British Exports: Spain’s British Footballers

It was at the end of the 19th century when British men who worked at the mines in the southern region of Huelva started to play football. So thank you, Britain. You introduced to us in Spain this marvellous sport.

Not officialised until 1889, the men’s passion reached its summit with the creation of what today is Recreativo de Huelva, the oldest football club in Spain. During the first few years it was almost exclusively Brits who played football in the sunny land.

Locals soon joined in and, since the creation of the current La Liga or Primera División, only 27 adventurous British men have taken their career to the first tier of Spanish football.

Former Real Sociedad manager Harry Lowe played one single football match in Spain. It was on a visit to Valencia that one of his players became unavailable, and trying to avoid playing with 10 footballers, he wore the Txuri Urdin jersey himself. What might seem like an amusing anecdote actually gave the Englishman the record, still held to this day, of being the oldest man on a pitch in a Spanish First Division football match.

Welshman George Henry ‘Georges’ Green was however the first player who decided to explore the Iberian Peninsula since La Liga was created. Arriving in 1935, he played 14 games for Espanyol before returning to the UK to get married, sadly staying in his home country after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.

It wasn’t until 12 years later that another fearless British man joined a Spanish side. He was the first Scottish player in La Liga and the first footballer from the Isles that wore Real Madrid’s jersey, and his name was John Fox ‘Jack’ Watson. He moved to Madrid along with Englishman Mike Keeping, who became Real’s manager, but he only stayed for one season.

During the Spanish football ‘Golden Age,’ when Real Madrid reigned on Europe, no British men represented any Spanish side. In 1979 Laurie Cunningham broke the ‘Britishless’ strike by becoming Real’s most expensive signing. His multiple injuries prevented him from success, yet he is remembered as one of the very few Real players who have been given a standing ovation at Camp Nou, the home of rivals Barcelona. He played for different European teams until a tragic car accident in 1989 took his life, while he represented Rayo Vallecano.

Barça signed Scotsman Steve Archibald in 1984, who helped them win the league title 11 years later, as well as reaching the European Cup Final. He became a regular starter until foreign-player regulations came into action, and he was left out of the squad in favour of fellow Brits Mark Hughes and Gary Lineker. Both were brought to the Catalonian side in 1986 by manager Terry Venables, but they followed terribly different paths. Welshman Hughes’ unsuccessful spell at Barcelona resulted in a loan to Bayern Munich only a season after his arrival. Lineker however became an idol for the blaugranas, scoring 21 goals in his first season’s 41 games. Oddly enough, despite his irrefutable success, the award for Overseas Player of the Year went to the Nothern-Ireland-born Jim Hagan, who played two seasons for Celta de Vigo. During these years Sammy Lee joined Osasuna and played alongside former Liverpool teammate Michael Robinson until 1989.

The most notable British players during the 90s were the English trio at Real Sociedad during the 1990-1991 season. It was formed by Dalian Atkinson, Kevin Richardson and Ireland international John Aldridge. They were however unsuccessful as the team finished 13th in the league table, even though they had qualified for UEFA the previous year, and were eliminated from the Copa del Rey and UEFA itself in early stages. The other British representative during this era was Vinny Samways, who joined Las Palmas in the Second Division but reached promotion a few years later. He also became the first Englishman to play the Sevilla derby between Real Betis and Sevilla FC, as he joined the latter for one season.

Real Madrid are the focus of most British players during the 2000s. Steve McManaman signed for the merengues in 1999, beginning a successful 4-year spell in which he won 8 titles, including two La Ligas and two UEFA Champions Leagues. Prior to his departure in 2003, he helped the galáctico David Beckham integrate into the club, although they only shared the changing room for under two months. Beckham failed to win titles for the club during most of his stay in Spain. Fierce competition from Barcelona and other European clubs in the UEFA Champions League meant Beckham only won a Supercopa de España during his first season, and a League title only a few days before he left the club. Beckham played along two other countrymen at Real, although Michael Owen and Jonathan Woodgate‘s unsuccessful spells in Spain’s capital lasted no longer than one and two years, respectively.

A lack of success seems to be the trend among British exports to La Liga. The latest British representatives in Spanish football haven’t had any more luck than their previous compatriots. Alan Hutton at Mallorca and Charlie l’Anson at Elche didn’t help their teams perform well during the one season their spells lasted.

Gareth Bale is of course the exception that confirms the rule (supposedly, shall we say). The Welsh international landed in Spain’s capital two years ago, leaving £78 million in Spurs’ balance. So far his performance is satisfactory, even though injuries aren’t allowing him to show all his potential and his price-quality ratio is more than questionable. Real’s president Florentino Pérez isn’t too worried about money though.

These are only a few of the British ambassadors in Spanish football. There are more, even well-known footballers, like Jermaine Pennant (Zaragoza), Peter Barnes (Real Betis), Stan Collymore (Real Oviedo), Mark Draper (Rayo Vallecano), Adrian Heath (Espanyol) and Ted McMinn (Sevilla FC). Others however are not so famous, like Gerry Armstrong (Mallorca) and Raphael Meade (Real Betis), but what ties them all together is that their names are linked to absolutely no glory in Spanish football. Maybe not long from now we will thank Britain again. But, I have a hunch, it will be for keeping its players away.

Guille Guridi Alvarez

Image: ‘Audi AG’ via flickr

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