At the end of this season, the Spanish midfielder will no longer bask in the affections of Scunthorpe's support on a weekly basis. Steve Askew pays tribute to an unusual import
When Scunthorpe United’s Alex Calvo-García announced his intention to retire and return to Spain during a local radio interview in August, I stuck my head out of the window to listen for gasps of disbelief echoing through the steel town’s streets.
Scunthorpe, once described by manager Brian Laws as “a scratch-off-and-sniff sort of a place”, is an industrial town in which the industry is perpetually ailing. Since the steelworks began its death rattle, the town has been in constant flux between dying on its arse and raising itself on its elbows long enough to open all manner of pound shops and “ten-alcopops-for-the-price-of-one” power-drinker pubs. The old working class is disappearing and the town is becoming lost to burberry-capped thuggery and 24-hour supermarkets.
García, from industrial Eibar in the Basque region, is probably more old-style working class than most of Scunthorpe. Here, it was apparent, was a man with a conscience, who seemed to instinctively care about the soul of the club. Almost incidentally he proved himself to be a man for the big moment on the pitch, developing a knack of scoring crucial goals, and acting as probably the club’s most genial ambassador off it.
It couldn’t really have begun more differently. Most Scunthorpe fans expected him to stay no more than two seasons and then off to a far-flung outpost such as Lincoln or, God forbid, Hull. Nobody knew, back in 1996, that Alex would settle in the town and play out his young adult life here – making friends, going to college, marrying his long-term sweetheart, fathering his first child. He enrolled on an IT evening-class course and his wife worked as a doctor’s receptionist. Accessible and approachable in the streets, restaurants or pubs, he would often hang around and chew the fat for far longer than expected at club PR appearances.
The overuse of extremely correct English in his local paper column was often the source of affectionate amusement, but which other footballer would use his column for eloquent and considered thoughts on the September 11 atrocity and subsequent war? This was no self-aggrandisement, either – it was patently obviously an ordinary man earnestly using his one opportunity to put over his opinions. No surprise, though, that the column was eventually handed over to someone less capable of intellectual contention. We were soon back to “he’s hit it and it’s went in”.
García taught himself to speak English by immersing himself in the Daily Star, left lying around the club. The diet of inanities contained within enabled him to bond quickly with his peers, grinning along in fraternity when two local lasses danced topless across the pitch during a televised cup clash against Everton, but wouldn’t have done much for his obvious intellect.
It wasn’t until Laws took over in early 1997 that García truly blossomed. Perhaps it was the manager’s natural drive, or simply that he ensured his midfielder took a better daily paper, but García’s brain seemed to kick into gear. Although never captain, his command and example-setting were remarkable. He would nip at the opposition when others might stand off, hurry the game along with urgency where others might take a breather and would usually always be creative in possession where others might look for the easy ball or, more likely, the easiest way to hoof it into touch.
García was already well on the way to cult status when, in May 1999, capping off a tremendous team season, he finally slammed himself inexorably into the town’s wider collective consciousness, scoring the only goal in the play-off final, ensuring Scunthorpe’s first promotion in several hundred years.
Almost all connected with the club have benefited from García’s association with it. He has lent Scunthorpe an air of the cosmopolitan without ever looking down his nose at the town’s general lack of sophistication. He should be honoured with a hugely vociferous farewell on his final day. We will probably not see his like again.
From WSC 202 December 2003. What was happening this month