Basqueing Alavés

Abelardo (right) has put Alavés in European contention.
Abelardo (right) has put Alavés in European contention. / EFE

  • Abelardo has steered the club to new heights; well above their more illustrious neighbours, Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad

The Basque country is a little like the north-east of England where football very much represents and reflects the people. For Newcastle and Sunderland, read Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad.

Back in the eighties, La Liga was dominated by these two clubs who gave sporting credence to an area which was fighting for independence. These days the region's two major clubs are in danger of becoming independent from Spain's ruling football classes. Alavés, meanwhile, sit just one point behind fourth-placed Real Madrid, while their northern neighbours have one foot on the door to the drop.

This small club is from the regional capital, Vitoria. When you pick up a tourist guide it highlights the medieval streets, plazas, university, art galleries and cathedrals. A little like York, historic Vitoria is on a significant train line, but it is fifty miles from the nearest passenger airport. Football hardly gets a mention.

You can't compare the club to Real Sociedad, a founding member of La Liga, who reached the European Cup semi-final in 1982. Or Mendizorrotza to San Mamés, regarded as the birthplace of Spanish football.

Athletic, formed by British miners, play in the colours of Sunderland and are in danger of suffering their first ever relegation. 'La Real' too have won a few battles in recent years and are just four points off the bottom three. Athletic are just one place and one point ahead of those who would be condemned if the season was to end at the festive break.

By contrast, these are the headiest days in the history of Alavés since the turn of the century when they finished 6th and then reached the 2001 UEFA Cup Final. You can still see hipster Liverpool fans sporting the distinctive blue shirts with a band of yellow worn by Alavés in the quite amazing nine-goal final which was famously decided by a golden own-goal.

Captain Manu García epitomises the whole club. He is a one-time season ticket holder who wouldn't be considered for a contract at any other Liga club. He leads a squad of players who are generally unwanted elsewhere but prove that the collective is more important than the individual.

Abelardo Fernández, known as 'Pitu' (or smurf in English), was an underwhelming third managerial appointment of last season which started with eleven defeats in the opening fourteen games. The vessel had hit an iceberg and it appeared that his directive was to just steer it to the scrapyard of Segunda. The club was doomed, they hadn't scored in the opening five games. The only question at the start of December 2017 was which other two clubs would go down with them.

Abelardo's reputation had been harmed by an unsuccessful previous season at Sporting Gijón and his only claim to fame was his almost lifelong friendship with Luis Enrique. A year on and his standing as a coach is up there with the national coach. If the Barcelona post was to become available, he would be a leading contender.

How Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad would love someone that could galvanise a club like Abelardo has. He not only kept Alavés up but has created a team that has more than an outside chance of playing in the Champions League for the first time.

It isn't beyond the realms of possibility that the Alavés and Liverpool fans will reunite two decades later and those collector item shirts will be proudly modelled once more. Football folk may no longer smirk when they hear the nickname 'El Glorioso'.