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How LFC hepled to establish a Spanish stalwart.

Byline: JOE RIMMER ECHO Reporter joe.rimmer@liverpool.com @joerimmer88

IS time at Anfield was fleeting.

HSigned by Rafa Benitez at the age of just 18 in summer 2007, Mikel San Jose arrived at Liverpool with a reputation as one of the brightest young stars in Spain.

But just three years later - and without a first-team appearance to his name - San Jose was gone from Anfield, returning to his home, Athletic Bilbao.

In truth, most Liverpool fans won't even remember the defender, who did appear a number of times in pre-season in 2009, as well as being picked for bench duties against Chelsea in 2008.

And San Jose was a rock in the late Gary Ablett's reserves who won the Premier League North title in 2009.

But 12 years since he joined the Reds, San Jose has carved out a very good career for himself back in his homeland.

In fact, apart from that brief spell on Merseyside, San Jose is a one-club man.

He has been an ever present in Athletic's side since returning to the club on loan in 2009, never making fewer than 30 appearances in a season for his hometown side.

At the age of just 30, San Jose has turned out 385 times for Bilbao, and has proven himself to be a solid and reliable defender both domestically and in the Champions League.

Not just that, San Jose is a threat at the other end of the pitch.

He's scored 37 goals in his Athletic career, including as many as eight in a single season in 2014/15.

Such was his form at one stage that San Jose was called up to Spain's full squad, gaining seven full caps and joining the Spanish squad for Euro 2016.

He has even played for the unofficial Basque Country side.

Speaking to Sky Sports in 2017, San Jose revealed how a phone call with Rafa Benitez changed his life.

And although the path took him away from his hometown club, San Jose's move to Liverpool would ultimately prepare him perfectly for a long career in La Liga.

He said: "I was at home in Pamplona with my family.

"I wasn't even 18 and I was happy at Athletic. The idea that such a big club could be interested in me had never even entered my head.

"It was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. It was a hard decision but I never regretted it.

"It was good for me. The player I am now is thanks to the experience I had there.

"Spending two years in Liverpool, surrounded by world-class players and coaches who helped every player improve, it was very important."

San Jose was even lucky enough to have a special relationship with another Basque native at Liverpool - a certain Xabi Alonso.

"He treated everyone well but, being Basque, we had a more special relationship," says San Jose.

"He was phenomenal with me in the two years I was there.

San Jose (right) up against Lionel Messi in 2018 "Then we came back to Spain at the same time.

"I returned to Athletic and he went to Real Madrid. Since then, we have always had a very good relationship."

San Jose clearly has fond memories of his time at Anfield, but ultimately the form of players ahead of him would speed up his departure.

And when the chance came to return home, he jumped at it.

"There were four centre-backs who were magnificent - Jamie Carragher, Dani Agger, Martin Skrtel and Sami Hyypia - so it was difficult to get minutes," he explained.

"I knew returning home would give me more chances. At the beginning it was hard here as well, I didn't get many opportunities, but it was a step I understood I had to take. There was no better place to take that step than back home."

He may be a footnote in Liverpool's history - but the move to Anfield might just be the best one Mikel San Jose ever made.

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San Jose (right) against Lionel Messi in 2018
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Publication:Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England)
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:Jun 29, 2019
Words:674
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