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Friends reunited

I almost stayed at home tonight, since there were good reasons to avoid wandering over to Anoeta to take in my first live game of the season. It was raining, nothing new there in the Manchester of Spain, and the San Sebastián Film Festival has just got under way, almost tempting me away from sweat and leather to something a little more cerebral... well, the Neil Young film 'Heart of Gold', if that counts as cerebral.

The only problem was that the visitors to Anoeta were Recreativo de Huelva, and me and Recre go back a long way. Well, not so long really - seven years to be exact. Back then Recre were in their more habitual environment of the Second Division 'A', at home to a Villarreal side who would go up that season and begin to establish themselves in the top flight.

In an ever-increasing world of corporate and depersonalised sport, where the word 'supporter' has been supplanted by 'client', it's clubs like Recreativo that deserve to be supported.

I was researching a book on Spanish football, eventually to be called 'Morbo', and I was still unsure as to whether it was going to work. Recreativo were the first side to turn professional in Spain way back in 1889 and so it seemed logical to travel the length of Spain to see what they were all about. I'm not absolutely sure of this piece of data, but I reckon that the trip from north-east to south-west is the furthest a team has to travel on the mainland to play a top-flight game at least. That's what Recre had to do this weekend, but I digress.

Back in 1999 they lost 1-4 to Villarreal in their old Colombino stadium, but made such a fuss of the fact that I'd gone down there to write about them that I've stayed sort of faithful ever since. They gave me a special seat, bought me supper, interviewed me on the local radio and telly - and all because someone was taking notice of them.

On a bad day for them, the presence of an obscure English rookie writer (their newspaper referred to me grandiosely the next day as 'the distinguished English Historian') was a straw to clutch at. But I never forgot their hospitality, in a season when they finished next to bottom but were saved from the drop by the financial irregularities of Mérida.

In an ever-increasing world of corporate and depersonalised sport, where the word 'supporter' has been supplanted by 'client', it's clubs like Recreativo that deserve to be supported. After Grimsby Town and Real Sociedad of course, but we all need a third team just in case.

The whole experience down in Huelva convinced me that the history of Spanish football was worth writing about, so tonight I went along to pay homage to my old mates, back in the First Division again after a brief stay in the 2002-2003 season. That was the year I last saw them play, at Osasuna one dark and rainy night in the King's Cup semi-final; a wonderful game that they drew 2-2 in heroic circumstances, taking them to the only Cup final of their less than illustrious history.

They lost the final to Mallorca and went down the same season, but anyway. I only got into the semi-final because the club generously sent me up a ticket, remembering the book and also the fact that I'd gone down to Pamplona for the league game in the November, which Recre had surprisingly won 0-1. It was the first game they'd won in the top flight since June 1979, which had been during their only season (up to then) in the First.

I hung around outside the stadium that night, as you do, and as the players came out to the coach I approached José Galán, the only player who'd been in the side when I saw them in 1999.

In the dark, I showed him the programme that I'd kept from that game against Villarreal. He seemed confused. 'Do you want me to sign it for you?' he asked, frowning. 'No, no' I replied. 'I just wanted you to know that you don't lose every time I come to see you' at which point Galán laughed and turned to his team-mates: 'Hey - get this guy some free tickets. He can come to every game!'

Under the gleam of the 21st century floodlights and against the rich green of Anoeta's autumnal turf, their new rhubarb-and-custard kit combination is not particularly fetching.

Tonight though, Recre were sporting a very different squad, fifteen of whom were signed in the summer - five of them secured an hour before the deadline. Critics said it was unnecessary, especially for a side who won the Second Division last season with the most goals scored and the least conceded.

They were sporting a very different kit too, since their blue and white striped kit is identical to that of Real Sociedad. Curiously enough, it is said that in 1908 a sailor from San Sebastián, hanging around in Huelva before his ship set sail, swapped a Recre shirt for a tin of tobacco. When he got back to the Basque Country, he showed it to a mate of his who was playing for Club Ciclista, the side who were to become Real Sociedad. Preferring Recre's shirt to their green and white one, the colours were adopted there and then.

However, under the gleam of the 21st century floodlights and against the rich green of Anoeta's autumnal turf, their new rhubarb-and-custard combination is not particularly fetching. Neither is the first half, and as the rain patters down the game stutters and stumbles - two teams with too many new faces, a pitch full of strangers.

Nevertheless, Recre look the livelier side and it is no surprise when they open the scoring just before half-time after a great dribble by the little Cazorla leaves Calle with an open goal to tap into. Then, five minutes into the second half, Calle scores again, and I begin to wish that I hadn't come.

Apart from the Villarreal game in 1999, I have begun to feel as though I am some kind of talisman for the team and tonight seems to be proving the theory. It's cold too, with a wet wind blowing in from the north - the kind of conditions that theoretically favour the home side, playing a team from the parched south.

What a wonderfully daft pastime football is. Every year I think that I'll grow out of it, but I never do.

Crisis looms for Sociedad, and the supporters are getting out the hankies for a quick wave. Only one point so far this season, snatched in extremis at Bilbao, and now 0-2 down to a side they were expected to beat.

As much as I like Recre, I want Sociedad to turn it around - which they proceed to do, coming out of their shells and pouring forward. Soon it's 2-2 and Recre are wobbling. Then, in the last gasp of injury time, the visitors set up a quick counter, the ball bobbles over to Liverpool loanee Sinama-Pongolle, and it's 2-3, amidst a funereal silence.

The Huelva bench explodes and pours onto the pitch, the ref blows and it's all over. I feel that it's all my fault, and sneak out of the stadium with my head down so that no-one can see my guilty expression.

What a wonderfully daft pastime football is. Every year I think that I'll grow out of it, but I never do. And in the end it's the live stuff that does it. You can watch it on the TV and fool yourself that your interest is waning, but as soon as you go to the match you're hooked again.

Elsewhere, Barcelona came up against serious opposition for only the second time this season (the previous occasion being against Sevilla) and were again found wanting, drawing at home to a Valencia side who are looking tougher by the week. Expect them to make some waves in the Champions League later on this year.

Real Madrid share the top spot with them, after a performance a la Capello at Betis, in which Diarra got off the mark for his new club in a 0-1 win. No place in the starting line-up for either Becks or Raúl, a situation described by the tabloid Marca as the beginning of the new 'terrestrial' era (as in non-galactic). Don't bet on it.

Sevilla lost their top spot after coming a cropper 2-1 at Atlético Madrid, although the fact that they finished with nine men didn't help matters. Atlético are beginning to get results, and a bit of confidence. Four weeks gone and the signs are that this season might not be such a one-horse race.

And can Recreativo stay up for more than one season, a feat not achieved in either of their last two sojourns amongst the elite? Well - if they send their talisman tickets for a few more of their away matches, you never know.

  • Phil is a published author of some repute and we're very lucky to have him here on Soccernet. If you want to own a real-life Phil Ball book, you can purchase either An Englishman Abroad, Beckham's Spanish Adventure on that bloke with the ever-changing hairstyle, White Storm, Phil's book on the history and culture of Real Madrid and his splendid and acclaimed story of Spanish football, Morbo.

  • If you've any comments for Phil, email the newsdesk