Javier Clemente and The Last of the Champions

By Dan Parry

Sarabia o yo” Javier Clemente, never one to mince words, said. The ultimatum, one of many such declarations, was given to his superiors in October 1985. It was a miscalculated bid to come out on top of the chaos that had arisen from his very public fall out with star player, Manuel Sarabia López.

Clemente, still only thirty-six at this time, probably never believed he would be sacked. After all, in four and half years in the job he had won two consecutive league titles, one Copa del Rey, a Supercopa, and they were well placed to finish in the top three again. Sadly, Clemente was mistaken. The ultimatum was a standout moment in a series of strange and damaging events concerning himself and Sarabia that threatened to tear the club apart. And like something from a Shakespearean drama, it divided the city into two rival factions: The Clementistas and The Sarabistas.

In addition to his half of the city, Clemente had the support of his young squad, all of whom, except Sarabia, had held a meeting with the manager in his house along with a Basque Nationalist Party spin doctor and the Bishop of Bilbao where they offered him their allegiance. However, the political chess-like moves, the press leaks and the drama all became too much for the Athletic Club hierarchy, who felt that Clemente was starting to overstep the limits of his role. All of this resulted in him losing his most important ally, club president Pedro Aurtenetxe, whose trust in the young manager had fully eroded by time he sacked him.

Athletic were in a strong position in the league, they had a talented squad and the best academy in the country. Aurtenexte could have been forgiven for believing that getting rid of Clemente wouldn’t have too much of a consequence, and that the club -thanks to the groundwork done by Javier- would just carry on succeeding, regardless of who led it. He too was mistaken, save one Supercopa in 2015, Athletic have failed to win a single major trophy since parting ways with ‘El Rubio del Barakaldo’.

The Nearly Years

Before the first league title of the Clemente era in 1982/83, Athletic had not won La Liga since 1956. The twenty-seven year long wait must have seemed like an eternity for fans of the historic club. During the dry spell, the club had adopted the status of being Spain’s nearly men. There were some second and third places in the league, a couple of Copas Del Rey in 69 and 73, and an agonising away goals loss to Juventus in the 1977 UEFA Cup Final.

Despite these achievements, Athletic had fallen far, far away from the heights of the trophy laden twenties and thirties of Pichichi and Mr. Pentland, and the successful post-war generation lead by the likes Telmo Zarra, Piru Gainza and Raimundo Lezama.

As the eighties reared its head, there was a lot of fear among the Athleticzale. The departure of key players, such as José Ángel Iribar, Ángel María Villar and Javier Irureta to retirement, José Ramón Alexanko to Barcelona, as well as the underwhelming performances towards the end of the seventies, lead some to worry that the Rojiblanco’s best days may have been behind them rather than ahead.

Broken Hearts and Broken Legs.

Javier Clemente’s journey with Athletic Club started long before his appointment as manager. In fact, at one time he was supposed to be the club’s next great star. As a child he played for his school team before being signed up by hometown club C.D Barakaldo and a couple of years later he moved to Athletic Club. He made his way through the ranks and was given his debut at just eighteen years of age. He was a marvellous inside left with a lot of potential. He was skilful, tactically astute, could pass well and would often pop up with superb long range efforts. His position, blonde hair and the successes of Manchester United meant that he was often referred to as the ‘Spanish Bobby Charlton’.

He was the golden boy of his time, young fans wanted to grow up to play like him and the older ones hoped he would usher in another period of glory for Athletic. Unfortunately, in 1969, half way through his second campaign with the club, Javier suffered a terrible injury. In a league game against Sabadell on a horrendously muddy pitch, with only five minutes of the match left, he was on the receiving end of a strong challenge from defender Ramón Marañón. The mud momentarily trapped his leg as the tackle came in and it ended up breaking both his tibia and fibia. Although he might have plenty of reason to do so, Clemente has never complained about the challenge or blamed Marañon for prematurely ending his career. From his interview with Jotdown.es:

He came in with his studs up, I had the bad luck of getting my studs stuck in the mud and he broke my leg, a bad tackle and bad luck.”

After several botched operations and some unsuccessful comebacks for reserve team Bilbao Athletic -including one that resulted in another leg-break- Clemente called time on his career in 1975. He was given a hero’s send-off in the form of an emotional testimonial game against Borussia Monchengladbach.

Moving on, Ipswich-style

Many people might have sunk into a depression, hit the bottle, turned to drugs or worse after losing the kind of career Clemente was going to have. But testament to his character, Clemente didn’t allow himself to wallow in self-pity, he persevered as best as he could. At first, he combined a day job working as a travelling salesman for Adidas with a part-time position as coach of lower-league outfit, Arenas de Getxo, where in his first year he got them promoted back into the Tercera División. It was his work at Arenas that lead to him being given a full-time position at Athletic’s affliate club, Basconia.

Although it meant he would have to give up his job as a salesman and make half the money, Javier was delighted to be back involved at his beloved club. He spent four years with Basconia and a further season with Bilbao Athletic. Whilst there he served his managerial apprenticeship, became acquainted with the stellar youth at the club -many of whom weren’t so much younger than himself- and started to develop a particular footballing philosophy. It was a style born from his love of British football and the realities of playing football on the rain-soaked and poorly maintained pitches around the Basque Country.

Clemente had a fondness for Sir Bobby Robson’s Ipswich team of the seventies. In fact, he was so fascinated with Ipswich’s zonal marking system – which wasn’t used in Spain at that point- that he made two separate trips to Ipswich to study under Robson. He described Robson’s defensive tactics as being efficient whilst allowing for incisive counter-attacking moments. Perfect for a squad of physically powerful Basques.

Throughout his career as a manager, Clemente’s tactics have often been labelled as overly defensive. And like most defensive-minded managers, Javier has taken umbridge with his football being labelled as ‘route-one’. Not unlike his Real Sociedad rival, Alberto Ormaetxea, Clemente sought to build an identity based on classic Basque values, the squad at his disposal and the industrial city it came from. The focus was on being strong, disciplined and ferocious in defence, clinical in attack and, above all, teamwork.

Nobody was more important than the team. If you didn’t work hard for the team, you’d find yourself benched. In terms of attack, his basic principal has always been that a side is much more likely to score when the ball is in the opposition half, but there’s no need to waste time getting it up there. Especially, when the game is being played on a wet and muddy pitch. Clemente put it best during his interview with Jotdown.es:

“Getting into the opposition’s area ten times will lead to more opportunities than getting there three times…and our conditions enabled this style, let’s not forget the turf of San Mamés wasn’t the carpet that it is now.”

Taking to the Top Job like a Barge to a River

At the age of thirty-one, twelve years after his career-ending injury, Javier Clemente was given the reigns at Athletic Club. Upon his ascension to the top job, Clemente stated that his intentions were to create an Athletic side that would be feared again. With this in mind, he immediately set about replenishing the squad with promising players from the youth system. Keeper Andoni Zubizarreta, centre-back  Iñigo ‘Rocky’ Liceranzu and centre-mid José Ramón Gallego were among a number of youngsters brought into the first team fold.

At the same time, a new lease of life was given to established first-team players, including: Andoní Goioketxea, a tough centre-back whose precise long balls and leadership from the back became essential; goalscorer and target-man, Dani Ruiz-Bazán; and the supremely talented Manu Sarabia, a scrawny attacking midfielder blessed with sublime skill, who was arguably the most gifted player to come through the ranks in decades. All in all, Clemente’s first season in charge was a resounding success. They finished in fourth place whilst scoring sixty-three goals, only second-placed Barcelona scored more.

The 1981-82 season provided the platform but in the next campaign Athletic got even better. As a manager, Clemente managed to achieve what some believed he was destined to do as a player, he brought success back to Bilbao. In a tight season, Athletic won an unexpected league title finishing one point ahead of Real Madrid. It was believed that the title would be disputed between Real Madrid and Barcelona -the latter having spent on world record fee on a certain Maradona during the summer- but Clemente and his charges spoilt the party.

Throughout the season Athletic hovered around the league leaders. But they weren’t the front-runners in the title race. In fact, with the exception of a solitary week in September, Athletic didn’t hold the top spot at all until March. It was around this time that all became aware that the Basques weren’t going to drop off. A victory over Racing Santander, whilst both Real Madrid and Barcelona were held to draws, allowed Athletic to go ahead in the league.

In April, Barça and Athletic Club played out a crucial match at San Mamés. It was their second meeting of the season but the first between Javier and his soon to be arch-nemesis, the recently appointed Argentinian, Cesar Luis Menotti. Their blossoming rivalry saw the game take on an extra dimension. In the end, Athletic came out on top 3-2 thanks to goals from strikers Dani and Sarabia. Both were in the forms of their lives, contributing a combined thirty-five goals to the seventy-one scored by Athletic over the course of the season. The victory all but killed Barcelona’s already faint title hopes, meaning that with three games left it was a two horse race to the very end between Athletic and Real Madrid.

As Athletic headed down to the Canary Islands to face Las Palmas for the final game of the campaign, Real Madrid were hosted by a Koldo Aguirre’s Valencia -the same manager who took Athletic to the UEFA Cup final six years beforehand. In the most intriguing of circumstances, both away clubs needed a victory to become champions, and the home sides needed a win to stave off relegation.

Las Palmas drew first blood, an own goal from Miguel de Andrés gave them a 1-0 lead in the third minute. In the twelfth minute, Sarabia the wizard, who had become the most exciting player in the league, struck back for Athletic and five minutes before half-time his equally profilic partner Dani put them ahead. Only a minute beforehand in El Mestalla, Madrid had gone 1-0 down. Whilst the capital side never managed to recover, Athletic absolutely routed Las Palmas 5-1 on their way to winning their first championship for twenty-seven years. The man of the moment Sarabia kicked off proceedings in the 57th minute before the game was rounded out by strikes from left-winger Estanislao Argote and the twenty-one year old midfielder Ismael Urtubi.

To celebrate the victory, which the citizens of Bilbao had been awaiting for so long, the club and the town council decided that the best method to celebrate would be to charter a boat to carry the team down the city’s River Nervión. The move was inspired by a song which depicts a group of players heading down the Nervión on a barge and similar events that had occurred in 1924 when Acero Club de Olabeaga -a neighbourhood of Bilbao- took a barge to the river after beating Osasuna to the Serie B title. The images of the squad sailing down the Nervión aboard ‘La Gabarra’ (The Barge) and the millions of supporters who swarmed the riverside to catch a glimpse of their heroes has since become iconic.

Double Trouble

The following campaign was the peak of Clemente’s era. As the manager had predicted, and in spite of common belief, Athletic surpassed their achievements of of 82/83. In a nail biting season full of fire and fury they managed to win an historic double. It was also during this season that Clemente set about evolving his squad. Experienced striker Dani found himself being phased out the side in favour of José María Norriega, who had being used almost exclusively as a sub beforehand, and to a lesser degree the same occurred with Sarabia and squad player Endika. Furthermore, the campaign also saw the emergence of the Salinas brothers, centre-back Patxi and striker Julio. There was also a shift in Clemente’s tactical and mental approach to the game as he became increasingly defensive.

In September, Athletic were defeated 4-1 by Barcelona in the first of many heated encounters that would be played between the clubs over the course of the season. The major moment of the match was an extremely robust Andoni Goikoetxea challenge on Maradona, which left the Argentine with a broken ankle and the defender with the moniker, ‘The Butcher of Bilbao’.

There were two other high-scoring games early on as well, a 6-3 home win over UD Salamanca and a 4-1 defeat to Sevilla. The game against Salamanca is seen as being the turning point in Clemente’s philosophy. After the match he promised his side that they would never again ship three goals at San Mamés whilst he was manager. It was a promise which he kept.

After the 4-1 drubbing at the hands of Sevilla in early October, Athletic wouldn’t concede more than two goals in a league game all season and they wouldn’t taste defeat again until January when Maradona took his revenge by scoring two goals in a 2-1 Barcelona victory. As the title race developed Athletic became nigh-on impossible to defeat, they weren’t winning much but neither were they losing. So, every time rivals Real Madrid or Barcelona dropped points, Athletic would simply tighten the grip.

At the turn of the year, and after a 1-0 win against Real Sociedad in San Sebastián, the Rojiblancos were just one point behind Real Madrid. A week later, they capitalised on a Real Madrid loss to Real Betis and climbed into the top spot. From here onwards, the championship became a three horse race, Athletic and Real Madrid jostled for the top spot, as a resurgent Barcelona led by a now recovered Maradona hung on for dear life in third place. The crucial moment for Athletic came at the beginning of May when they managed to beat Madrid 2-1. Dani came off the bench to score the most vital of goals in the 87th minute.

Athletic slipped up in the following week with a 2-0 loss against Betis, but fortunately Dani’s strike against Madrid had given them a one goal advantage over their rivals on goal difference.

Going into the final weekend all was left to play for. Athletic and Real Madrid were both on forty-seven points separated by the slightest of margins, whilst Barcelona were only one point behind in third place and could still take the title providing both sides lost. It was an intriguing set of fixtures. Real Madrid went to Barcelona to play Espanyol and Barcelona went to Madrid to play Atlético Madrid, whilst Athletic entertained rivals Real Sociedad at home.

It was the kind of scenario fans either dream of or dread. Anything less than a win would be useless if Real Madrid bettered Espanyol or Barcelona did likewise against Atlético Madrid. All this, plus the goal difference, or lack thereof, meant it was a precarious situation for all. For Athletic Club a loss was absolutely unthinkable. There is no worse way to miss out on a title than losing to your regional rivals on your own turf.

Atlético and Barcelona kicked-off proceedings, an early goal by Barcelona gave them a glimpse of hope before Atlético equalised shortly afterwards. Meanwhile, Athletic took the lead in the 18th minute when an over hit free-kick was put back into the box and unsung centre-back Liceranzu battled his way onto the end of it.

San Mamés was anxious. As things stood they would be champions. Ears were firmly fixed to radios as the fans monitored what was happening in Barcelona and Madrid. Seven minutes later, Lobo Carrasco threw it wide open again as he put Barcelona ahead again. In the 55th minute, Espanyol went ahead.

Back in Bilbao, this peculiar game of title hot potato continued. Real Sociedad began to play with the nerves of their Basque rivals. After a period of sustained possession a passing move down the left saw a perfect cross reach forward Pedro Uralde at the back-post who dutifully headed it past Zubizarreta. The title now belonged to Barcelona… for the grand total of two minutes. In Barcelona, Emilio Butragueño evened things up with a penalty. The three sides were tied for points at the top, but Los Blancos were taking the title home thanks to head-to-heads.

“Athletic, Athletic, Athletic!” The fans inside San Mamés chanted, urging their heroes forward. Ten minutes later, Athletic were back in front again. Liceranzu outjumped everyone to score again with a fantastic header from a corner thus putting the Bilbaínos 2-1 ahead.

There was an enormous eruption of jubilation inside the stadium. As things stood, as long as Real Sociedad didn’t get an equaliser, Athletic would win a second consecutive championship. Butragueño converted another penalty at Espanyol, but it made no difference.

It was a tense and nervous final ten minutes, but Athletic held on as chants of “Campeones” rang out across La Catedral and the city of Bilbao. Fans waving red-and-white striped flags along with Ikurriñas wasted no time in invading the pitch. They had won their second consecutive title at home against their closest rivals, and for the fourth year running La Liga belonged to The Basque Country.

La Gabarra could get its engines running but it couldn’t undock just yet. There was still a match to be played… a Copa del Rey final against Barcelona awaited.

Perhaps, the most infamous football match in Spanish history, the game has become more well-known for the post-match brawl, where Maradona took out a couple of guys, rather than for what occurred during the actual game.

It was a culmination of bad blood between the two sides that began the season before when polar opposites Menotti and Clemente engaged in some verbal sparring. Menotti accused Clemente of being tactically regressive, whereas Clemente saw Menotti as a ‘pretentious hippie’. Menotti having won the World Cup with Argentina promised to revolutionise Spanish football with Maradona and Barcelona but in truth he had failed in his objective. The cup final was his last chance to salvage something from the relative wreckage that was Barcelona’s 83/84 season.

They were unfortunate enough to come up against recently-crowned and extremely confident champions Athletic, who were determined not to lose and bring the double to Bilbao. In what would be the Argentines’ final game, Athletic were ferocious and aggressive, in the eyes of many overly so, in their endeavour to prevent Barcelona from playing their natural game. For example, everytime Maradona received the ball he would be swarmed by a barrage of red and white.

In the fourteenth minute, the Basque outfit took the advantage and the victory when a cross from the left landed at the feet of Sarabia’s replacement Endika, who tucked it away. It was undoubtedly an ugly game, after the match Menotti declared that “Football had died,” but the Athletic fans were unbothered by his remarks. The double was theirs and La Gabarra hit the waves once more.

The Season of Discontent

In 84/85, Barcelona, under Menotti’s replacement Terry Venables, ran away with the league title. But it wasn’t a complete disaster for Athletic, they finished third in the league and managed another Copa Del Rey final. This time losing 2-1 to Atlético Madrid in a slightly less chaotic game than the previous year.

However, it was also during this campaign that the seeds of discontent between Clemente and Sarabia were sown. Although Sarabia had just played a major role in Spain’s run to the final of Euro 84, he figured less and less in Clemente’s starting line-up, the manager preferring instead to begin with the less mercurial but more disciplined Endika and then bring Sarabia on as a sub.

At first, Clemente argued that his decision was tactical. He put forward the case that, at times, the eleven who saw out a game were more important than those who started. He claimed he was utilising Sarabia as a sub because he was more effective coming on in the final thirty minutes and playing against defenders with dead legs.

Moving into the 85/86 campaign and with World Cup 86 on the horizon, Sarabia became increasingly worried about the lack of playing time affecting his chances of making the tournament squad. Clemente remained defiant, refusing to start the talented striker despite calls from fans, the press and Sarabia himself. During a game against Hercules FC in January 86, whilst Athletic were drawing 0-0, fans in the San Mamés began chanting for Sarabia’s inclusion. Clemente, ever the contrarian, neglected their wishes. Javier’s answer to the solution was to never play Sarabia again, something which he decided to declare publicly.

The outcome of Clemente’s statement was profound. There were meetings with players (and bishops), a letter of support from the players and a general societal rift. It also lead to inquiries about the club’s leadership. Many fans held the president and directors responsible. As far as they were concerned Clemente had been allowed to become something of a dictator. And when the leadership of a club is decided by vote, questions of authority don’t look too great for presidents. Consequently, Clemente was relieved of his position.

There’s is no denying that the fallout between a manager and player, who had brought each other and the club so much success, seemed illogical. Ever since, many a journalist and fan have endeavoured to find reason in the madness. With explanations and theories ranging from the psychological to the sensational. Some claimed that Clemente had grown jealous of Sarabia’s plaudits and adoration, a mindset caused by his shortened career. Another journalist, Luis Del Olmo, was actually sued by Clemente for suggesting that it all boiled down to some sort of love triangle.

The matter became one of the most discussed issues in the nation. The press pitted the fight as authoritarian manager versus free-spirited footballer, and people were accordingly split into two camps, you were either a Clementista or Sarabista. Patxo Unzueta citing sculptor Jorge Oteiza in an article for El Pais suggested that the Basque psyche and the region’s fractured history had a vital role in intensifying the issue: “Every Basque carries a Carlist (Conservative) and a liberal grandfather in his bagpack.”

In the aftermath, Clemente has stated that it was a question of “Discipline, pure discipline.” First of all, Sarabia failed to carry-out tactical instructions on the pitch, such as against Las Palmas in the second game of the 85/86 season, where Sarabia failed to mark his opposite full-back. Furthermore, in his mind, Sarabia broke a cardinal rule of Athletic Club: Nobody has an automatic claim to a spot at the club. He went so far as to challenge the player on the issue in front of the rest of the squad, demanding that Sarabia explain to his teammates why he should play ahead of one of them.

Sarabia, obviously still pained by the memories, has remained tight-lipped. Only offering that, in his opinion, the actions of Clemente not only caused serious harm to their own respective reputations, but also to the club.

The reality probably lies somewhere between the chaos and the numerous complex factors that were responsible for the rupture. At it’s very core, it came down to two very determined, winning personalities who loved their club and wanted to succeed, but held differing visions about how that goal should be achieved. The irony is that for all their differences and for all the controversy, and as much as they may dislike it, one can no longer be separated from the other. This period in their lives has irrevocably bound their stories together for eternity.

The Aftermath

Once Clemente departed, José Ángel Iribar took control as a caretaker manager, taking the side to a respectable third placed finish, before being replaced by Howard Kendall. Under Kendall, Sarabia played out a further two seasons at Athletic, but soon found himself becoming a bit-part player once more. No one begrudged him when he left for CD Logroñes in 88, and he is still revered as one of the most naturally talented players to have ever pulled on the famous red-and-white jersey.

Clemente soon took over the main job at Espanyol, where he came close to adding European silverware to his trophy cabinet, only to be thwarted on penalties in the final against Bayer Leverkusen in 88. He managed Athletic twice more, both one season spells and was in charge of the Spanish national team for six years in the nineties. Towards the end of his career, he became a nomadic type manager, often being appointed as more of a managerial quasi-firefighter. Clubs would bring him in when perilously close to relegation in the hope that his demanding nature and organised tactical approach might light a rocket under flailing players and save their season.

For Athletic Club, the late eighties were difficult years. Due to the nonsensical departures of key players, such as Zubizarreta, Goikoetxea, Julio Salinas and others, the club struggled to compete as it had done under Clemente.

To this day, some fans still wonder of what could have been. If Clemente had been backed, or conversely, properly put in his place, might he have been able to build a dynasty in the form of Sir Alex Ferguson at Man Utd? Or is it just as likely that more fall-outs would have followed?

Throughout his entire career Clemente was, and still is, a disciplinarian and straight-talking contrarian. Never afraid to speak his mind, he has always courted controversy. Bust ups with players, chairmen and journalists were part and parcel of the Clemente experience. He divides opinion across the nation due to his forthright views, but in and around Bilbao there is still something of a reverence for him. At the end of the day, like him or not, agree with him or not, like most great winners, he simply doesn’t care.

It took twenty-seven years for Clemente to come along and return glory to his hometown club. The wait for the next title now adds up to a long and desperate thirty-four years. Year after year, Athletic fans can do little more than make do with hope and memories of a time gone by.

The Clementistas vs Sarabistas saga remains a hot topic of debate at many of the famously long Bilbaino post-dinner discussions. But there is no doubt that all fans, including Javier Clemente and Manu Sarabia, remain united in their love for the club and their desire to see La Gabarra rumbling down the Nervión once more.

Artwork by: Marisol Vaz

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