“If you’ll allow me,” Imanol Alguacil said, as if there was anything they wouldn’t allow him any more. He was one of them after all, the communion about to be made very loud and very clear. He had also just done what no one had done for 34 years and only two men had done before; what no man had done, in fact. It was after midnight on Saturday and Alguacil had just led Real Sociedad to their first major trophy since 1987, back before even he was at the club, and the fourth in their history, securing victory in the cup final against Athletic Club, possibly the biggest moment in Basque football history. Besides, allow it? They were going to love it.
He took off his jacket and pulled on a Real shirt they had prepared for him. “This,” he said, “is for the whole of Guipúzcoa,” the smallest of the 50 mainland provinces in Spain. “This is for everyone who feels la Real.” He was handed a scarf, which he held above his head, leaned into the microphone, said “Guipúzcoa, with me, eh,” and then began. “Erreala alé,” he sang, belting out the words. “Let’s go Real, to victory! We’ll always be with you!”
He paused momentarily and, like a man possessed, eyes wide, neck tense, didn’t so much shout but scream, his voice creaking under the strain and the release:“Come on, Real! Come on! God! Come on!” And then he started clapping like he was trying to make his hands bleed.
From anyone else at any other moment, it might have felt awkward, forced, even wrong. Only John Toshack and Alberto Ormaetxea – plus José Angel Berraondo if you include the 1909 cup final when they were still officially the San Sebastián Cycling Club – had lifted a trophy for the club before, and if anyone knew what this meant it was Alguacil, while beneath the surface and emerging now there was more too. “I’m going to go from manager mode to fan mode,” he had said before he sang but he had never stopped being a fan for whom Real Sociedad isn’t so much the best club in the world as the only one.
Born and raised in Orio, the pretty fishing village 15km from San Sebastián with a population just over 6,000, Alguacil’s mother died when he was 13, 36 years ago last week. His father, a lorry driver, was at the wheel when he got the call in 1990 telling him Imanol was going to make his Real Sociedad debut away at Real Oviedo. He played eight years for the club, mostly as a full-back. He wasn’t the most talented player ever technically and wasn’t always a starter either, but he did score at the Bernabéu and he was tall, strong and committed.
Few are more committed to la Real. A handful of games followed at Villarreal, Cartagena, Jaén and Burgos followed before he retired. He ran and cycled and coached in Orio. In 2011, he returned to coach the under-19s. He was assistant coach of Sanse, the B team. Then coach of Sanse, where he stayed despite initially being pencilled in to be part of David Moyes’s first-team staff – he instead stayed with Sanse. In the spring of 2018 he was asked what he thought about Eusebio Sacristán, the struggling first-team manager. Keep him, he said, even though he knew a sacking would open the doors to him becoming manager.
Eventually they made Alguacil coach but he insisted that, while he would help out, his role was with the young players coming through at Zubieta. He was in charge for nine league games until the end of the season. and yet seven months later something similar happened. Asier Garitano was struggling. Again, they asked; again, Alguacil said to stand by their manager. When he was given the job for a second time in December he agreed to take over properly although he admitted that, all too aware of the responsibility which he felt deeply, he wasn’t sleeping well.
There has been stability with him, identity too, a shift in the approach and in generations. In the neat phrase of the sporting director Roberto Olabe, Real Sociedad wanted possession but they also wanted to be “explorers of space”. When they made Alguacil coach, Olabe insisted: “We believe in him, in his methods, in his ambition and personality, in his contextual knowledge.” There would be additions – Martin Ødegaard, David Silva, Alexander Isak, Portu, Mikel Merino, Nacho Monreal: all have been vital – but the basis would be academy players who Alguacil already knew. “You can work well with the youth system but someone has to open the door on Sunday at 5pm for it to have meaning: someone has to be positive, enthusiastic, brave,” Olabe says. “In that final step Imanol, who has lived it himself, is fundamental.”
Of the 15 players who played in Saturday’s cup final, 10 are from the Basque country (including Navarre), six are from Guipúzcoa, eight are youth team products. “This is a triumph for Guipúzcoan football and a way of doing things, a way of believing in things,” the president, Jokin Aperribay, said after the final. Mikel Oyarzabal had to wait five minutes to take the decisive penalty, a long time to think of the last three he had taken and missed but Alguacil was calm. Asked why, he replied “because it’s Mikel”, and Mikel is one of his. “Five years ago a lot of these lads were with me in Segunda B,” he said.
His approach hasn’t changed, the midfielder Ander Guevara admits. And it’s not just about knowing them; it’s about knowing football too, making la Real arguably the most attractive team in Spain, pace to go with their precision, ambition too. “He had a very clear identity and pushes that to the death,” Guevara says. “A team that wants the ball: not for its own sake, but to do damage with it. Good pressure, good physical preparation, possession.”
Alguacil can appear quiet, almost awkward, and there’s no sign of an ego or any pretensions. But there’s something there, heard in how often he talks about making his team great, the dissatisfaction after victories and how it is not enough for them to enjoy it; they must compete too – even if all that is invariably expressed with a kind of paternal pride. “He was always very cañero [he cracks the whip],” Guevara says. “And when a coach has that authority and that humility and has been here that long, when he knows everyone at the club from the first person to the last, when he’s another son of this land, that’s important. He knows exactly what he can demand of everyone. And you can see how much we believe in what he proposes.”
“I didn’t really know him and the truth is I was in for a surprise, a pleasant surprise,” Nacho Monreal admits. “It’s one thing to know about football, understand it, another to be able to communicate that. And Imanol can: mucho, mucho, mucho, muchísimo. It’s incredible. He is on top of everything, from the way the team brings the ball out to the way we press, to what we do when we lose possession. He has so many strings to his bow.”
At the end of last season, when Real Sociedad qualified for Europe, he said: “I don’t know why the club have shown so much trust in me or given me so much authority.” He cried as he talked about “my wife, my two kids, my nephews who go to bed in tears when we lose”. On Saturday he cried again as a long journey ended in Seville with the injured captain, Asier Illarramendi, limping up to collect the trophy that fans like Alguacil had waited too long for, only to be denied the chance to see it in the flesh.
“I want to offer this cup to the doctors and nurses all the people on the front line fighting and saving lives; this is for them too,” Alguacil said on Sunday night. “My uncle died this week because of Covid, but I was very focused on the game. My family has suffered and we had a lot of support from the people in my town; I would like to dedicate this to them. I called my wife and kids first, they’re the ones who suffer me every day. I have been unbearable these last two weeks, I have to admit it. I have spent the last six months: Zubieta-home, home-Zubieta. I think I’ve been out for a walk with my wife four times. I get home and I’m wearing a mask. I try not to eat dinner with them. They have suffered me, there’s no words for how much they have put up with.”
Now, though, they could let go. At long, long last it was done. It was time for song.
Alavés 1-3 Celta Vigo; Cádiz 2-1 Valencia; Elche 1-1 Real Betis; Granada 0-3 Villarreal; Levante 0-2 Huesca; Osasuna 0-0 Getafe; Real Madrid 2-0 Eibar; Sevilla 1-0 Atlético Madrid
Monday Barcelona v Real Valladolid