An air of mystery surrounded Marcelo Bielsa. From his radical tactics to his inscrutable personality, he was perhaps the most fascinating Premier League manager of recent years. He was one of very few to have used an interpreter too, maintaining a distance between himself and the media which enhanced his enigmatic appeal.
This was also the case for Mauricio Pochettino, one of Bielsa’s most famous acolytes, when he arrived at Southampton in January 2013. A surprise choice to replace Nigel Adkins following his controversial sacking, the Argentine’s limited knowledge of English was a concern. He needed help.
David Salas, an interpreter who had been living in London for 10 years, was recommended to the club. Although he had worked in football for a while – providing voiceovers for the Champions League and assisting Spanish-speaking players and managers in interviews and press conferences – this was a more permanent assignment.
“I didn’t really have any experience of translating live for a big club, week in, week out, but I grew into the job. I got to see the ins and outs of amazing clubs and stadiums. It was really interesting. They treated me as one of their own from the start, and that felt good,” says Salas, who was born in Spain but spent part of his childhood in the USA.
“Mauricio made it very easy for me. He was very down to earth, very approachable, very likeable. He was always hugging me before every match, asking how I was and about my family. He was just a very nice guy.”
Communication is a vital part of football. Salas would accompany Pochettino throughout his media duties, home and away. For someone unused to such attention, he was now regularly appearing on radio and TV as the public mouthpiece of a high-profile Premier League manager.
“I’m not the most outgoing person, but I found it very easy to be in front of the camera and in front of journalists with recorders. I enjoyed the challenge,” says the 43-year-old.
“It was just very surreal. After the game, I would meet up with my friends and have a couple of beers. They’d have Match of the Day on in the pub and it was like, ‘Oh, there’s David.’ I’m not going to lie, it felt good.”
Pochettino soon won over the doubters, guiding Southampton to survival with impressive wins over Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea. His English had improved a lot, but he was still wary of making a mistake under pressure or having his words misconstrued. He trusted Salas and wanted him to stay on.
“He didn’t feel confident enough. I think he knew exactly what was being said, and how to respond, but sometimes journalists would ask difficult questions or try to get you to say a certain answer. He said, ‘I need you for one more season.’ It was a very good season for Southampton, so I’m happy that I was there to experience it.”
The Saints manager earned respect for his warmth and enthusiasm. He made people feel valued. After one match, Salas was invited to share a glass of wine with Pochettino and Michael Owen as they joked about the soft penalty the former England striker won against Argentina in the 2002 World Cup.
In an otherwise successful period, the day that Southampton chairman Nicola Cortese resigned was a notable flashpoint. St Mary’s was abuzz with speculation that Pochettino would leave the club and Salas knew that he couldn’t slip up when he faced the press.
“I remember Mauricio looking at me directly and saying, ‘Make sure you translate, word for word, what I’m saying.’ I had to be on my toes. Mauricio didn’t have anything to do with that whole controversy but that was a difficult moment. There was so much media interest.”
• • • •
• • • •
Salas navigated that hurdle successfully, and he did the same whenever Southampton’s form dipped. Regardless of the result, Pochettino’s comments were measured and unwavering. He understood the importance of conveying the right message to supporters.
“What I liked about Mauricio was that he always kept his script and his tone. Even when he was thrown difficult questions, he would always maintain his composure. He knows how to handle the media. That made my job easier because there was no room for disagreement or confusion.”
His unvarnished approach could be funny too. When Dejan Lovren was studded in a sensitive area, Pochettino referred to his testicles being stepped on, so Salas had to follow suit. “It was a weird moment. The whole room started laughing,” he recalls.
Southampton thrived under Pochettino, playing some excellent football on the way to an eighth-placed finish in his first full season, alerting Tottenham Hotspur to his talents. He took over in May 2014 and transformed them into contenders. Although that brought Salas’ job to an end, his affection for the club and manager he worked so closely with remains unchanged.
“I’m super happy for Mauricio. I couldn’t wish him any more success. It’s really remarkable how far he’s come. He associates with good people, and he has blind faith in his coaches. They’re like a family. It surprised me how close-knit that community is and how they welcomed me as an outsider,” says Salas, who is back in Spain after a spell in New York.
“The passion of the fans is such a massive thing in the UK. I consider myself a Saints fan. I was very sad whenever the team lost, and I cheered them on like any other person in the stands. I still keep in touch with some people at the club.”
By Sean Cole