SITTING at home on the Greek island of Lesbos, Juanma appeared to have the idyllic existence most people dream of. A luxurious lifestyle in the sun, a home, a car and good salary all provided by his club, Kalloni.
Yet deep down he was destroyed. Kalloni were holding him to a one-year pre-agreed contract extension and denying him a move to Hearts.
This was four weeks ago. Publicly, a statement on the Greek club’s website stated an agreement had been reached that the striker would stay for another 12 months. Privately, he desperately wanted out. He had already met Robbie Neilson, the Hearts head coach, in his native Spain and was convinced he had to manufacture a transfer to Edinburgh.
Weeks of negotiations continued. Just when it looked like Kalloni would permit his exit, the deal collapsed. It took the player’s brother, Joseve, and agent Clive Jagger to fly from Spain to Greece to restart talks. Eventually, officials at the Mytilene Municipal Stadium relented. They let Juanma go to Hearts for free, with a deal that he would pay compensation himself if he later reached the top level of European football.
The weight was lifted from his shoulders and, finally, the move to Scotland was on. He arrived at Edinburgh airport on Thursday morning and was a Hearts player by early afternoon. It brought an end to the most tense and anxious summer of the 24-year-old’s career. His drive and determination to play in Britain had paid off.
“I was convinced this was where I had to be. This is where I had to come,” explained Juanma, Kalloni’s top goalscorer last season. “There was a lot of anxiety at one time when I thought the move wouldn’t happen. We managed to get through it initially and solve it. I was very sad at one point when I thought I was going to sign a few weeks back but then something else came up. I tried not to show it.”
After translating for his client, Jagger outlined more of the detail: “Myself and Juanma’s brother jumped on a plane and went over to Greece. The only way we knew we would solve that is by going over there. The Greeks bark a lot more than they bite. It’s a complicated deal. There was an agreement in place with the previous agent. I agreed to take over Juanma’s contract six months ago because of my relationship with Craig Levein [Hearts’ director of football].
“Juanma had a private pre-contract agreement that his previous agent had done. It was a crazy agreement that would’ve involved paying the agent money to hold the agreement. It would seem the document wasn’t valid but it would’ve been a very long and complicated legal battle. We knew we had to reach a friendly agreement to avoid those complications.
“He [Juanma] has been really cool. He has not given any kind of negative thoughts about this or put me under any pressure. His brother has taken the whole load. He has never put any of us under any pressure.”
The long-term aim is getting to England. Juanma believes his hulking frame and bustling style are ideally suited to British football and he hankers after the English Premier League. That move remains a distant dream for now as he must first endear himself to the Tynecastle public.
“I’m convinced I can get there, I just want to start playing and scoring goals. I have no doubt I can reach the very top,” he said.
“How realistic is getting to England? It will be a process, game by game. I need to score goals. It’s a long process and we have to see how things go. When I spoke to Robbie, he was so enthusiastic about me coming to the club.”
Curiously, Juanma has already rejected the chance to play in England for more money. The Bristol City manager Steve Cotterill wanted the forward at Ashton Gate next season, but a newly-promoted Championship club did not appeal.
“In my view, it might be right in a year or two, if the offer is right for Hearts, to go to a top Championship club. That’s a step further,” said Jagger. “I’m putting all my confidence in him becoming a top footballer. We agreed this move to Hearts together – his brother, me and Juanma. He’s going to get time to play and score goals. A forward who doesn’t play or score is useless. That’s what our decision was based on.”
One template Juanma may aim to follow is that of Miguel Pallardo, a fellow Valencian. The midfielder’s career was in danger of stalling when he left Levante last year until he arrived at Riccarton on a short-term deal. He is now an established member of Neilson’s team and is idolised by supporters. “Miguel has done really well here. His career was off track last year and now it’s right back on track,” said Jagger.
Pallardo was one whom Juanma consulted for information on Hearts. The former Tynecastle winger Suso Santana was also asked for advice. “Myself and Suso have a mutual friend so I spoke to him about what it would be like at Hearts,” said the striker. “The message came back that it was a great city and a great club, very professional. I also met up with Miguel a few months ago and he said it was a fantastic place to play.
“I never played with anybody who has gone on to become famous but at Levante I did play against the likes of Isco, who is now at Real Madrid. There were quite a lot of players at youth level who have gone on to do very well in their careers.”
The player he idolised as a youngster was Fernando Torres, even though Juanma is a Real Madrid fan and Torres is a living legend at city rivals Atletico.
“I am very strong, I’ve got quality and I can score goals. Torres is someone I have always admired.”
Standing in the rain at Tynecastle during his unveiling, the sunshine of Madrid, Valencia and the Greek islands must have seemed a million miles away for Juanma. But he gives the impression there is nowhere else he’d rather be.