Osasuna the better?

Phil Ball examines why the city of Pamplona in Northern Spain has long been a haven for expatriate British footballers

Since the construction of the new motorway, San Sebastian to Pamplona only takes 50 minutes by car now, over the rainy mountains and down into the meseta that opens out into southern Navarre. To the east of the city, on the old road up to the French Pyrenees, Club Atlético Osasuna are training in a downpour. You can tell they’re in the Second Division now – First Division sides regularly attract hundreds, sometimes thousands to training sessions. Here there are at most a dozen assorted kids and pensioners moping on the cold stone steps of the training ground.

The players are going through a space-finding routine, each side trying to keep possession as long as possible, but they’re only allowed two touches. Jamie Pollock, recently of Middlesbrough, is instantly recognizable by his relative lack of ball control and tired trot. The Osasuna coach immediately confirms my guess, bollocking Pollock for giving the ball away; “Vamos Jamie!” he screams, adding a startling “Move your ass!” which booms across the length of the pitch and echoes in the stand. Must have been on an American coaching course. Pollock laughs and continues to trot around aimlessly.

Rob Ullathorne, the other new recent English recruit, is harder to spot. The little boy sitting next to me points him out. “He was a substitute on Wednesday in the cup match,” he tells me, “but when he came on he played really well.” And straight away, you can see which player is adapting more quickly, which one is more likely to succeed. Ullathorne looks fit – he controls the ball like the Spanish players and is already bantering with them, shouting out the necessary basic vocabulary for getting the ball. He even looks vaguely Spanish.

There’s still an hour to go, so I seek out the local journalists in the coffee bar behind the changing rooms. I want to know why Osasuna have often been in the habit of signing British players, especially before anybody else thought of it. I mention Michael Robinson, Sammy Lee and Ashley Grimes, the terrible triumvirate of the Eighties. The journalist wafts away my question into the air; “We’ve always signed foreigners here. Not just the English.” I persist, pointing out that Pamplona, though only recently descended into the Second Division, is not exactly the place you’d expect this phenomenon to have occurred with regularity, pre-Bosman. “The foreigners have always been useless, that’s why,” he explains. “They think it’s all fiestas and bulls and drinking. But this is a shitty place in the Winter. Someone should tell them.”

Pamplona is indeed a strange place, with a football team called ‘Health’, which is the meaning of ‘Osasuna’ in Basque, and a culturally schizophrenic air about it, neither truly Basque nor truly Spanish, hated in the north for its collaboration with the Franco regime. Again, my journalist friend dismisses me. “It doesn’t mean health. It means strength, balls, like the bulls – big cojones. Urban (from Poland, signed in 1991) was the only one who had any,” he rants. In calmer afterthought he adds, “And Robinson. He had some. Now he’s got lots of money. Where did they find that Grimes?” he laughs, “In an orphanage?”

Later on the rain’s turned to drizzle and Pollock has remembered that I’ve come all the way from San Sebastian to talk to him. He emerges from the changing rooms still in his kit and sits on the stone wall that surrounds the pitch. “The trouble with me is that I’m a fat bastard,” he begins, sounding like Harry Enfield in North Eastern mode. He seems so used to giving interviews that he just babbles on, anticipating in his own amicable way what he thinks I’m interested in. “I’ve come here to get fit. I need discipline,” he adds revealingly. “Nothing against the lads back home, but fucking hell (he mimes slaking a pint). Here we can’t be seen in the bars, like. We’ll get fined. And if I want to leave Pamplona I have to get permission. That’s what I’ve come for – some discipline.” I decide not to ask him about Bryan Robson’s policy vis-à-vis alcohol. “The People tried to get me to shop some dirt on the club the other day – but I wouldn’t do it. They’ve been good to me. Smashin’ hotel.”

As he banters on, I try to imagine what it must be like for a young bloke like Pollock to come and try his luck. He seems sadly convinced that the club is destined for promotion, although of course he may be right. Without any clear idea of whether he should learn Spanish or not, with a couple of his cousins in town to help him out over the first few days, he jumps at my suggestion that he should ring me if he comes over to San Sebastian for a day at the seaside. Indeed, after a while, it’s obvious that he’s more interested in me, what I’m doing, if I like Spain, what it’s really like etc. I tell him about the fiestas and he immediately looks brighter, as if there’s something to look forward to. He only goes to get changed when Ullathorne comes along, as if his English colleague will already have heard what he’s had to say to me.

Ullathorne is a different fish altogether, and ostensibly, one much less out of water. His wife and child are here, he already has a house – to which a Spanish teacher comes every day – and he has signed a three year deal. Whilst he concurs on the discipline bit, he doesn’t seem so concerned about it. He’s here to learn a new language, a new culture. Immediately you can sense that while he will be matey to Pollock, there’ll be only so much socializing they’ll be able to do – and that Pollock will have to find his own way.

Ullathorne is less impressed too by the standard of play. “Most of the sides I’ve seen so far wouldn’t stand a chance in the English First.” He adds that they only lost to Toledo the week before because their striker had insisted on trying to win penalties by diving instead of just going for goal. I tell him that Sammy Lee had almost left after the first training session, when the theme had been how best to dupe the ref. He’s scathing about the referees, too – “Make the Brits look brilliant. One minute they’re friendly, the next they’re playing the headmaster with you.”

How about the training? “It’s all about control and space,” he explains. “They have great ball skills, but they’re not that great, really. They’ve no idea about tackling. They think I’m hard.” He looks up and down at himself ironically, a tiny sparrow of a man. “I like it here though. So what you doing here then?” he asks, and goes down the same path as Pollock, asking about the health care (his wife's about to give birth again), Spanish, if I speak Basque etc. He doesn’t seem to fit the dismissive journalist’s profile at all and seems exactly the sort of person who’ll do alright.

Maybe Osasuna will walk away with it, and Pollock and Ullathorne will become fêted heroes, rather like Aldridge was at Real Sociedad. Or rather that talking to them, no notes, no dictaphone, revealed what it must be like for your average player, post Bosman, when it’s no longer such a big thing to be a foreigner at the club, you've played in the Premiership but you can’t even be guaranteed a first-team place at Atlético Health and you’re stuck in a hotel with a couple of your cousins hiding under the bed.

The questions is – when the club pays the final accumulated hotel bill, does the chit specify how much was spent on room service? No problem, Jamie. We believe you.

From WSC 117 November 1996. What was happening this month