For the major part of his career, Andalucian attacker Manuel Agudo Duran was widely seen as a talented underachiever who was never quite going to make it at the very top level.
But now Nolito, who turns 29 this Thursday, looks set to be an important member of the Spain squad for next summer’s European Championships, and a likely big mover in January’s transfer window.
Nolito came through at hometown small club of Atletico Sanluqueno, before coming to more widespread attention as the teenage scorer of a superb Copa del Rey goal against Real Madrid for third tier Ecija. Regular impressive Segunda B performances brought a summer 2008 move to Barcelona, already aged 22.
But then the steady climb levelled off. While he was a regular under Luis Enrique for Barca’s B team, three years at the Camp Nou brought just five senior appearances and only one goal. First team coach Pep Guardiola did not seem too convinced, and Nolito set off for Benfica, followed by Granada. The consensus was Nolito had all the ability, but lacked consistency and focus.
Then summer 2013 brought a reacquaintance with Luis Enrique, and something seemed to click. 14 goals in 35 Primera Division games was his best ever career total and lead to talk of a move to England - with Everton reportedly eager to sign him after he impressed in a pre-season friendly at Goodison Park.
Even though Luis Enrique moved back to Barca that summer, Nolito stayed at Balaidos, and his form did not dip under new Celta coach Eduardo Berizzo. 2014/15 was the best campaign of his career, including superb performances in wins against Atletico Madrid and former club Barca. His total of 13 goals and 13 assists in La Liga exactly matched that of Madrid galactico James Rodriguez.
Such form lead to a first Spain call-up, at 28, for November’s friendly game against Germany. In May he received the Spanish football writers ‘breakthrough player’ award – an award not usually won by a player with over a decade's senior experience.
Early last summer came reports of interest from Champions League clubs Atletico and Valencia, and the player himself – now always open and intelligent in his dealings with the media - seemed open to a move at that point.
“Sincerely, I really like it at Celta,” he said. “I have four more years on my contract there. But in football you can never predict what will happen.”
The feeling was Nolito was holding out for a return to Barca, but the Catalan club instead signed Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal, moves which seemed extra strange after Pedro Rodriguez’s well-flagged departure for Chelsea late in the window left them very short of experienced cover for their South American superstar front three.
Speaking in late August, Nolito suggested to Mundo Deportivo that he would not force through any move, while sounding very open to the possibility of a return to the Camp Nou. “Celta are in charge, there is a release clause and if Barca really want me they will have to speak with my team," he said at that point.
No move went through however, and Barca were given another reminder of their former player’s quality when he scored a beauty and set up two more goals as the Blaugrana outfit were humbled 4-1 at Balaidos last month. His five goals and three assists in La Liga so far have helped Celta ride high in the early table - and kept the attention on their number 10.
Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque remains a fan - and Nolito was among La Roja's best players during last week’s internationals. Coming off the bench against Luxembourg last Friday, his first touch helped set up the team’s third goal, and soon afterwards he ran at the defence before giving the assist from which Santi Cazorla scored their fourth. That was followed by a start in Ukraine on Monday night, when he played a key role in the winner as Spain edged a 1-0 in Kiev.
The Catalan sports press has continued to speculate about Barca’s continuing interest. Luis Enrique, currently being forced to use youngsters Munir El Haddadi and Sandro Ramirez as cover after Lionel Messi’s injury, is said to be understandably very interested on his former charge as experienced attacking cover.
These stories have been helped by comments from Blaugrana utility man Sergi Roberto last week that Nolito is “having a great season and if he comes in January we would be delighted, he would be very welcome.”
However Barca’s board are apparently not as keen on a deal, especially at €18 million, as the club are right on their budget for the season. They could try to sell a fringe squad member, such as perhaps back-up full-backs Douglas or Adriano, however neither player would realistically raise enough.
Into the mix, in recent days, has come speculation that Premier League giants Arsenal were also interested in making a January move.
Celta’s sporting director Miguel Torrecilla was more open when speaking last week, with a new contract offer which would further increase both the player’s salary and release clause apparently in the works.
“When there is a release clause nobody can guarantee anything,” Torrecilla said in AS “There is an agreement, verbally, but we are waiting on the paperwork to be signed.”
Asked about the latest stories at Spain camp last week, Nolito joked that he had seen the covers of the sports papers, but not looked inside. The feeling is that, having waited so long to break through at the top level, a mature and level headed Nolito wants a Barca return but knows it might not happen. And also, after all this time, he's now deservedly enjoying his time in the limelight.