It's always a pleasure going to San Mamés, home of Athletic Bilbao. It's the sort of ground that you want your kids to see - before it gets demolished and turned into something more post-modern, as are the current plans. However, I drove over childless on Sunday night to watch the game, due to the absurdly late kick-off time of 9 p.m., courtesy of Canal Plus' live coverage.
When I was a kid, Sunday nights were ritually employed for baths and hair-washes, in preparation for the rigours of school the next day. The practice dies hard (well - I try to bathe more than once a week now, honest) but Athletic Bilbao v Revreativo de Huelva, my old mates, was just too hard to resist, especially given that Bill, my Scots friend, had been granted annual permission to fly over and indulge in some live La Liga action. I'd suggested he come over for this one, a game between Spain's two oldest clubs.
The truly wonderful thing about Athletic is that the pre-match experience makes you feel that you're in some sort of sepia photograph, or in a Lowry painting. Unlike the modern tendency of clubs to re-locate to the urban margins, where the new stadium stands on the edge of an industrial estate or sleeps anonymously in the middle of a field, San Mamés is almost hidden by the blocks of flats and bars that surround it. It seems to grow out of the old urban structure, so that there is no disconnection whatsoever with the heart of the city itself.
Bars surround the ground in dimly-lit streets that slope off at right angles to the stadium's tubby external structure, streets that heave with a mass of red-and-white-shirted humanity before the game. Everyone is drinking, the noise is cacophonous, but there is never any sense of threat or aggression in the air. The idea that you could shut these bars before a game (as in England) would spark social revolution and riots here, and quite rightly so.
Everyone mingles, pushes and shoves, but it's all friendly stuff. The simple sense of event - Athletic are at home - is sufficient to gel the whole rowdy mess into a sense of common purpose. The street is awash with litter, sheets hang out on the balconies above the official club shop. Observing the scene it's impossible to believe that you're not at the centre of the universe, despite the fact that earlier in the evening Barcelona have played and Atlético Madrid have lost an astonishing 3-4 match with the aforementioned Villarreal. No matter. This is Bilbao. The goals of the Atlético Madrid match are being shown on the telly in the bar but no-one even bothers to look. You get the impression that if there were no football team in Bilbao the city would somehow cease to exist. It's like a breathing organism that lives off the sport in some sort of weird symbiosis.
Bill - a goalkeeper on Alloa's books in the early 1960's, has been before, but is still amazed by the atmosphere. In the particular bar where I've met him and his grown-up son, one of the barmen is serving a queue of people in the street through his open window, handing out unfeasibly large Gin and Tonics to outstretched arms like an Oxfam worker handing out water supplies to a crowd of refugees. He never asks for money, but trusts the arms to pay him later, when the drinks are finished.
At the same time he is dealing with further requests from inside, requests being hollered in rapid-fire succession into his right ear - all of which he uncannily internalises and transforms into drinks within seconds. On top of all this, he remembers Bill from two years ago, and desperately wants to practise his English on him.
'Why you come tonight?' he screams across the bar. Bill points at me and hollers back, 'Because he told me to!'. Indeed I did. Every season since I wrote the book 'Morbo' in which a chapter to Huelva was dedicated, I've tried to see them play once a year. The season when I first saw them, when they were forgotten about, playing in a crumbling old stadium (no San Mamés, it had to be said) in the Second Division, they lost 0-4 to Villarreal, another side who have since grown in stature.
But certain people at the Andalucian club were so happy at the mention back then that they've stayed in touch ever since, and supply me with tickets whenever required. This time it wasn't necessary, because I know the San Mamés press chaps well enough, but I did tell Recre I was going to the game. Since that 0-4 defeat, every time I've seen them they've either drawn or won, converting me into their talisman.
But something had to give. Athletic hadn't won at home this season, and Recre were on for a record of over 500 minutes without scoring if they didn't manage it in Bilbao. Oddly enough, given the potential scarcity of goals, the average between these two clubs stands at six goals per game, although even more oddly, the two had only met previously on three occasions in San Mamés, despite the fact that they are Spain's two oldest professional clubs.
Recreativo were founded in 1889, and Athletic nine years later, just before Barcelona. Then again, the statistic is testimony to the two clubs' differing histories, Athletic never having been out of the top flight since its inception and Recre only having been there for a total of three seasons (this being their fourth).
This is also the only time that the Andaluz club has managed a second consecutive run in the top division, having on their two previous occasions done the fluttering moth trick, flying up too close to the light and hurtling back down from whence they came.
Leaving Bill and son and making my way to the press-box entrance, the Recre bus turns up the street. Since I don't know any of the current Recre players, I confine myself to a quick ruck with the small huddle of blue-shirted fans who have made the trip from south coast to north, and who are bouncing up and down with excitement as their heroes begin to step down from the coach.
Their best-known player is Florent Sinama-Pongolle, formerly of Liverpool, and the phonetic nightmare that this player represents is first off the bus, causing a huge cheer from the twenty fans. Pongolle smiles and waves modestly. Victor Muñoz, the current manager (but maybe not for long) is a more famous face, of course, and his huge jaw manages a smile too as he steps onto Bilbao soil and hurries into the building.
I ask one of the fans how he got here. 'We drove!' he shouts in Spanish, as if he wants me to understand the enormity of this journey. 'We started out on Friday morning, because it was a holiday, and got here last night. We're knackered!' I ask him what he thinks of Bilbao. 'Es fea, como Huelva' (It's ugly, like Huelva) he laughs. 'Pero son la hostia' (The Bilbao fans are great). 'Ya nos han comprado unas cañas' (They've just bought us some beers).
The match goes to plan. Huelva fail to score, as is their wont, and Athletic win at home, at last. Not only that, but Joseba Exteberría, once of the national side before he lost his hair, scores both goals on his 400th appearance for the club he joined as a young turn-coat from Real Sociedad back in 1995, almost sparking a Basque civil war in the process.
The crowd rises as one to applaud him off stage when he is substituted in the 78th minute, but the crowd has been behaving as if the event were a Champions League semi-final - utterly transfixed, utterly biased, but never hostile. One can only wonder what the atmosphere is like when Real Madrid brings the circus to town. Much more hostile of course. No wonder it's been traditionally tough to play there.
Real Madrid, the previous evening, had suffered several doses of hostility during their 2-0 defeat at Sevilla's Sánchez Pizjuan, a result that re-opens the table and keeps Barcelona and Villarreal snapping at the leader's heels. In several pro-Madrid newspapers, much was made of the fact that Schuster had remarked that the referee had been a Catalan ('so enough said') and that the club bus had been stoned as it stood on the parkway, obliging Sevilla to offer their coach to Madrid so that they could drive to the airport. Added to this, several of the Madrid delegation were allegedly insulted as they sat in the Directors' Box, all of which prompted a curious wringing of hands in the Madrid press as to 'why does everyone hate us?'. Why indeed?
In Sevilla's case (although one should beware of justifying silly behaviour) it might just have something to do with the fact that Madrid nicked three of the their best players (Reyes, Baptista and Ramos), a fact cutely referred to in Marca on Monday as having been 'in Sevilla's best interests, financially speaking'. That may be true, but try telling that to the average fan.
All the more pleasant, therefore, to have been at Athletic v Recreativo, a game played in a decent spirit without a hint of trouble or strife. San Mamés, the oldest football stadium now standing in Spain, will be knocked down in a couple of years and shifted back a few metres - all for the sake of filling the pockets of several middlemen and keeping a series of promises made to the construction firm with the right sort of handshake.
The new one may be an equally resonant stadium, but I doubt it somehow. If you want to know how football used to be, get to San Mamés before it disappears for ever. Call me an old romantic, but there are few places left that come anywhere near the experience.
• Phil's revised and updated book White Storm: The Story of Real Madrid, including a whole new chapter, is available to buy and charts the history of the great club from its foundation to the modern era.