By Richard Martin
BARCELONA (Reuters) – Playing against Real Madrid seemed like a pipe dream for Enric Gallego when he was driving a delivery truck to support his amateur football career but on Sunday that fantasy will become a reality for the Huesca striker.
When the 32-year-old steps on to the Santiago Bernabeu turf for the first time to face the likes of Sergio Ramos, Gareth Bale and Luka Modric, it will cap a remarkable turnaround for the Catalan forward who has scaled the Spanish football pyramid from third tier to La Liga in under a year.
Gallego thought he had missed the chance to play Madrid when his former side Cornella drew them in the Copa del Rey the year after he left.
“My (former) team mates got to play at the Bernabeu but I missed out. Now it’s my turn and I’m going to enjoy it as much as I can,” he told Reuters in an interview.
“What happened for whatever reason had to happen for me to get to this stage and I wouldn’t change anything.”
Gallego grew up on the outskirts of Barcelona, playing with former Spain international Sergio Garcia but followed a very different path.
Aged 18, Gallego’s youth team were thrown out of their league after a brawl on the pitch and he went a year without playing organised football.
The striker later moved around Catalan regional teams and had a brief spell at Espanyol’s B team, working a variety of jobs.
After narrowly avoiding a road accident while driving a truck, he chose to work for a bicycle hire company before deciding to focus exclusively on football.
“Everyone in professional football values work, they have parents, sisters and brothers who work, but having lived what I’ve lived perhaps I appreciate everything a little bit more,” he said.
Gallego made a name for himself with a hot streak of 18 goals in the first half of the 2017/18 season while at Cornella, which led to him switching to high-flying Extremadura.
He helped his new side to win promotion and began to thrive in the second tier of Spanish soccer, scoring 15 goals in under four months.
Gallego was suddenly thrust into the national spotlight and Huesca, in serious trouble in their first season in La Liga, came calling.
“Many people played at a very high level in youth football then for various reasons they never hit the level they expected,” he said.
“I always trained the same, I was in the same league for many years but then I got an opportunity and I made the most of it.”
Gallego is now being compared to other late bloomers, such as Athletic Bilbao’s Aritz Aduriz, 38, and 36-year-old Jorge Molina, who is helping Getafe’s push for Champions League qualification.
There are also parallels with Jamie Vardy, who worked as a technician making medical splints in a factory while he played amateur football before he capped a magical season with Leicester City by winning the Premier League title in 2016.
“Each year I feel more comfortable out on the pitch and physically. And when you see players like Aduriz and Molina who are performing so well at this age it encourages you to give yourself that extra push,” he said.
“If what has happened to me can be an example to other players and motivate them to keep working to take that step up in their own careers, then that’s even better.”
Having done his time in the lower leagues, Gallego is determined to extend his stay in the elite by helping Huesca’s mammoth task of staying in the top flight.
Bottom placed Huesca had won two of 19 games before signing Gallego in January. With him in the side they have won three and drawn two of their last nine, moving to within seven points of escaping the relegation zone with 10 games left.
“It will be a long journey but the way we are going and if we keep pulling together we can do it,” Gallego added.
“Playing in La Liga for half a year is lovely but I didn’t come here for that, I always want more so the next step is to avoid relegation with Huesca and enjoy a full year in La Liga.”
(Reporting by Richard Martin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)