August 6th, 2015.
Perth Glory have just announced the signing of a 33-year-old winger from Spanish side Getafe CF.
After more than a decade of plying his trade in his homeland, Diego Castro Gimenez, was set to make the switch to the A-League, leaving his country and its footballing pyramid behind for the first time in his career.
No one could have known it at the time, but that announcement would go on to change the face of the club and the league forever.
And why would they?
Despite arriving as a marquee player, compared with the calibre of foreign stars who had been plying their trade in Australia around that time, Castro was far from a household name.
Where the likes of Del Piero, Heskey and Gallas had tasted domestic honours and competed at the highest levels internationally, Castro had never finished higher than mid-table in La Liga.
But these were the glory days of Spanish football.
The league was filled with superstars and hidden gems, and the world watched in awe as Pep Guardiola’s iconic Barcelona re-invented football as we knew it, and Real Madrid’s ‘Galacticos’ battled for European supremacy.
Few could believe a player would even being to dream of trading facing off against these powerhouses of the beautiful game to take on the likes of Melbourne Heart and the Wellington Phoenix.
Then Glory head coach Kenny Lowe certainly didn’t.
“He’s not coming. We’re not getting this player” those were Lowe’s initial thoughts.
“I remember, someone sent us a couple of videos, I think he played against Barcelona and Madrid, and I thought, ‘What are you sending us these for? He’s not coming here.’
“His agent, Jorge, was a top guy, and said ‘He wants a new experience.’ He just wants one year. He wants his kids to have a different outlook, and that was kind of the driver for it. He wanted something different for his family, it wasn’t a footballing thing.”
At the time of Castro’s arrival, broadcaster Daniel Garb was living in London, covering English and European football for Fox Sports Australia.
While he admits that Castro was not on his radar at the time, it didn’t take long for the Perth native to get excited.
“I hadn’t seen much of him to be honest, but I remember hearing the reports and looking at his resumé and thinking, ‘wow, the Glory have managed to steal one here. This a top level player they’ve managed to get’.
“I know growing up in Perth and following the Glory closely, and having been there for the heady days of the NSL, to win the Perth fans over you need top quality. This guy looks like he’s got the goods to win over those Glory fans.”
As soon as Castro arrived, Lowe knew they had a supremely special talent on their hands.
The Englishman chuckles as he recounts one of their earliest encounters.
“The best thing ever, and this is true, we were doing a little ‘rondo’… I’m running it and one of the lads got a kick to the shin, so I just stepped in and he actually nutmegged me! He nutmegged me and tapped me on the arse, and went ‘Sorry boss.’ That’s the thing I remember.”
This act of training ground trickery gave an early indicator of Castro’s supreme talent and infectious personality.
“He’s mischievous, he’s passionate, he’s angry, but his levels and his standards are just unbelievable.
“Just passionate. Wants to play the game the right way, always wants the ball. I learnt really early on that he gets really fiery and angry, [but that’s] just passion.”
October 10th, 2015
Castro makes his debut in a 3-2 loss away to the Mariners, playing a full 90 minutes in front of the 8,073 people gathered at the Central Coast Stadium.
While far from a dream start, it gave supporters a first glimpse in to what was to come.
Two games later, the veteran attacker came off the bench in a home edition of the ‘Distance Derby’ to score the first of his 49 A-League goals.
‘El Maestro’ had arrived.
“I remember seeing him when he first arrived in Perth. Even based in the UK, watching the Glory games, just thinking, yeah, that’s a level above the standard of the competition” recalls Garb.
“That’s a player who’s basically doing as he pleases more often than not, and entertaining the masses. That’s the ideal kind of recruit. If you can get a player of that standard, even if they’re not a household name, obviously he wasn’t a Daniel Sturridge type marquee, but he was someone that within the first time of watching them, you’re going, ‘Alright, I wanna tune in to watch a Glory game again, I want go to a Glory game again, to watch him play’.
“He was just magnetic. The skills he had and the ability to open things up and put the game on his terms. You could tell straight away, he had that capability…
“It was evident from the first moment he pulled on a Glory shirt, that he was able to do that.”
Come season’s end, Castro had scored 13 goals and set up a further four in 25 games; the most prolific return of his career.
The achievements of his first and seemingly only campaign were rewarded with the league’s highest individual honour, The Johnny Warren Medal.
“His mantra was I’m coming for one year” says Lowe.
“I always remember, I was going back to England to see my Dad, see my family, and I said to Sagey, his year was up… I was just trying to get a free flight from Sagey to go and see my family, so I said shall I pop in to Madrid and see Cas, see if he wants to come back for another year?
“It was the best thing I ever done! Cas’s agent Jorge was brilliant, he looked after me, he took care of me, we saw Cas and had a couple of beers and he was like, ‘Yeah go on, I’ll come back.’
That cheeky request would prove momentous.
30th September, 2021
2,182 days after making his debut, the curtain was pulled down on Castro’s time in Perth; A long running ‘will he, won’t he’ contract extension saga ending with the shock arrival of former Liverpool forward Daniel Sturridge.
After six years, 136 appearances, 49 goals, an A-League Premiership, a Johnny Warren Medal and three Glory Player of the Season awards, his glorious spell in Australia has seemingly drawn to a close.
For Daniel Garb, the 39-year-old’s achievements, and his longevity, will leave a legacy that few could have dreamed of.
“It’s the longevity of it, I think, has been the standout aspect of Castro at Perth and in the A-League. Those are the marquee players that are the most valuable. A Thomas Broich, a Miloš Ninković, a Besart Berisha type player who, you don’t necessarily know too much about before they arrive but can see instantly, yeah, they’re a cut above the rest, they’re going to be hugely impactful for that club and they’re going to end up staying for a long period of time and therefore leaving a legacy at the football club and the league.
“I think he’s right up there with the greatest in the A-League era, without a doubt. There’s no question that he’d be in the top three to five players at the very least that the A-League era has ever seen.
“I think when Perth does their all time team, there’s no doubt that Diego Castro is in it. I think I drew up an all time Perth Glory team in 2016, for their 20 year anniversary, and I already had Diego Castro in the first XI. You could tell even then how impactful he had already been.
“That’s the level that he achieved, and definitely, when you think of Perth Glory in the A-League era, Diego Castro is the first person that comes to mind.”
It’s a sentiment shared by his former manager.
“I think for me, there’s two, in my time. One is Ninković and the other is Cas. Sydney are like, a top, top team, top coach, good resources, can get Mierzejewski, can get Bobô and all these other great imports. We’re Perth Glory, we’re only spending 85% of the cap and we’ve got one guy who comes and just changes everything.
“I think he’s up there, he’s gotta be up there.”
But for all the goal scoring exploits and the moments of magic on the field, it is Diego Castro, the man behind ‘El Maestro’ that so few of us got to see, that will leave the longest impact on Kenny Lowe.
“Forget the football, go away from the footballer, he’s just a beautiful guy.
“He’s just a top guy. He’s just a really, really, really top guy.”
Image Credit: Perth Glory FC