After reeling off a long list of La Masia alumni, Sergi Canós smiles before puffing his cheeks as he recalls life inside the goldfish bowl of Barcelona’s famed talent factory, having joined aged 13. “It was when [Pep] Guardiola won six trophies in a season,” he says. “It was amazing because La Masia became ‘Wow, La Masia’. And we were living in La Masia. I laugh now but we used to look out of the windows of the rooms and you would see the tourist bus. Everyone was taking photos because it became where Messi used to live, where Iniesta used to live, Busquets, Piqué, Puyol, Valdés.”
These days, Canós plays for a team some dub the Barcelona of the Championship: Brentford. The winger dismisses such a comparison but admits there are shades of his Spanish schooling in Dean Smith’s side, who visit Arsenal in the Carabao Cup third round on Wednesday. After a 2-0 win over Wigan this month, the club’s owner, Matthew Benham, tweeted the words “liquid football”. Canós chuckles.
“A lot of people compare us with them. Barcelona is Barcelona but Brentford is Brentford. The counter-pressing, moving the ball quick, wide players giving width. It is basically the same. We are all different but we try to play good football. It is great for us; I don’t think anyone – maybe Leeds – plays like we play.
“Teams come to Griffin Park and don’t play how they play at home. They try and stop us playing. That’s amazing, because they are worried about us. That’s kind of a respect. We don’t defend that much. We defend with the ball and that’s important. I think it’s going to be a great game; I hope we can show Arsenal what Brentford are all about.”
Canós, who was born in Nules, 50km north of Valencia, lived with around 100 others at La Masia, the stone farmhouse residence a few feet from the Camp Nou. Guardiola, another graduate from that fabled structure, was a regular visitor. It was at La Masia where Barcelona’s academy players born outside the city were housed until 2011, when a new site was opened at the Joan Gamper training base.
As a kid Canós went to Mestalla with his father, Pepe, to watch Valencia and players such as his childhood idol David Villa, Kily González and Gaizka Mendieta. He played for Castellón and Espanyol, having rejected Villarreal – “they used to call my mum every morning” – before joining Liverpool from Barcelona as a 16-year-old.
At La Masia Canós roomed for three years with Julio Pleguezuelo, who departed in the same summer for Arsenal. Josimar Quintero also left, for Chelsea. Canós had witnessed Héctor Bellerín and Jon Toral make similar moves to English clubs. “We all lived together, you see them every day and they were older but you see them step into English football,” he says of a path also taken by Cesc Fàbregas in 2003. “They are like your brothers. I think I was 14 when Héctor and Jon left and I thought: ‘If the opportunity comes, why not take it?’ When I was 16 Liverpool came and I took that opportunity.”
For two months Canós lived with a family in West Derby, round the corner from Melwood, to improve his English, before his parents and younger sister, Judit, joined him, with his father opening a tapas restaurant called Gracias off Penny Lane. As for the move itself Canós, who conducts this interview in effortless English, considered it a no-brainer.
“In Barcelona they said you can be in under-18s, under-19s, but I couldn’t play real football. Liverpool offered me real football and I trained with the first team sometimes. For a kid of 16 that was amazing. If you get told that in the next months you are going to train with Luis Suárez, Steven Gerrard and Brendan Rodgers as a manager – you take it. I’d take it now, in five years and in 10 years.”
He made only one appearance, against West Bromwich Albion in May 2016, and left Liverpool that summer. A successful loan at Brentford whetted his appetite for first-team football and his mind was made up. “After Christmas I took the decision I didn’t want to sign a new contract with Liverpool. They offered me five years more but I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to be one more; I wanted to be important and I didn’t want to go on loan again.
“To sign for five more years at Liverpool, it meant that my career was going to depend on Liverpool, them making decisions for me. They didn’t offer me the opportunity to try and train and play for the first team. I made my debut but it wasn’t a good thing, I don’t think. It was a good thing because then they could sell me for £2.5m to Norwich.”
Canós found a six-month stint in Norfolk difficult, and a return to Brentford, the club he fell in love with, beckoned. Last season the Bees made a late charge for the play-offs and this time they are determined to go one better. After a second defeat of the season, at Derby on Saturday, they slipped to seventh but in Neal Maupay they have the division’s top scorer and in the forward Ollie Watkins and defender Ezri Konsa, two of the country’s brightest young talents.
Canós, still only 21, counts himself lucky to have tasted so many different experiences. Asked what’s next, he replies: “The future is getting to the Premier League with Brentford.” Is it possible? “Yes, of course. You just have to come to Griffin Park and watch us play.”
• Among Canos’s class at Liverpool was Harry Wilson, the Wales winger who showcased further evidence of his quality with a stunning, swerving free-kick for Derby County at Old Trafford. It was a special night not only for the loanees Wilson and Mason Mount but also for the academy graduate Jayden Bogle. “At every opportunity, within reason, I will include young players that show in their work that they deserve to be included,” Frank Lampard said on the eve of this season.
• A trip to Bristol City on Friday night may prove the perfect tonic for Aston Villa, with Steve Bruce under increasing pressure after one win in their past eight matches in all competitions. Having retained Jack Grealish and bolstered his squad with Yannick Bolasie and Tammy Abraham – among four former City players set to feature at Ashton Gate – Bruce has been armed with a squad to compete at the top, and they have to start doing so.
• Accrington Stanley are still trying to reunite a fan … with their false teeth. The League One club – who this week tied their manager John Coleman to a new contract after a solid start – posted a picture of the rogue dentures after a win over AFC Wimbledon, a result that lifted them to ninth.