League, I want to play in the Premier League, I want to play at the top. I’m not here wasting my time just to play football. I want to be the best, and that’s what it would mean for me going back to the Prem.”