It was February 2, 2019. Blackburn Rovers were the visitors to Griffin Park.
Raya started in goal for Blackburn — and helped them take a second-minute lead. He collected a cross and initiated a counter-attack by rolling the ball out to midfielder Lewis Travis, a move that ended at the far end of the pitch with Bradley Dack tucking away Adam Armstrong’s cross.
Brentford’s recruitment department had already extensively scouted the then-23-year-old Raya, but this moment of intelligence and quick-thinking erased any doubts they had about his ability. He went on to concede five times that afternoon as Brentford romped to victory but it did not bother Frank.
The Spanish goalkeeper joined Brentford on a four-year contract that summer for £3 million, and he signed an extension just over 12 months later that runs until the end of the 2023-24 season.
During his time with the west London club, Raya’s ability with the ball at his feet has been invaluable.
It is no coincidence that Brentford suffered a dip in form after Raya suffered a knee injury in a 2-1 defeat to Leicester City in October that kept him out for almost four months, winning only three of the 14 league games he missed and losing nine.
His return at the start of February stabilised the side and they have won six of their 13 matches since, a run that has secured Brentford just their second-ever season in the Premier League.
When the 26-year-old was called up to Spain’s squad for the first time in March, it was a well-deserved reward for his performances in the top flight.
His debut against Albania marked the latest chapter in a footballing journey that began in a small town on the outskirts of Barcelona…
Raya grew up in Palleja, a 20-minute drive north west from the centre of Barcelona.
Despite living so close to the Nou Camp, he supported Real Madrid during his childhood and idolised their goalkeeper, future World Cup-winning Spain captain Iker Casillas. He would spend hours playing futsal with his older brother on a pitch next to their house, which explains his natural ability with the ball at his feet.
Local club Cornella, who are in Spain’s third tier, scouted him when he was nine after watching him playing with his friends.
Andres Manzano has been associated with Cornella for 29 years, as a player, head of academy and now general director. Manzano, who helped to oversee the developments of Barcelona and Spain full-back Jordi Alba and Cagliari forward Keita Balde, a Spanish-born Senegal international, recalls that Raya stood out even back then.
“His agility, reaction speed and reflexes were impressive,” Manzano tells The Athletic. “He had a very good long pass too, especially with his right foot. He was very communicative, he was not shy and was really passionate.
“He was a leader, because of his attitude. If you had asked me if David would become a professional footballer, I would have said yes. You knew he could do something special because he was really disciplined. He is a shining example to our academy players.”
Manzano believes Cesar Lopez, Cornella’s now-retired goalkeeping coach, is one of the “secrets of Raya’s success”. Lopez spotted the kid’s potential early on and would make him train with older age groups to challenge him.
A decade ago, Blackburn had an arrangement with Cornella where they would take the Spanish club’s most promising young players on trial. It was a set-up organised by Steve Nickson, who was Blackburn’s head of academy recruitment until he joined Newcastle United in 2011 in the same role and is now head of first-team recruitment there for Eddie Howe and the Premier League club’s new owners.
Raya was invited over to Lancashire at the age of 16 but encountered some resistance when he turned up.
“Blackburn were worried he wouldn’t grow to 6ft,” Manzano says. “But he has very big hands. I told them to measure his size with his hands, not just his head!”
Phil Cannon, Blackburn’s academy manager at the time, was undeterred at least, and decided to sign Raya anyway.
The teenager was soon allowed to work with the Championship club’s first team and John Keeley, their goalkeeping coach at the time, was immediately impressed.
“You could just see right from the word go that he had talent,” Keeley tells The Athletic. “He would train his socks off every day, and he did his gym work properly too.
“He had obviously done a lot of ball work with his feet (before coming to Blackburn) — I had nothing to do with that. He just found it so easy and that came from his upbringing. But, once training had finished, he would still practise his kicking with me.”
To address the concerns about Raya’s size, Blackburn came up with an intense fitness programme. Raya would do multiple gym sessions each week that were focused on bulking up his physique and increasing his power. Keeley would then put him through drills to test the strength in his thighs and “stop him from diving backwards”.
The pair worked a lot on improving his ability to claim crosses, too. Yet, it was not just on the training ground where Raya showed dedication. Blackburn’s staff were impressed with his progress in his English lessons.
During those first few months at Blackburn, Raya’s parents, grandfather and brother would come to visit him, along with Manzano.
Moving a thousand miles from home to another country at 16 could have been overwhelming. Raya complained about the food and the weather, but he was determined to succeed — he had ignored interest from Spanish clubs to go to England and achieve his dream of reaching the Premier League. On one visit, Manzano remembers Raya pestering the coaches after training had finished if they could stay out on the pitch and work with him for longer.
In September 2014, a 19-year-old Raya was sent out on loan to gain experience.
He joined Southport, then in the fifth-tier National League, on an initial one-month deal. Southport had only won three of their first 14 matches that season and parted company with manager Martin Foyle following a 5-2 loss at home to Woking.
Gary Brabin was watching from the stands and a few days later, he took charge. Southport were fourth-bottom, and part of Brabin’s plan to get them out of relegation trouble was to encourage the team to play out from the back. He found the perfect keeper for that style in Raya.
“I instantly took a shine to David,” Brabin says. “It was rare back then in the lower leagues to get a foreign goalkeeper. I liked the fact that he was different. He had a bit about him and he was backing it up with the way he was training.
“He was confident, agile, and his feet were unbelievable. Some people go into their shells when they’re performing in a game, but I never thought that with him for a minute. He was unbelievable from that first day of working with him. He could do everything we asked for.
“A few weeks (after Brabin took over), I saw Blackburn’s staff at a game where I was scouting. They asked me how I rated him. I said, ‘Honestly, he is your best goalkeeper at the whole club’. They were taken aback.”
Following Brabin’s appointment and with Raya in goal, Southport went on a six-match unbeaten run in the October and November and started to move away from the bottom of the table. The loan deal was extended until the January, and he also helped the Merseyside club through three ties to reach the FA Cup third round, where they drew Derby County away.
Derby were third in the Championship at the time under former England manager Steve McClaren having lost the previous season’s play-off final and should have swatted their non-League visitors aside, but Raya put in an incredible performance with a succession of impressive saves.
Although Derby won 1-0, finally finding a way past Raya from the penalty spot three minutes into second-half stoppage time, all of the attention was on Southport’s budding Spanish superstar. Keeley watched that match and believes it was a “defining moment” in the goalkeeper’s career — that was his final appearance for Southport as Blackburn recalled him straight afterwards.
Brabin left Southport himself a couple of weeks after that FA Cup tie to join Everton’s academy set-up. He told the Premier League club to take a look at Raya and they did make an enquiry, but by that point, the youngster was part of Blackburn’s first-team plans.
On April 4, three months on from his last match for Southport and with Blackburn safe from relegation but 10 points away from the play-offs, he made his Championship debut away to Leeds United.
“He had put in some really good performance for the reserves,” Keeley says. “We gave him his debut at Leeds and straight away he made an unbelievable save. I honestly believe that gave him the confidence he could perform.
“We all know what his kicking is like — it’s out of this world. But six minutes into the game at Elland Road he started taking all of the free kicks on the halfway line! He was 19 and it didn’t faze him.”
Manager Gary Bowyer had seen enough and decided to make Raya first-choice for the 2015-16 season — even though he didn’t turn 20 until the September.
“His technical ability really stood out,” Bowyer says. “We hadn’t seen somebody that good at that age with the ball at his feet. He was composed and cool with the ball.
“We always questioned his height: ‘Would he be big enough?’ But he more than makes up for that. He has a fantastic work ethic. He does everything right. He wanted to get better and learn. He didn’t take shortcuts. He pushed himself on the training pitch and in the gym.”
However, things did not go according to plan that season.
Raya was in the side for the first five league matches, and Blackburn failed to win any of them. He was dropped and did not play for the first team again that season. Paul Lambert replaced Bowyer in November 2015 then stepped down at the end of the season after delivering a 15th-place finish.
Owen Coyle took over as manager, but Raya’s chances remained limited.
After showing so much early promise, it felt like his career was stagnating.
Coyle was fired the following February with Blackburn second-bottom, and under replacement Tony Mowbray they were relegated on goal difference three months later.
That drop down into League One finally prompted the club to put their faith in Raya, though.
He only missed one of the 46 league games in 2017-18 as they secured automatic promotion and was narrowly beaten to the Golden Glove award by champions Wigan Athletic’s Christian Walton, who kept 19 clean sheets to his 17.
Mowbray kept Blackburn up the following season, which is when Brentford started to take notice of Raya.
Frank had become their head coach in October 2018 when Dean Smith took the Aston Villa job and the Dane was determined to implement a progressive style.
After the Blackburn match mentioned at the top of this piece in the February, Frank analysed a lot of Raya’s performances, focusing on the goalkeeper’s interactions in the box and his confidence coming off his line. When he compared Raya to the club’s other targets at the position, Frank knew he had found his man.
Raya’s 2019-20 Brentford debut season is, unfairly, defined by the Championship play-off final.
Brentford and Fulham were goalless after 90 minutes at Wembley and went into extra time. In the 105th minute, Fulham were awarded a free kick 40 yards out.
A member of their coaching staff pointed out to Joe Bryan that Raya had taken up a high starting position. The defender’s set piece deceived him and snuck in at Raya’s near post to give Fulham the lead. They went on to secure a 2-1 win and a place in the Premier League.
When Raya was called up by Spain in March, having helped Brentford go up themselves by the same play-off route last season, Frank referenced that Fulham game and the resilience his keeper showed to bounce back from it. “That was devastating for him,” Frank said. “I clearly remember I went to him straight after and said, ‘You just have to be braver and have an even higher position next year, and do it better’.
“Then we got to the Premier League, he’s performing unbelievably well in the first eight games, and then he had another slap in his face with a big injury. He’s come back stronger on both occasions. That mentality is so important, you’re only building stronger with your setbacks.”
After that knee injury against Leicester, Raya broke down in tears in his car when the doctors told him how long he would be out. Brentford lost nine of the 14 matches he missed. During his time away from the pitch, the club’s goalkeeping coach Manu Sotelo kept him stimulated by getting him to do exercises with tennis balls and encouraging him to analyse footage of his performances.
His influence on the team and the important role he plays in organising their defence have been clear to see — Brentford have kept clean sheets in their last four home matches. The west London club intend to hold talks with him in the summer over an extension to a contract which has two years left to run.
Eight years after playing in the fifth tier of English football, Raya’s progress has been remarkable — and could still get better with a place in Spain’s World Cup squad in November.
(Top photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)