Ulises de la Cruz

November 8, 2013

Name: Ulises Hernán de la Cruz Bernardo

DOB: 08/02/74 (age 39)

POB: Piquiucho, Carchi, Ecuador

Position: Right back/midfield

Clubs: Deportivo Quito, Barcelona S.C, Aucas, LDU Quito, Cruzeiro, Hibernian, Aston Villa, Reading, Birmingham City

International Caps: 101

In football, it is very rare that a
player be signed to a club for a substantial fee, play poorly for the
duration of his time there and still command a transfer fee double
that of what was originally paid for him. Such a rare narrative
encapsulates the Hibernian career of Ecuadorian international Ulises
de la Cruz. In fairness, his performance at the 2002 World Cup would
have tempted even the more astute of managers, and there were more
than enough reasons to explain his problems during the 2001/02 SPL

Alex McLeish was the man who originally
brought the flying defender/midfielder to the club as he looked to
rebuild a Hibs side that had finished third in the league the
previous season but lost a few first team players during the summer.
Russell Latapy departed to join Rangers, while Stuart Lovell, Mixu
Paatelainen and Dirk Lehman were also allowed to leave the club. The
Hibs manager wanted de la Cruz to provide the attacking spark that
would be lost with Latapy’s exit and he even flew from Scotland to
Ecuador’s capital Quito to watch the player in an international
fixture. De la Cruz impressed both on and off the field after talking
to his prospective new boss, and was himself touched that someone
wanted him enough to make the hellish round trip down to South

He immediately became the marquee
summer acquisition with the distinction of being the most expensive
signing in the club’s history at £700,000. Those who stayed up late
during the summer to watch the events at the Copa America soon saw
why. Despite a disappointing tournament for Ecuador, it was clear
that de la Cruz was an extremely talented player. His pace and energy
down the wing made him a threat throughout every match and his
delivery didn’t look too bad either.

The setting which initially provided
those tantilising glimpses soon become the source of frustration for
his new club After playing and impressing in a 2-2 draw with
Kilmarnock to start the season he then set-up the Hibs goal in a 2-1
defeat at Dundee. While the results were not what supporters were
hoping for, at least their star man looked very promising. However,
just a few days later he was away back to South America to play in an
international as Ecuador looked to make the 2002 World Cup. The
extensive travelling persuaded McLeish that he was only fit enough
for the substitutes bench in a 4-1 defeat by Celtic, where de la Cruz
only entered the action once the game was beginning to slip away from
the hosts.

This issue of ‘club versus country’
would rage on throughout his time in Leith. While fans will often
turn on a player they perceive to be disloyal to the club paying his
wages, it was hard to begrudge de la Cruz’s desires under the
circumstances. Ecuador had gotten off to a flyer in their
qualification campaign and there was a real chance they would qualify
for a World Cup for first time in their history.

The uncertainty of his availability
caused him to be in and out of the starting line-up and produced some
inconsistent displays when he did get on the park. These were thought
to be minor teething problems while the player adapted to a new
country, language and style of football all at once. There was
certainly enough evidence to convince onlookers to be patient before
writing him off as a dud. In a 5-1 win over Dunfermline he laid the
opening goal on a plate for Craig Brewster and then whipped in an
inch perfect cross for Paco Luna to give Hibs the lead in a home
victory over St Johnstone. 5-1 again proved to be a happy scoreline
for the player as he netted the first goal in Ecuador’s demolition of
Bolivia that took them one step closer to the World Cup finals. Then
came arguably his best, and certainly most memorable, performance in
a Hibs jersey.

Play one season at a reasonably high
standard and be remembered for a few years; smash a 20 yard curler
into the top corner of the net 36 seconds into an Edinburgh derby and
be remembered for a lifetime. That’s exactly what de la Cruz achieved
when he cut in from the right-hand side and bent his left foot shot
around Antti Niemi for the dream start to the first derby of the
campaign. Things only got better from there. When Paco Luna’s
attempted chip across goal was deflected it landed at the feet of the
the Ecuadorian who double his, and his team’s, tally on 23 minutes.
Hibs were thoroughly dominant in the first half and really should
have been out of sight before Stephen Simmons’s second half goal
ensured a nervy finish. Despite the tension the team held on for a
2-1 win.

The elation the player felt from that
victory remained when Ecuador finally confirmed their place at the
World Cup with a 1-1 draw with Uruguay soon after. Former Crystal
Palace striker Ivan Kaviedes scored a crucial equaliser after the
visitors had silenced the expectant home crowd with a first half
penalty. If Hibs and their fans thought this would be the end of the
travelling saga then they were wrong. McLeish was confident of
keeping the player in Edinburgh for friendlies and warm-up games
having co-operated with the player’s FA up until that point. However,
the national team coach came out soon after and stated that every
player was required to turn up for every friendly match if called

McLeish, personally, soon got rid of
this headache by leaving Easter Road to take over the vacant
manager’s role at Rangers. Frank Sauzee took over the running of the
team and de la Cruz was soon to suffer his worst run of form while
with the club. In fairness, everybody at Hibs was poor during
Sauzee’s brief but disastrous reign. However, not everybody had the
price tag of £700,000 hanging above their head and fans paid
particular attention to the shortcomings of their speedy wide-player.

His lack of distinction was part of the
problem. Supposedly signed for his attacking qualities, the player
spent most of the time playing right back. In Scottish football
full-backs are expected to prioritise defending above all else. It
was clear from watching de la Cruz for 90 minutes that this was going
to be a struggle for a player who bombed forward at every
opportunity. The change in managers, added to a gruelling schedule
with his international obligations, would not have helped either. His
time with the club reached its lowest point when he was substituted
in a drab 0-0 draw with Stranraer in the Scottish Cup and then left
out the subsequent replay, which, incidentally, was Sauzee’s only win
in charge of the team.

He was back in the side for an
encounter with Aberdeen where he set-up two home goals but was at
fault for three conceded in a 4-3 defeat. The criticism from the
support was enough for his manager to back the player in public.
Unfortunately for Sauzee, after falling in the League Cup semi-final
to Ayr United, he was soon given his marching orders.

Bobby Williamson was Hibernian’s third
permanent boss of the campaign and he immediately set about improving
the team’s fortunes in the table with de la Cruz turning in his best
performance in months to help defeat Dundee United at Tannadice. Soon
after the new manager decided to end the player’s season prematurely,
in order to give him time to concentrate on the World Cup.

What a World Cup it was to be for the
player. Squaring off against Italy in the opening game he continually
flew past Paulo Maldini and was one of the few bright spots in an
otherwise poor Ecuador performance as they went down 2-0. From there
he impressed again in a 2-1 defeat to Mexico where he crossed for
Agustin Delgado to open the scoring. Going into the final game his
team were still in contention, but even though they defeated Croatia
1-0 they exited the tournament at the group stages. After the final
match de la Cruz reinforced his commitment to Hibs, stating that he
would be a much improved player in the new season having been allowed
time to acclimatise to Scottish football.

He must not have been aware of the
plaudits his play was getting and travelled back to the UK amid much
speculation regarding his future with Parma, Chievo and Aston Villa
all chasing his signature. In the end, Hibs – who had been looking
to trim the wage bill – were able to sell on a £700,000 buy that
they weren’t particularly enamoured with for £1.6million. For Villa
boss Graham Taylor it was a lesson in being wary of signing players
off the back of great World Cups. The evidence of three games,
regardless of the setting, should not outweigh a season’s worth of
mediocre showings. De la Cruz started brightly in a Villa shirt but
soon faded terribly and is still regarded by the Villa faithful as
one of the club’s one signings in recent times. Somehow, he still
managed to feature in close to 100 games with the club over four
seasons. Even more perplexing was Reading’s desire to keep the ageing
full-back in the English top flight, a mistake they soon remedied
after 15 games.

Where is he now? For years the
footballer was devoted to his charity work helping the less
privileged members of Ecuadorian society and even committed a large
amount of his personal fortune to the cause. Since retiring he has
made the next step in helping make his country a better place to live
for everyday by going into politics. He was elected to the assembly
earlier this year.

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