Andy Mitten

Sociedad celebrate another famous comeback

Andy Mitten

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It's hard to begrudge the Basques of Real Sociedad. Two goals down at home to Barcelona after 11 minutes on Saturday, the argument that Spain's Primera Liga is woefully two-sided was holding weight. Goals from Xavi and Cesc Fabregas, who went on to be Barca's best player, put the Catalans on course for what everyone thought would be another easy victory.

Real Sociedad were one of just two teams to beat Barca in the league last season, but that victory in April came against a fringe Barca side who had all but wrapped up the title. Historically, La Real have found points much harder to come by against the Catalans - only 28 wins and 29 draws with 71 losses. Nobody gave them a chance, but history would repeat itself.

In 1989, Barcelona took a two-goal lead at San Sebastian's hostile old Atocha, a tight and inadequate stadium in the town centre by the train station. It was not dissimilar to Millwall's old Den. What constituted 'cramped' for the home team was considered 'intimidating' for visiting teams.

Atocha was incongruous in the beautiful Basque city, which is gloriously situated on a shell-shaped bay. The town's baroque architecture makes it one of the most elegant and fashionable Spanish seaside resorts, with fine restaurants.

Sociedad were no slouches either. Until 1989, the Basque country's second-biggest club with average crowds of 25,000 were reliant on local talent. Indeed, La Real's policy was even more exclusive than their neighbours Athletic Bilbao since they only took players from the immediate province of Guipuzcoa while Athletic were prepared to twist their own rules by recruiting from the partly-Basque neighbouring regions of Navarra, or La Rioja, famous for its wine rather than being Basque.

The strategy had stood for decades and frequently prospered, with Sociedad winning the league twice in succession and reaching the semi-final of the European Cup in the early 1980s. Bars in San Sebastian's old town - where numerous flags bear the legends like 'Tourists beware, the Basque country is not Spain' - still proudly display posters of that side, immortalising stars like the legendary goalkeeper Luis Arconada and Perico Alonso, father of current Spain midfielder Xabi Alonso.

But by the end of the eighties, the once triumphant Sociedad found themselves suddenly, and unexpectedly, floundering.

Their manager John Toshack accepted Real Madrid's advances and left, while Athletic poached Sociedad's striker Loren. The usual solution, that of recruitment from the cantera (quarry) youth system, offered no strikers of the required class.
Sociedad called a meeting to discuss the goalscoring problem. They decided to sign an outsider, the first non-Basque Sociedad player of the modern era.

Once the decision had been made to break with tradition, Basque nationalism dictated that the outsider could not be a Spaniard. On the recommendation of the now former boss Toshack (who in his three spells at the club has managed Sociedad for more games than any other), Sociedad offered £1.15 million for a Scouser: John Aldridge.
Aldridge didn't even know where San Sebastian was when he flew to sign after feeling that he was pushed out by Liverpool, but its beauty would soon lift the reluctant newcomer's spirits.

"We couldn't believe it when I got there and saw two beaches and this wonderful promenade," recalled Aldridge. "I turned to my wife. Her smile made me realise there were good times ahead. I said: 'I didn't realise it was going to be this good.'"
Nor did Aldridge appreciate the significance of being Sociedad's first non-Basque player for over three decades.

"I'd been told that they mistrusted outsiders and that you had to be Basque to fully be accepted but I wasn't aware of the importance at all," he stated. "I could see my name in graffiti around the town, but couldn't understand the Basque words around it. When I asked somebody what it meant they got a bit embarrassed. It said: 'No outsiders welcome here'."

The political situation was potentially very sensitive too, with those sympathetic to the Basque cause for independence more likely to clash with Spanish police in the streets of San Sebastian than Bilbao. It was these activists who would be most against Aldridge's transfer.

"I was advised about the political situation and decided to offer a contrived answer when asked at the press conference to announce my signing the following day. I just said: 'I am not a politician. I am here to score goals and pay back the money Real Sociedad have spent on me. If anyone holds anything political against me there is nothing I can do. Goals are the are the same in any language.' Actually, I really respected their decision to spend so much money on a player the wrong side of 30."
The fans were soon behind him, however.

On 21st October 1989, Barcelona took a two-goal lead, but as on Saturday night, Sociedad struck back to equalise - with both goals from Aldridge.
"You know what fans are like," he said. "I got those two goals and then the fans really started to support me."

Aldridge felt settled and scored 22 goals in his first season, including eight in six successive games, a club record that has yet to be bettered. He was followed to San Sebastian by Kevin Richardson and Dalian Atkinson. And when Aldridge decided to leave in 1991, there were protests in the streets for him to stay.

Sociedad finished fifth in Aldridge's final season, something they have only bettered twice since - famously in 2003 when they came close to winning the league but were pipped by Real Madrid at the post. They've not finished in the top 15 since and spent three seasons in the second division, so you can understand why the 30,433 crowd went just a little bit mental on Saturday as goals from Imanol Agirretxe, 24, and Antoine Griezmann, 20, saw them roar back to draw 2-2.

They'd not seen anything like it since they decided to sign that unlikely foreigner and they'll probably be celebrating the fightback for years.

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