My Back Pages - 64 San Mames

Athletic Bilbao 1v0 Newcastle United
UEFA Cup 2nd Round(2nd leg)
1st November 1994
Bilbao is the largest city in Biscay in the Basque country of Spain, football in Bilbao originates back to the late 19th century, when British migrant workers arrived to ply their trade in the city’s port, working in the shipyards and the iron mines, the workers formed their own team called Bilbao Football Club. Meanwhile Basque students made the opposite journey, completing their studies in commerce and civil engineering. While residing in the UK, they became interest in the game of association football and on their return home formed Athletic Club, playing matches against the British workers. In 1902 a combined team known as Club Vizcaya won the first ever Copa del Rey, beating Barcelona in the final, this lead to the eventual merger of both clubs, thus becoming Athletic Club de Bilbao, keeping the English version of their name.
The club are known as “The lions of San Mames’ in reference to their home; Estadio San Mames, Spain’s oldest stadium built in 1913. The ground is known as La Catedral (The Cathedral) as it was built near the San Mames church. Saint Mammes was a Christian thrown to the lions by the Romans, however the lions refused to eat Mammes and he was later made a saint.
The stadium generates a great atmosphere, the club’s nicknamed is appropriate, it’s like entering the lions den with the roar of the Bilbao support. The stadium was redeveloped for the 1982 World Cup with 700m pesetas spend on upgrading the ground and taking the capacity the almost 47,000 for the English invasion on Bilbao. The four separate stands are compact, sitting close to the pitch, the two tiers of seats are red with white seating in the front sections, with the corners sections filled in with extra seating, making the ground enclosed. The major stadium feature is the large arch, adorning across the main grandstand, this was added during the 1950’s when the first major work on the stadium took place throughout the decade and into the early sixties.
I travelled to Bilbao with long lost mate and work colleague ‘Boo‘, so named because of his similarity in size and stature to Yogi Bear’s cartoon companion. These were the days before cheap flights into Europe, long before Ryanair and EasyJet, so the cheapest option of transport available was a coach journey from Newcastle to the Basque country via the Dover to Calais ferry, courtesy of a Euro Football Travel company based in Manchester.
We departed early Monday morning, greeted onto the coach by our steward, a canny lad from Stoke-on-Trent who’s name I cannot recollect, I think it was maybe Dave, however for the purpose of this article I’ll call him Colin. As we boarded, Colin presented everyone with a commemorative t-shirt and announced that our match tickets would cost £30, a bit steep even nowadays, therefore meaning we lost out on valuable beer tokens to pay for our tickets. Our travelling time was spent mostly drinking, sleeping and watching videos, the usual stuff; football, Only Fools & Horses and the odd dodgy copy of the latest newly released films, there was a good atmosphere on the bus, the rest of the crew on board were a good bunch of lads, which past the time away and made the long trip more enjoyable.
We arrived at Dover early evening, using our ferry crossing to stock up on suppliers and travelled overnight through France, arriving in Bilbao next morning at around 10.30am, staying at the Hotel Conde Duque, situated on the bank of the Nervion River, I know the hotel name because I still have the towel that I swiped off the housemaids trolley. After booking in and locating our room, me and Boo went down to reception, where Colin informed us that the lad was here with our match tickets, pointing us in the direction of a shifty looking character standing in the hotel lobby, we purchased our tickets and then headed off into town.


The Author trys the local beverage and the party gets into full swing.

We eventually arriving at a long narrow street, where you can see the stadium prominent at the top, we took a look around the perimeter of the stadium before heading back into the street for a drink, planning to have couple of swift ones before heading off somewhere else, we didn’t venture very far, as 6 hours later we were still there. It was a public holiday in Bilbao that day, so it became a mass street party, with a fantastic friendly atmosphere between both sets of fans, including a good drink and a sing-song, my favourite being the Bilbao fans version of ‘Keegan Wonderland’ which they took a particular liking to, it was comical hearing there own version chanted out in Pidgin English.
We arrived in the ground just prior to kick off, the great atmosphere carried on inside the stadium, I remember thinking that if we were to lose this tie, I wouldn’t really mind, to get knocked out of the UEFA Cup to such great hosts wouldn’t be so bad. There was no seats left in our part of the ground (I knew that ticket seller was dodgy) so we had no choice but to stand in between two sections of seats, I felt uncomfortable as we were blocking the view of the spectators behind, which were mostly Bilbao fans, eventually stadium security came and moved us to the opposite side of the ground, still no seat, but not restricting anyone’s view.
The match wasn’t a classic, United were 3-2 ahead from the first leg and at one stage were three goals up before taking their foot off the gas, allowing Athletic back into the tie. The Toon were without the injured Andy Cole for the 2nd leg, giving Steve Watson an unlikely role as a makeshift striker, apart from a good chance from Robert Lee we didn’t look like scoring, but on the other hand neither did they. The game seemed to be heading towards the required goalless draw, until a shot from Jose Ciganda on 67 minutes deflected off Howey and under Pavel’s body to draw the tie level, giving Bilbao the advantage, courtesy of those two away goals. Bilbao had a golden chance to killed the tie off, missing what could have been a crucial penalty, however United lacked firepower and never looked like saving themselves, just as the Toon Army were enjoying being back in Europe, it was all over, United were out, but the tie should have been all over at St. James Park two weeks earlier.
During the 2nd half we were moved again, we finally got a seat in the upper corner section, meaning I watched the game from three separate corners of the ground, on the final whistle some Bilbao supporters invaded the pitch, celebrating which looked at one stage an unlikely victory. We came out of the stadium, walking down a long staircase where at the bottom the Bilbao fans stood waiting for us, they clapped and cheered us as we walked down the stairs, it was reminiscent of when The Beatles first got off the plane when they arrived in the USA, I was mobbed by their fans, they all wanted to embrace me and shake my hand, making me feel like some sort of celebrity, this carried as I walked back down the same street where we had all partied earlier in the day.

We finally arrived back at our hotel after losing our bearings, eventually seeking the aid of a taxi to find the hotel, after such a long day a bed was most welcome, especially after the previous night’s kip on the bus. The next morning was spent reflecting on the previous 24 hours and what a great day it was, the fact that we were out of Europe was overlooked, we had a good team now, and future trips on the continent now looked a more probable regular event.
I arrived back home early Thursday afternoon and went straight to bed, totally ‘cattle trucked ‘after four days away just to see 90 minutes of football, but there’s more to a Euro excursion than just attending the match. Everything about this trip was great, the long but entertaining journey, the atmosphere pre match, the drink, the crack, the stadium, in fact the only thing that went wrong was the result, but overall the one thing that sticks out the most was the reception from our Basque hosts after the match, it’s something I’ll never forget and will live long in the memory of those fortunate enough to be there


Matchday Facts
AthB 1(Ciganda 67) NUFC 0
Att.47,000
Admission £30 (ticket price; 3000 pesetas)
Programme; none (but someone had a copy of the official team sheet, which was photocopied on the ferry home for 50p)
Travel (inc. hotel/b&b) £120

1 comment:

Simple Pieman said...

"I was mobbed by their fans, they all wanted to embrace me and shake my hand, making me feel like some sort of celebrity"

but Shaun, you are a celebrity!