Jim Smith, salsa music and a very bad night’s sleep formed the backdrop to the day that would change Paulo Wanchope’s life. Signed by Derby, the unknown Costa Rican was on his way to Old Trafford in April 1997 to make his Premier League debut against Manchester United. The striker, not long out of his teens, was nervous.
“I was very anxious before the game,” says the 45-year-old. “The previous night I woke up every hour and a half. I didn’t sleep well. [Smith] understood that I wanted to be relaxed at that time. He understood that music might help me. He asked me on the team bus what sort of music I liked. So I put on some salsa.”
It certainly settled the nerves. Wanchope’s brilliant goal helped Derby to a famous 3-2 victory and was later voted the best goal in the club’s history. Along with the volleys of Mario Stanic and Danny Rose, it is one of the great Premier League debut strikes. As well as embarrassing Phil Neville, Gary Neville, Gary Pallister and Peter Schmeichel that day 25 years ago, it made a mockery of Wanchope’s lack of sleep and confidence.
The goal would typify Wanchope’s style throughout his career – a mesmeric blend of limbs, simultaneously graceful and chaotic; choreographed elbows and knees that danced and flailed their way towards goal.
Talking to Wanchope on Zoom from his home in Costa Rica, with his easy demeanor and still-youthful face that has a smattering of grey hairs, it is odd to think Wanchope has ever been anxious. But life was full of uncertainty before his £600,000 move to Derby from Herediano. In fact, Wanchope very nearly didn’t play football.
“I used to play many sports in the street,” he says. “My mum used to be an athlete. My uncle played baseball. I had the chance to play basketball and played on a high-school scholarship in the US. I had a chance to play in college but decided to come back to Costa Rica and start my studies here instead.
“I had to choose between football and basketball but my passion was always football. I got called up for the 1995 Under-20 World Cup in Qatar and that helped me make my decision. Almost every night we would chat with the Spanish players and I managed to get a shin pad from Raúl. We knew he was going to be amazing, as he had already made his debut for Real Madrid at 17 years old. I still have the shin pad somewhere.”
A trial with QPR was arranged. “I played three games and scored six goals, but nothing happened. Then I came back to Costa Rica but went back one month later to Derby. People were saying to me: ‘Why are you going back? If you didn’t manage to get into a second-tier club [QPR], why do you think you are going to make it in the Premier League?’ But I told them: ‘I want this.’”
Wanchope played two games on trial at Derby and didn’t score, with Smith noting in his autobiography that Wanchope “missed a couple of open goals but we thought he was worth a chance”.
“I was a bit worried but they made the decision to sign me,” says Wanchope. “Derby was a great way to start my career in England. Smith was a very strong character and his assistant, Steve McClaren, was more quiet and helped me not just in football but all round in my life. It was a great combination. The food, the rain and cold was very different but that was my dream. To play abroad, with and against the best.”
Wanchope would spend two years at Derby, scoring 23 league goals, before joining West Ham in 1999 for £3.5m and moved to Manchester City for a similar fee a year later. “West Ham had a lot of good young players, like Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Michael Carrick. As a striker, it was easy to play with Paolo Di Canio, Trevor Sinclair. I cannot say the things that I saw with John Moncur.
“At Manchester City I had the experience at Maine Road and the new stadium. Maine Road was a great atmosphere, the pitch was very close to the stands. But it was the fans that made the experience special. We had some doubts when we moved to [the Etihad]. But the support there was something I had never experienced before.”
Wanchope would leave England in 2004 and have successful spells in Spain, Qatar, Argentina, MLS, Japan and back home in Costa Rica, and his exploits for the national team earned them a place at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups. Wanchope finished as his country’s second-highest scorer before joining Jorge Luis Pinto’s coaching staff at the 2014 World Cup, where Costa Rica reached the quarter-finals for the first time, losing to the Netherlands on penalties.
“It was a great experience: being in the Group of Death and being able to survive, with England, Italy and Uruguay,” says a smiling Wanchope. “We did a great job over there, but had talented players: Keylor Navas, Bryan Ruiz, Joel Campbell.”
The road after that tournament was a little more bumpy. Pinto resigned, citing “differences with the staff” and explained how he had been “sleeping with the enemy for one and a half years”. Wanchope was later promoted to head coach but resigned in 2015 after his involvement in a fight while watching an Under-23 match.
“There was an incident,” says Wanchope of Pinto’s resignation. “He made a declaration that I was a problem and the federation didn’t want him to keep going with the job. He went crazy. I don’t have an explanation. I never talked to him about that.”
This month, with the Women’s Under-20 World Cup due to take place in Costa Rica in August, Wanchope was enlisted by Fifa to do the draw, with the hosts facing Australia, Spain and Brazil in a tricky Group A.
“The last 15-20 years there has been a big improvement in women’s football over here. To have the privilege of having the World Cup, it will be a great platform for our youngsters, for our girls.”
Wanchope is balancing ambassadorial duties with coaching ambitions, and a move back to England remains very much a possibility. “I have dual citizenship and as a family we are discussing moving back – my daughter is studying there, so we are thinking about joining her. Football-wise, the place to be is in England.”