Fran Beltrán - The Boy and the Barrio

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“Not Barcelona or Real Madrid, I just want to be at Rayo Vallecano,” is how Fran Beltrán put it, when asked about the possibility of signing for one of the traditionally bigger clubs in Spain. You have to believe him too. Beltrán stands for everything the area is about. Hard-working, blue collar, and loyal. His former trainer at Rayo B, Juan Vicente Peinado, says, “I thank God for having the great fortune to train a player like Fran Beltrán.”

Barcelona were linked too, before Beltrán landed a full-time contract wth Rayo in April, 2017. With his contract set to expire just two months later, at the end of June, there were reports that several teams were looking at Beltrán, a regular Spanish under-17 international. He has also made his debut with Spain's under-19s recently, against Portugal, as his star continues to rise. During Paco Jémez’ spell in charge of the club, when Beltrán was coming through, he said, “Fran is a player everyone at the club loves, he is more mature than his DNI [National Identity Card] says.”

With a release clause of €8 million, the willingness of the kid from Madrid to wait, work and play football, in the pueblo that is Vallecas, were the keys to him getting the deal. “For me, Rayo is the team that gave me the opportunity, and every time I pull on the shirt, I just think about working hard and making the people happy,” he says, as the natural symbiosis between player, fans and the area becomes evident.

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Juanvi Peinado explains to Marca that at one point, he was deployed on the wing, cutting inside to create problems for opponents. He has since turned into a midfielder in the mould of Roque Mesa of Las Palmas fame and Swansea ignominy. “He can play the role of an [number] ‘8’. In fact, I tried to install this mentality in him to give him more freedom,” said Peinado.

Beltrán is a hybrid. If you mixed Enzo Pérez - formerly of Valencia and currently at River Plate - with Roque Mesa, you might get an idea of what Beltrán brings to the team. In American football, he might be referred to as a scat-back: small enough, elusive enough and quick enough to cover lots of ground. But Beltrán has a dogged determination also, and the kind of power that makes him a perfectly functioning defensive midfielder too.

So good is Beltrán that he has made Roberto Trashorras obsolete. The former heartbeat of the team, and the most important cog in the framework of the midfield, Fran has replaced Trashorras as the deepest midfielder and the 18-year-old adds quality build-up play from the back, without the need for a more defensive player beside him. Essentially, he plays the role of two men. His modesty and willingness to learn has also turned him into a capable leader, a pair of eyes on the field for manager Míchel, whose faith in the teenager is typically only reserved for seasoned pros.

Rayo went through a number of managers during the 2016/2017 campaign and when they finally settled on Míchel, it would take three games before Fran was counted on. In the remaining 13 games of the season, however, he started every one. They lost just three of those games and made a late, and unlikely, push for the playoffs, before ultimately missing out. During the summer, Beltrán’s incorporation into the starting team was decided upon; his role expanded.

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This season he has started all 19 games in the league, as Rayo sit fifth and four points off the Segunda división leaders, SD Huesca.

His role, responsibility and all-encompassing ability frees Unai López, a 22-year-old gem in Rayo’s midfield on loan from Athletic Club, to play further forward and Raúl de Tomás, Adrián Embarba and Óscar Trejo to thrive up front. Santi Comesaña, another up-and-coming talent in the Rayo side, operates as a fluid number 10 with Beltrán minding the house. Removing Trashorras from the side means Míchel can play a 4-1-4-1 knowing that there is a balance to the side, and resources are spread out in midfield and attack to keep opponents working hard all over the field.

At 18—turning 19 in February—and with Rayo pushing for promotion, Míchel’s faith in him is quite the endorsement. “The work rate he [Fran] has is exceptional,” Míchel repeats. As the rest of his game develops, his mentality and physical attributes make him one to look out for in the future.