Sergio Torres may not be as famous as his Chelsea namesake Fernando, but the Argentine footballer has plenty of tales to tell from his career. In his Footballers’ Football Column the Crawley midfielder explains how he used to work shifts at Boots before going to play on a Saturday and how he slept in the boardroom of one club when he had nowhere to live. After getting his chance in Football League with Wycombe, Torres has played for Peterborough and Lincoln and has now become favourite at Crawley where he has won two promotions with the club.
I was working in a brick factory in Mar del Plata, Argentina, when I was 22. It was a hard world there. I was playing semi-professional football, but I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do: I wanted to make a living from football.
I told my mum I was going to England for three weeks with $300 in my pocket but I’m still here, 10 years on. I met my wife Lena, who is from Germany, and we’ve got a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Luna.
On my first night in England I had to share a bed with another guy because the Cameroonian agent who picked me up from the airport had about six people living in his house. It was late at night and, an hour after I arrived, another man, a random person, came in and said: ‘Move over.’ The house was in Norbury, south London. I thought I was coming to the London of Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, not Croydon! It didn’t look like the pictures I had seen. It was tough.
For me, England the hardest place in Europe to try and make it as a footballer because of the language barrier. I thought my game would suit the English style, but everything was all so completely new. But my grandmother – my dad’s mum - was Italian, so I’ve got an Italian passport and could get a work permit.
My surname is Spanish. During Crawley’s FA Cup run in 2010-11 there were a lot of comparisons between me and Fernando Torres. I remember one newspaper did a head-to-head: our cars, wages and houses and all that. I think I paid £185,000 for my flat and he paid £4million or something! I always wonder if he’s heard about me and knows there’s a Torres playing in the lower leagues.
I had a two-week trial at Brighton when I first came to England but I was always at the back of the queue because, when they explained the exercises, I didn’t understand a thing. Mark McGhee, the manager, told me I wasn’t strong or quick enough for English football and I thank him for that. But I needed to stay fit, so I had to train on my own in the mornings, at a school behind the house in Norbury. I had a ball and I was just playing games on my own, making sure I didn’t clash with the school breaks when the kids would all be outside. I did that for nearly two months.
I fell out with the agent and his brother but then my mother realised her friend’s son, Cristian Levis, was in London, too. I went to live with him in Paddington and we found a club at Molesey. We played there for two months but they couldn’t pay us, so we joined Basingstoke instead and lived with a couple, some Basingstoke fans who were newly married, at first.
They were incredibly friendly and so helpful. I’m not sure I would have done the same, had it been the other way round! After a few months we had to move – and we ended up staying for the three months in the boardroom at Basingstoke. The day of the game we had to hide our beds and all our clothes, then put them back in place again after the game because the club wanted to keep it quiet. Cristian and I were working in a Boots warehouse as well, to earn some money. It was going well - I even won 'Employee of the Month'! - until they said we had to work two Saturdays in every four.
They arranged it so we could work when Basingstoke played at home but I fell asleep during the team talk the first time I had to get up at 5.30am to do a shift before going to the ground. It makes me laugh when people talk about the need to rest before games now: I somehow managed to do that for three months.
Basingstoke played a friendly against Wycombe Wanderers in 2005 and I thought: ‘This is my chance.’ John Gorman, the Wycombe boss, asked me to go along for training two days a week. After a month on trial he signed me and gave me my first two-year professional contract at the age of 24. I had three great years at Wycombe. I didn’t have to work up at 5.30am anymore and cycle to the Boots warehouse before games, for a start.
In 2007 Wycombe got to the semi-finals of the Carling Cup and played Chelsea. We lost 5-1 on aggregate but it was just: ‘Wow.’ I came on for the last half an hour at Stamford Bridge and I was looking around and seeing Drogba, Shevchenko, Lampard, Ballack, Essien, Carvalho, Cole, Cech and thinking: ‘What am I doing here? Last year I was working at Boots.’
Wycombe sold me to Peterborough, who were in League One, but it didn’t work out. I had just had an ankle operation and missed pre-season, then the manager put me on the right wing and I didn’t like playing there. I ended up falling into a small depression.
I didn’t want to go to training and I just wanted to go back home to Argentina. My girlfriend, now my wife, helped me a lot, and I started seeing a sports psychologist. I was scared of touching the ball. I used to get picked last in training and, it might sound like a small thing, but it really got in my head. They had paid £150,000 for me and I was thinking about the price tag all the time. I put a lot of pressure on myself.
I played in the Championship for Peterborough, but then Steve Evans at Crawley Town offered me a two-year deal in 2010. It was hard for me to drop to the Conference, but sometimes you have to go back to go forwards.
I’ve been here four years now and it was the best decision I’ve ever made. I’ve won two promotions and we had that FA Cup run, where I scored the last minute goal against Derby County. That was the best feeling I have ever had on a football pitch. And then playing against Manchester United at Old Trafford in front of 75,000 people. In the tunnel I couldn’t stop thinking about everything I had done, all the hard work, to get there. Wembley’s the only one I’m missing now – that would be the icing on the cake.
I call Steve Evans ‘The Grump’ but it's meant affectionately. He’s a funny character. He hates losing and loves winning. You didn’t want to be in that dressing room if you were losing. He shouts. Really shouts.
I had to have a meeting with him once because I didn’t like the way he was talking to me but he just said: ‘Don’t take it personally.’ I just tried to block him out when he was shouting at me and the next day he would come in, give you a cuddle and tell me he loved me. That was just the way he was, and I think I played my best football under him.
A journalist from Argentina, Juan Manuel Lopez, wrote about my life story in a newspaper back home and suggested we did a book. At first I said: ‘No – I’m not a big name. I’m not a Wayne Rooney or a Frank Lampard. Who’s going to buy my book? My family, my friends maybe?’ But then I thought: ‘Do you know what? What have I got to lose?’ I wrote a diary when I first came to England so I had already had everything recorded. We wrote it in the first and the third person and it took us two years. The Spanish version came out last November and I ended up paying £3,000 to get it translated into English so it could be published over here.
Writing a book was quite an emotional process. I had tears in my eyes the first time I read it back. But sometimes it’s good to sit down and look back on what you’ve achieved. Looking back, I don’t know if I would have done what I did aged 22 again, coming over to England to follow my dream of being a professional footballer. I didn’t speak the language and I just had a piece of paper with set phrases on it, like: ‘Hello, my name is Sergio. I’m from Argentina.’ It’s been quite a journey.
Click here for more information on The Sergio Torres Story.