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How Arsenal’s David Raya joined Blackburn as a 15-year-old futsal player then ended up replacing ex-England star

NEVER waste the chance to make a first impression, so the saying goes . . . yet few have done it quite as explosively as David Raya.

At the time, Arsenal’s goalkeeper was a raw, unknown Spanish scholar who had swapped his native Barcelona sunshine for the relative footballing backwater of Blackburn’s youth set-up.

David Raya has gone from 15-year-old futsal kid at Blackburn Rovers to challenging for the title with Arsenal

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David Raya has gone from 15-year-old futsal kid at Blackburn Rovers to challenging for the title with ArsenalCredit: Getty
Raya made his bones at Rovers, helping them win promotion to the Championship

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Raya made his bones at Rovers, helping them win promotion to the ChampionshipCredit: PA:Press Association

Raya had arrived because of the Championship side’s tie-up with Cornella, a third-tier club from Catalonia. And no one knew a thing about him.

He was approaching 16, barely spoke any English and had cut his teeth playing futsal. Hardly a grounding for the ultra-physical world of the Football League.

The youngster had only been at Rovers for a few months when John Keeley arrived as goalkeeping coach, but he was already raising a few eyebrows.

So when word reached Keeley of an academy kid who looked quite useful, he had no hesitation in bringing him to train with the first team — and Raya simply blew him away.

The  coach had worked with plenty of big names over the years and former England stopper Paul Robinson and current Brighton No 1 Jason Steele were on the Ewood  books.

Yet even in that first session Raya stood out as something special and Keeley — not a man given to over-the-top statements — was impressed.

He recalled: “After his first session, I said he had to train with the first team all the time.

“Fair enough if he played in the youth team but he had to train with us.

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“Straight away he was so comfortable with the ball at his feet, so confident with his passing. And if he made a mistake, he was never flustered.

“Plus he had such huge hands. He had a size 11 glove, which is massive. It’s from his grandad, because when we met and shook hands, mine just disappeared!

“I spoke to a lot of goalkeeping coaches and, Gospel truth, I told them, ‘I promise you, this kid will play in the Premier League’. I just knew he would.”

That was still a world away, of course. Before even establishing himself at Rovers there was a loan to non-league Southport.

That  merely backed up Keeley’s belief and he added: “I used to go there to watch and the one game that stood out was when they played Derby in the FA Cup.

“David was unbelievable — it took a last-minute penalty to beat him and from there his confidence grew and grew.”

So much so that boss Gary Bowyer gave him a first-team debut two games from the end of the season, at Leeds. He did not disappoint in a 3-0 win.

Keeley said: “After about three minutes, he made an unbelievable save from a deflection off one of his own players.

“And after about five or six  minutes, he was taking free-kicks from the halfway line. That’s how confident he was — and the others were of him in letting this kid do it.”

Raya took inspiration from ex-England star Paul Robinson

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Raya took inspiration from ex-England star Paul RobinsonCredit: Action Images – Reuters
He played a key role in helping Brentford reach the Premier League

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He played a key role in helping Brentford reach the Premier LeagueCredit: PA

Raya started the following  season as first choice but Rovers were struggling. Bowyer pulled him out for his own development and not until the next year did he nail down the shirt.

He was a key figure as Blackburn — who had been relegated — returned to the Championship at the first attempt and a year later came a transfer to Brentford.

After the Bees reached the top flight, with Raya in a starring role as they lit up the Premier League, Gunners boss Mikel Arteta decided he could be the man to take last season’s runners-up one step further.

Yet while his August swoop —  initially on a 12-month loan ahead of a £27million signing — stunned some, his two mentors from the Blackburn days were not among them.

Arteta has made Raya, 28, his No 1 in place of England keeper Aaron Ramsdale, who has now been  relegated to a place on the  bench despite his heroics last season.

Bowyer, now looking to get back into football after leaving Dundee shortly after winning the Scottish Championship, said: “It may have surprised some but I am in the Arteta camp.

“Obviously there is a far bigger spotlight on David but he’s so level-headed and laid-back, that was never going to be a problem.”

Keeley was equally convinced — just as he was that Raya was never going to the Emirates as back-up to Ramsdale, like some suggested.

He insisted: “People thought he would be on the bench but there was never a chance — he was going to be No 1.

“The goalkeeping coach is Spanish, David had worked with him at Brentford, so it was obvious.

“I’m just so pleased for him — and for playing a part in helping along the way.”

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