New Project: Basque Groundhopping

The Basque Country in Spain (Euskadi) has a population of just over 2 million people yet since football arrived to these shores in the late 19th century thanks to British miners and sailors the folk of this region have taken the sport to their hearts.

In its current state La Liga contains four Basque teams (20% of the league): Athletic Club, Real Sociedad, SD Eibar and Deportivo Alavés. Each club has its own unique history and vibrant fanbase, each of which I will be exploring.

But what about the clubs below these four? In the leagues below the Segunda División, Spanish football becomes regionalised, the size of Spain and the financial limitations of the clubs deem this a necessity. This, however, does not necessarily mean that there is a lack of quality, some of the greatest footballers the Basque Country has produced have cut their teeth in these leagues. Over the next season I will be ‘attempting’ to see one home game of every Basque team from La Liga down to the regional Segunda División B and Tercera División.

In addition to watching some great football matches I am also hoping this journey will provide me some memorable moments as I travel to all parts both big and small of this incomparable land; with its great cuisine, mountains landscapes, respected people and singular culture.

I’ll endeavour to produce a regular journal of my adventures, which will include some information about the clubs themselves, their fans, the places to which they belong and, of course, a report of the match I have seen.

If you have an interest in Basque football, lower-league Spanish football or Spain and the Basque Country in general then I hope my journey will be of interest to you.

Michael Robinson: The English Voice of Spanish Football

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For more than a quarter of a century, a former striker from Lancashire has been enthralling Spanish TV audiences with his wit, knowledge and comical Spanish accent.

Full article included in Issue 17 of The Football Pink.

John Aldridge: Real Sociedad’s Unlikely Scouse Idol

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In 1989, for the first time in 40 years, Real Sociedad decided that they needed foreign blood to compete. Step forward Liverpool hero John Aldridge.

Full article featured in These Football Times.

Boavista’s Title Win of 2001: When Portugal’s Big Three Became Four

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Only two teams in the history of the Primeira Liga have won the title outside of Benfica, Sporting and Porto. One of those was Boavista in 2000/01.

Full article featured on These Football Times.

Leeds United 1998-2002: David O’Leary and The ‘What If’ Generation

by Dan Parry

It was 2001, Bob the Builder was fixing it, Robbie Williams was rocking DJ’s, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings were ruling the cinemas, and in the football world Leeds United were on the verge of creating history. Manager David O’Leary and his ‘Babies’ (as he famously referred to them) were upsetting the domestic status quo of the time by challenging the dominant powers Manchester United and Arsenal, and due to a remarkable Champions League run it looked as though the side would go on to become a major force to reckoned with in Europe as well. The overwhelming belief was that the young squad would become a strong and constant presence in both the domestic league and in Europe. This conviction was so entrenched that Peter Ridsdale (Club Chairman) and the club’s board took out a £60 million loan leveraged against their confidence that title challenges and European qualification would become a norm.

In the 1996/97 season Leeds’ last League title winning manager Howard Wilkinson was relieved of his duties. His replacement was former Arsenal boss George Graham, back after serving a one-year ban for accepting illegal payments from agents in dodgy transfer deals. Graham installed his former Arsenal centre-back and Republic of Ireland international David O’Leary –who had just finished his playing career at the Yorkshire Club- as his assistant manager. These years at the club, both as a player and an assistant would be massively influential when it came to his time running the club. He became acquainted with the club’s famed Thorp Arch academy and its starlets. The crop of 1997 showed substantial potential when they won the FA youth cup and the side included future first team players such as Jonathan Woodgate, Paul Robinson, Stephen McPhail and Harry Kewell. Overall, Graham’s time at the club was solid albeit unspectacular; he brought stability, defensive solidity and the return of European football to Elland Road.

Early in the 1998/99 season Graham left after accepting the newly vacated managerial position at Tottenham Hotspurs. The board’s first choice replacement had been Martin O’Neill but he rejected their proposal and chose to stay with Midlands side Leicester City instead. The board therefore decided to advance the young and untested assistant manager O’Leary. In a shift from the Graham years O’Leary began to focus on the prodigious talents being produced by the academy, he blooded players from the 97 Youth Cup winning bunch into the main squad where their development continued alongside more experienced professionals such as: South African centre-back and Captain Lucas Radebe and the recently returned, Leeds-born, central midfielder David Batty.

O’Leary utilised the youthful exuberance of his squad in order to implement an energetic and attacking style of play in which emphasis was placed on being creative and pressing high up the pitch. This allowed technically gifted players such as Lee Bowyer and Harry Kewell, who had failed to flatter under Graham, to absolutely flourish. O’Leary’s philosophy was perhaps best epitomised by the young, homegrown forward Alan Smith. Promoted from the youth team by O’Leary, his determined and enthusiastic performances captured the hearts of the Leeds United fans. At the end of O’Leary’s first season Leeds finished in 4th place and qualified for the UEFA Cup for a second consecutive season.

Several changes were made for O’Leary’s second season in charge; Dutch striker and top scorer Jimmy Floyd Hasslebank went to Atletico Madrid for £12m, and older heads like David Wetherall and Lee Sharpe made way for fresh additions. Ridsdale opened the cheque-book and O’Leary spent £30m on promising British talents like Danny Mills (£4m, Charlton), Michael Bridges (£5m, Sunderland), Darren Huckerby (£4m, Coventry City), and Oliver Dacourt was imported from France (£7.2m, RC Lens). The investments paid dividends and the young side impressed as Leeds United produced one of their best seasons in recent memory. A remarkable run in the UEFA Cup lead them to the semi-final where they were knocked out on away goals by eventual winners Galatasaray. Even greater success came domestically as the fledgling side ended up in 3rd place and qualified for the Champions League for the first time in a decade.

With a European campaign in sight Ridsdale provided O’Leary with another blank cheque for the 2000/01 season. Aussie strongman Mark Viduka came from Celtic (£6.5m), Dominic Matteo crossed the Pennines from Liverpool (£5m), and a massive statement was made as Leeds broke the British transfer record to sign promising centre-back Rio Ferdinand (£18m). In Ferdinand, O’Leary saw a leader who he could build a Europe conquering team around, and the Irishman set about creating a footballing dynasty.

In 2000/2001 the exertions of competing in the Champions League midweek proved to be too much for the players’ young legs and caused their league form to falter. They ended up finishing in 4th just outside of the Champions League spots. The stand out performances came during that season’s Champions League as the young players repeatedly bested expectations on a dreamlike journey to the semi-finals.

In the first group stage they were drawn with Barcelona, AC Milan and Beskitas. Nobody gave them much chance of surviving the group, especially after an opening fixture in which they were drubbed 4-0 at the Nou Camp by Barcelona. But they produced some magnificent home performances, including a 6-0 hammering of Beskitas, and a 1-0 defeat of AC Milan that came thanks to some good fortune in the form of poor handling by Milan keeper Dida who fumbled a long range Bowyer effort into his own goal. Leeds came 2nd in the group, below AC Milan but above Barcelona, and went through to the second group phase stage. The second group phase draw was equally as difficult as the first, and yet again not many expected Leeds to qualify. Nevertheless, the young Leeds side showed their potential and churned-out some important victories to help them progress to the quarter finals. Famous away wins over Italian champions Lazio 1-0 and a 4-1 thrashing of Belgium’s Anderlecht left indelible marks in Leeds United’s history.

In the quarter finals they faced the reigning Spanish champions, Deportivo La Coruña. Certain players from Deportivo had stated that they were happy to have drawn Leeds United, describing them as the weakest side left in the tournament. The Leeds players used this criticism as motivation and it resulted in one of Leeds’ most memorable European nights. The inexperienced yet brave underdogs were completely unfazed by the situation and ran out unlikely 3-0 victors thanks to goals from Ian Harte, Leeds native Alan Smith and Rio Ferdinand. A 2-0 defeat in the away leg at El Riazor Stadium in La Coruña meant that Leeds United had done enough and they progressed to the semi-final where they faced the previous season’s Champions league runner-up, Hector Cuper’s Valencia. A dogged home-tie finished 0-0 with Bowyer picking up a suspension in the process, thus leaving him unavailable for the return leg. Many felt that it his presence that was most dearly missed in the midfield on that night in the Mestalla as Leeds were over run by an unstoppable Valencia side. The size of the moment got to the inexperienced Leeds players and an early, controversial goal from Juan Sanchez meant that they were always chasing the game thereafter. Valencia swept them aside in a crushing 3-0 victory and the European dream was over.

Although disappointing, Leeds fans had a lot to look forward to. The squad was still in its formative years and it had demonstrated that it had more than enough potential to succeed and compete at the highest level in the coming years. They had failed to re-qualify for the Champions League but further investment would lead to a renewed assault on the league title, and hopefully more Champions League football.

The 2001/02 season would be O’Leary’s last and it was the beginning of a dramatic and well-documented decline in fortunes for the Yorkshire club. A fantastic run of form saw them topping the league by the turn of the year but off-field issues derailed the campaign. An incident involving Lee Bowyer, Jonathan Woodgate and the assault of a student in Leeds city centre two years previous had finally come to court. Unexpectedly, the case served as a morale booster and brought the dressing room closer together. It was in fact David O’Leary’s decision to publish a book about the trial that plunged the club’s season into chaos. The board, staff and fans alike felt somewhat let down by O’Leary, it was felt that his decision to publish was wholly inappropriate and consequently he lost the dressing room. A dreadful period for the side commenced after a 3rd round FA Cup defeat to Cardiff at Ninian Park and Leeds did not taste victory for two months. Although seven wins from the final ten games of the season saw Leeds drag themselves into 5th place and the UEFA Cup, it was not enough to stop O’Leary from facing the axe. He had alienated himself among the fans, the players, and most importantly the board. In the eyes of the board, failing to qualify for the Champions league was insufficient after the level of investment made in the transfer market (by time he left £100m had been spent on transfers).

What followed was the darkest period in the club’s history. It soon became apparent that chasing success had come at a massive cost for Leeds United. Ridsdale had acquired a £60 million loan from the bank based on the belief that Leeds would be a constant presence in the Champions League, the business model meant that the debt would be payed for by elevated gate receipts and extra income from TV money. Essentially the hierarchy gambled the club’s future and lost. With the debt spiralling out of control selling the club’s talent became a necessity. The squad that O’Leary had expensively assembled was dismantled over the next couple of years and the players were sold to rival clubs for, at times, bargain prices: Ferdinand was sold to Manchester Utd for a British record fee and became the bedrock upon which Sir Alex Ferguson built his Champions League winning side; Kewell was sold to Liverpool for £5m where he also won a Champions League; Bowyer and Woodgate went to Newcastle, Paul Robinson to Tottenham, Dacourt went to Italy and so on, but the most painful transfer was that of Alan Smith to Manchester United. Alan Smith was the fans’ darling player from this generation and he had once famously stated he would never play for their bitter rivals.

Leeds United fans and football fans in general were never to know that 2001 would be the peak of success for David O’Leary and his Babies. Leeds United were so badly damaged that even Bob the Builder would not have been able to fix them. The following years would see Leeds United drop out of the Premiership in 2004 and three years later after further relegation they found themselves in the English game’s third tier. O’Leary’s future followed a similar trajectory, he spent three years without great acclaim at Aston Villa before being replaced, ironically, by Martin O’Neill, and his latest managerial feat was a fruitless period in the Middle East with Dubai based Al Ahli.

What if O’Leary had stayed? What if he had never written that book? What if they qualified for the Champions League in 2002? What if they had beat Valencia? What if the players had stayed together? What if Ridsdale had said no to some of the transfers? Terrible financial management from a reckless board, inflated transfer fees and misinformed decisions consigned this potentially world conquering Leeds side to the most sober page in the great big book of football history, the page of ‘what ifs’.

SD Eibar: The Club that Moves Mountains

By Dan Parry

It was my first journey on the regular coach from Bilbao to Donostia/San Sebastian, when at about the halfway mark we started to drive, quite literally, over an entire city. The city was sandwiched into a deep but narrow gorge amongst the dense Basque mountains. As I stared out of my window in awe I noticed how the city had started to overflow the bowl in which it was situated; the buildings had even begun to climb up the mountainsides and below me in the distance I could just about make out a tiny football stadium. Once we arrived in Donostia I asked my girlfriend about the city I had encountered and she informed me that it was Eibar (Ey-Bar).

Eibar lies roughly midway between the two larger Basque cities of Bilbao and Donostia. It has a population of 27,000 (all of its residents would fail to fill one-third of the Nou Camp) and before the impressive ascent of its football club the city was most famous for producing small firearms. It is from this part of the city’s history that SD Eibar (Sociedad Deportiva Eibar) takes its nickname ‘Los Armeros’ in Spanish or ‘Armagiñak’ in Basque (which translate as The Gunners). The club plays its home games at the miniscule Ipurua Stadium, which can hold a maximum attendance of a little over 6,000 spectators.

In the grand scheme of Spanish domestic football Eibar were, for a substantial amount of time, quite an inconsequential team. Bigger clubs would use Eibar as a feeder team, sending their young starlets up to the harsh and unforgiving Basque mountains when the talented youths were in need of more match experience or toughening up in the Spanish lower leagues. For instance, Xabi Alonso and David Silva both spent a season each at Eibar during the infancy of their respective careers. Traditionally, the club’s squad would be full of players like them, or academy rejects from their more storied footballing neighbours Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad.

SD Eibar was first promoted to the Segunda Division way back in 1989, and they became a mainstay of the league until the 2006/07 season when they were relegated back to the Segunda Division B. The following season they bounced straight back and spent a further two seasons in the Segunda Division until 2009/10, when once again they dropped into the league below. Over the next three seasons Eibar were the Cardiff City of the Segunda Division B, always reaching the play-offs but never jumping the final hurdle and achieving promotion; Eibar fans might have understandably felt as if their team had found its place in the footballing world. However, in the 2012/13 season, the side managed by Gaizka Garitano, finally restored itself to the Spanish second division. The succeeding season produced an even bigger shock. Miraculously, the minnows topped the league and were promoted to La Liga for the first time in the club’s history. The city celebrated wildly with the players even given tour of the city on an open-top bus.

The Spanish Football Federation brought an almost immediate halt to the festivities when the club were ordered to raise almost €1.7m in order for their capital value to reach €2,146,525.95. A Spanish Football Federation rule obliges all Segunda Division teams to have a capital value that is 25% of the average expenses of all the teams in the league or face being relegated to the Third Division. Although being a debt-free and ‘model’ club, Eibar lacked the necessary capital to pay such a large fee and the club’s hierarchy were weary of allowing the club to fall into the hands of foreign investors. It was at this moment that the then club president Alex Aranzabal started the ‘Defiende al Eibar’ (Defend Eibar) initiative. The club sold shares to anybody who was willing to buy them at €50 a piece, with a €100,000 restriction put in place. Aided by prominent figures such as Xabi Alonso the initiative was a grand success and over 10,000 people from 50 countries bought shares in the club. On the 15th July 2014 the club announced that they had obtained the required sum and their promotion was ratified.

In their debut season in the top league Eibar finished in 18th place and would have gone straight back to the Second Division if it were not for a stroke of luck. 13th placed Elche CF were accused of financial mismanagement and were duly relegated, Eibar were swiftly reinstated and given another chance to fight again. Improvements were made in the subsequent season, the newly re-appointed Jose Luis Mendilibar lead them to 14th whilst also picking up plaudits for introducing an attractive and attacking brand of football to the Ipurua. Several further changes were made to the playing staff over the summer before the start of the current campaign. Mendilibar added more La Liga quality to the side in the hope of establishing it as a team that could do more than battle in a relegation dogfight. These changes have born fruit, lead by ex Real Madrid attacking midfielder Pedro Leon (Summer signing from Getafe), ever-present Captain and defensive midfielder Dani García, and busy striker Sergi Enrich, the team now occupies 8th place, above sides with bigger budgets and more illustrious histories such as Valencia, Málaga and Espanyol.

The ambitions don’t end here though, Eibar are only 7 points from the Europa League spots and have their eyes set firmly to the horizon. They have an upcoming fixture against one of the current Europa League occupants, Villarreal, tomorrow and will be hoping to put a dent into the aforementioned points gap. Mendilibar himself has recently noted that there has been a shift of mentality within the club. He said that ‘Eibar now knows, and thinks of itself as being one of the more established clubs within the first division.’ It could be gathered from this statement that perhaps in the past the club had adopted more of a ‘we’re lucky to be here’ approach to life in La Liga.

It is difficult to find any article about Eibar that doesn’t wax lyrical about its ‘remarkable rise’ to the top. But as Mendilibar alluded to, it isn’t just the rise that should be applauded but also for that matter the lack of a plateau or decline upon reaching the top. Admittedly, luck has also played a convenient role. Nonetheless, this should not overshadow what has been achieved. Eibar are a perfect model for demonstrating how far a small club can go when it has a plan, patience, intelligent management and a lot of heart.

Eibar is a tiny city surrounded by mountains, which has a tiny football team in the top Spanish division that is also surrounded by mountains, that come in the form of gigantic footballing institutions such as Barcelona, Valencia, Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, Deportivo La Coruña and so on. In recent times Eibar have managed to do more than simply climb these peaks, they have moved them completely. Over the coming years it is entirely possible that this club will have more shocks and surprises in store for us fans of the game. Given the club’s current trajectory it is quite imaginable that even more foreign fans will become acquainted with the Azulgrana (red and blue) of Eibar, and for them, the city hidden between the mountains will be more than a passing sight from the window of a coach headed to a different destination. It will be the destination.