Having arrived at Bayer 04 Leverkusen at the end of August, Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez has already made a huge impact at the club, scoring four goals in nine Bundesliga appearances to date, as well as finding the target in the UEFA Champions League and DFB Cup.
Indeed, making a good first impression is something of a habit for Chicharito, as bundesliga.com discovered in an exclusive interview with Jose Luis Real Casillas, current director of youth development and former first team head coach at Chicharito's boyhood club Chivas Guadalajara.
"I was lucky enough to be here when Chicharito arrived at the age of nine," said the amicable Real Casillas on a sunny morning at the Chivas ‘Verde Valle’ training complex in Zapopan in the west of Guadalajara. "Javier's dad brought him along for a trial and as soon as we saw him play he immediately passed the test. He wasn't a striker back then though; he was a No7, he played on the right wing."
Real Casillas, a Guadalajara native affectionately known as 'Professor' at the club he represented as a player in the 1970s, speaks fondly of his former student and has little trouble recalling what stood out about him almost 20 years ago: "He wasn't a player who did a lot of tricks and he didn't hold on to the ball for a long time. He would receive it and be very direct, very 'vertical'. That was a really unusual trait because in Mexico wingers usually try to do tricks but Javier didn't."
"He would want a lot of passes behind the defence. He didn't always want the ball with his back to goal. He would drop back a bit and then burst forward, wanting the ball played into space. That's what convinced us all and that's what set him apart."
'Javier is a role model'
Yet according to Real Casillas, it was not Chicharito’s on-field attributes alone that helped him progress. "Javier is a great footballer," explained the 63-year-old. "Here our belief is that talent by itself doesn't make you a great player. Here, a great footballer is someone who is a good person, a good student, a good son to their parents, a good citizen who has been educated in an integral way. Ever since he was a child, Javier has been a good example for everyone who knows him."
That holistic approach to player development proved successful with Chicharito, who remains a hugely popular figure at Chivas, and is warmly received whenever he drops by on visits back home. "He's a young man who's very close to his family, he's not big-headed; he's very down to earth," said Real Casillas. "He's very religious and has a deep faith in God. He’s also pícaro [mischievous] - but in a good way. I think in many ways there is a lot about Javier that makes him a role model for all Mexican footballers."
Having played on the wing until well into his teens, Chicharito did not switch to a more central role until he moved up to the Chivas first team. And there, once again, he had an instant impact. "He scored a very important goal - and a really good one at that - on his debut in the first division," said Real Casillas. However, the striker's career then appeared to stall, and he struggled for game time.
"He went through a difficult phase for different reasons," said Real Casillas. "I wasn't at Chivas at that time but from afar I thought it was strange he wasn't in the team. I later learned it was a very difficult period for him in terms of being able to find a solution to his situation and he even considered leaving the club."
It is just as well that he did not, as Real Casillas' return to Chivas following a four-year absence coincided with Chicharito exploding into form in the 2009/10 campaign: "I came back and as head coach I was fortunate enough to have Javier in the first team. In my opinion and in terms of statistics that was the best season Chivas have had in recent years because we won eight consecutive matches, which is a record here in Mexico."
Chicharito's contribution turned out to be a double-edged sword for Chivas, as it caught the attention of Manchester United FC, who signed him in July 2010. As head coach at the time of Chicharito’s departure, Real Casillas lost a key member of his side. "It was a big blow," he recalled. "Everyone was surprised and very happy for Javier, but we missed him a lot."
For Chicharito, however, it was the start of a new chapter in Europe, and one that would eventually lead him to Leverkusen.
Jose Luis Real Casillas was speaking to bundesliga.com's Jonathan Stockitt.