Francisco Sandaza

by Gary Henderson

Last season, despite having a strong defence, St. Johnstone found goals hard to come by. The club were calling out for a striker to bring that clinical edge in front of goal, and the management team promised exciting signings to improve the sides ‘goals for’ column. It came late, and many fans were worried that they wouldn’t find the right man. But up stepped Francisco Sandaza, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Sandaza joined Saints on a free transfer following his release from newly-promoted Championship side Brighton, and made an immediate impact. The journey to Perthshire has been a long one though, and it all began for ‘Fran’ as a young boy from the Spanish town of Toledo who had a dream of playing the ‘beautiful game.’

I’d been playing football all my life. When I was seven years-old I signed for Real Madrid under-eights, and I knew from that moment I had a chance of making it. It was always my main objective. I didn’t actually really make it until I was twenty-three, as I didn’t sign a full professional contract until I joined Dundee United. It took a long time, but I’m glad that I stuck in.”

It was at Spanish giants Valencia where Francisco began to flourish as a player. Impressing the coaches by constantly scoring for the B-side, the flamboyant Spanaird was sent in to train with the first-team on a regular basis. And it’s an experience which has served him well in his career.

“I signed a deal as a youngster with Valencia. It was massive for me. They are such a big and important club in my homeland, it was an honour. I was playing well in the B team and I got to train with the first-team. I got to play alongside the likes of Fernando Morientes, David Silva and David Villa. It was a great experience, but it was frustrating as I was always behind them and it meant I never got my chance with the club.”

Following his departure from the club, Sandaza was considering leaving behind his dreams of being a professional footballer and taking up a role with the Spanish police. However, he quickly regained his passion for the game, and he decided to swap the warm Mediterranean climate in order to brave the cooler Scottish weather.

“As I mentioned, I didn’t sign a full professional deal until I was twenty-three. The money wasn’t great in the B-side, and the offers I had from the Spanish Second Division were not good enough either. My brother is a police officer, and my father was in the army so that’s where my interest in joined the police force came from. In the end I didn’t go through with it, and an offer came in from Dundee United which was too good to turn down.”

Many would question Fran’s sanity for choosing Scotland over Spain, however the clinical forward was looking at the bigger picture. His decision was to try and forward his career, and he viewed the SPL as the perfect place to do just that.

“When I heard about Dundee United’s interest, it excited me. The opportunity to play in the top division in Scotland was a good one for me. I wanted to try and prove myself and get myself to the highest possible level. I also had the ambition to learn English. When I first came to the UK, I could not speak any English whatsoever. Now, although my English isn’t perfect, it has improved a lot. The decision was a no-brainer for me, and although I was sad to leave Spain, I was finally a full professional.”

Scottish football has come under a lot of scrutiny from the press in recent times. And with that in mind, the difference between our national game and that of the World and European Champions’ is going to be massive. For Francisco, he feels his game actually suits the style of the SPL.

“The difference is huge. In Spain, the game is much slower and more technical. There are a lot of gifted players, who play short passes along the ground. However in Scotland the game is more aggressive. There are a lot of long passes and counter-attacks, and it is much more direct and pacey. I actually think the game here suits me well. As a striker I like the balls over the top and the crosses in to the box. I love the counter-attacking football and the chances that it creates for me to score goals.”

Sandaza was an immediate hit with the Tannadice faithful, and was the club’s top goalscorer in his opening season. However things couldn’t stay rosy forever, and an injury-stricken second season with Dundee United resulted in the striker parting company with the Tayside club.

“I had a great first season with Dundee United. I finished as the clubs top scorer, and there was a lot of interest in me from other clubs. However, the final three months of that season I was playing with a double hernia. At the end of the campaign I had to have an operation, and from there things just got worse. I barely played in my second season, and at the end of my contract I left. I have no hard feelings though, as the decision to let me go related to financial issues rather than football. I enjoyed my time there very much.”

Following his departure, Sandaza was in demand. Despite more offers from his native Spain, he opted to go south of the border to Brighton to play for Chelsea legend Gus Poyet.

“After I left United, I had options to go back to Spain, to Albacete. But Gus Poyet called me up, and after a long discussion he convinced me to go down to Brighton and play for him. I wish I didn’t listen to him!”

Francisco spent a year with the League One outfit, but left the club following their promotion to the Championship. And he doesn’t look back on his time in England too fondly.

“Myself and Gus had a very poor relationship. I won’t deny his ability as a manager. He is talented and he is passionate about football. But he made me promises that he failed to keep. He told me I was going to be important in his team, and that I would be play every week. I regret the move to Brighton. Gus wasn’t fair to me and I wasn’t too disappointed to see the back of him.”

After leaving the newly-promoted outfit, Sandaza spent a few months as a free agent. He was frustrated by the lack of activity, and felt he deserved a chance. Eventually, it was Derek McInnes who handed him a lifeline.

“When I left Brighton I felt I deserved a chance with a club. I scored five goals in three starts with Brighton, but obviously I didn’t play many games. I waited and waited and nothing happened. It was frustrating. Finally, Derek came in and offered me an opportunity. He wanted me to play with Cillian, and he promised me games.”

Francisco came back up North and signed for Saints. However, he found the decision to come back to Scotland a difficult one for personal reasons.

“It was a tough decision to come back to Scotland. I didn’t like the idea of being away from family much longer. But it’s been the right decision for me and I’m glad I joined St. Johnstone. I’ve proven myself, and I’m adapting well. It’s been a good opportunity, and I feel I’m taking it.”

Recently departed manager Derek McInnes was the man who brought Fran back to the SPL. And the front-man only had good words for his ex-manager.

“Derek’s a great manager. If I was to compare him to another manager I’ve worked with, it would be Craig Levein. He likes to speak with his players and he creates good relationships. I really got on great with Derek, and I was sad to see him leave. He was very good for St. Johnstone, and I hope the new manager is similar and can keep us progressing.”

With the first quarter of the season over, Sandaza has been prolific so far and is receiving praise for his partnership with on-loan striker Cillian Sheridan. And when asked about his on goals for the rest of the season, the Spaniard played it coy.

“I have a target on my mind… but I won’t tell you until I have reached it! I’m quite superstitious, so I don’t want to bring myself bad luck!”

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