Monday, January 29, 2024

The Perfect Football Away Day - For Him and Her


This time last week, Mrs C and I found ourselves in the Spanish city of Santander on the northern coast of Spain. Not by accident obviously. Together with intrepid pals Mick and Andrea, we had decided that we needed to escape the snow and ice of Burnley in favour of a European football match and determined upon the game between Real Racing Club de Santander, SAD (usually referred to simply as Racing) and our adopted Spanish team FC Cartagena. A sixty two pounds Ryanair return fare per couple, flying Manchester to Santander, helped cement that decision.

Racing are one of the ten founding members of La Liga in Spain. Yet despite having operated in Spain's top footballing division for the greater part of its history this famous club has found itself of late yo-yoing between the second and third tiers of Spanish football with a near miss on bankruptcy thrown in for good measure. As a Sheffield Wednesday fan, this scenario seemed reassuringly familiar. Racing have made a decent start to the season, lying in eighth place in La Liga 2 whereas Cartagena had a terrible start and were rock bottom for the first few weeks of the season. However the appointment of new manager Julián Calero in late September led to a gradual improvement in results and the dizzy heights now of second bottom. Again, reassuringly familiar.

We landed at Aeropuerto de Sevy Ballesteros, Santander on the Saturday evening with time sufficient to check in to our city centre hotel and thereafter take in a few local bars ahead of the following day's match.

There is much more to Santander than its ferry port and well known multinational bank of the same name. The city stands on the beautiful Bay of Santander looking across to Pedreña, birthplace of its most famous sporting son. The centre is crammed with beautiful bars and beautiful people. Santander has it’s very own palace Palacio de la Magdalena, an arts centre Centro Botín (which resembles a giant, old fashioned domestic fan heater) and a cathedral which, whilst dating back to the twelfth century, is an ecclesiastical version of Trigger’s Broom having emerged not unscathed from a massive dynamite explosion at the nearby port in 1893 and an equally devastating fire in 1941 which laid waste to much of the city’s old town.

Generally speaking, sporting activity and keeping fit appears to play a huge part in the lives of the local population which is probably why they’re all slim and beautiful. But once you’re past it in terms of being slim and beautiful, they helpfully provide escalators and travelators - even a funicular - around the city to help you with all the uphills. Civilisation personified.

Despite its long history, Racing haven’t actually ever won anything to speak of. A sixth placed finish in 2008 saw the club rub shoulders with Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain in the following season’s EUFA Cup but their highest ever league finish was way back in 1931 as runners-up under English coach Robert Firth.

With a two o’clock kick-off time to aim for, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast before strolling the scenic, three mile coastal walk from the city centre to Racing’s stadium Campos de Sport de El Sardinero. We Brits may not be nearly so civilised as the Spanish but it was of course the Brits that first brought football to Spain and the good people of Santander have generously acknowledged this fact with the erection of statues of famous British footballing icons along the route to the ground, amongst them world cup winner Sir Bobby Charlton, commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme and ex-Leeds and England manager Don Revie. We also found a sheet metal sculpture of the "bald eagle" Jim Smith. Probably.

Statues of British football icons Sir Bobby Charlton, commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme, ex-Leeds and England manager Don Revie and a sheet metal sculpture of "bald eagle" Jim Smith scribbling in his note book on the touchline at Birmingham City (or Newcastle United, or Derby County?). Despite these managerial postings, Jim was always a Wednesdayite. UTO. WAWAW.

Here in the UK, peak urban planning sophistication might be considered the siting of a new football ground as part of, or adjacent, to a retail shopping park at an out-of-town venue so that he gets his football and she gets her retail therapy which just strikes me as being a bit lazy and sexist. Opened in 1988, the Campos de Sport de El Sardinero however is sited not more than a couple of Ederson (Man City) drop-kicks from the soft sands of beach Playa de El Sardinero. I told you this city was civilised. Blimey, I might be tempted to choose the beach option myself on a slightly hotter day.

We arrived at the stadium an hour before kick-off, purchased a bottle of beer each and walked around the outside perimeter of the stadium whilst enjoying said beer (imagine the likely fate of a glass beer bottle in the near vicinity of a UK football stadium). It was warm and sunny, around twenty degrees, and all very relaxed. Match tickets were purchased at the stadium for twenty five euros apiece and we took our seats in the upper tier of the south stand, behind the goal, around a quarter of an hour before kick-off. A programme (of sorts) is handed out, to those who want one, free of charge upon entry.

From my limited experience of Spanish football (total ten home matches at Cartagena plus this one), crowds at Spanish games tend to be more family orientated than in the UK and everyone brings a packed lunch. Notwithstanding the absence of quite so many “lads”, the vocal participation throughout a match is consistent across all sections of the ground, led by an “ultras” section who maintain a seriously impressive ninety-minutes of singing, chanting and flag waving. Away followings though are not really a thing in Spanish football, much to do with the distances involved. Aside from the four of us, the Cartagena contingent didn’t appear to extend into double figures but, there again, any Cartagena-based crow would have been looking at a return trip of around nine hundred miles to get to this match.

The Campos de Sport de El Sardinero is a neat and tidy bowl of a stadium with a capacity of just over twenty two thousand. The combination of early kick-off, warm afternoon and absence of away fans might easily have resulted in a flat atmosphere but far from it. The fourteen thousand largely beautiful, fit and civilised home fans created a cracking atmosphere led by their “ultras” at the north end of the ground. And it all felt very safe. All the harder to believe therefore that, eleven years ago, some of these same fans attempted to storm the directors’ box, throwing bottles and other projectiles at club president Ángel Lavín, in protest at the financial mismanagement of the club at the time. The club’s financial problems were eventually rectified, two years later, with the raising of new funds via share issue by which time Lavín and his board had been ousted and Lavín was later to be jailed for his part in the mismanagement of the club.

It was this sad state of affairs off the pitch that led to the inclusion of SAD as part of the club’s official title, i.e. Real Racing Club de Santander, SAD - a sort of public shaming if you will. That is, of course, absolute bollocks although I find the concept to be not without its appeal. SAD actually stands for Sociedad anónima deportiva being a special type of public limited company for sports clubs, introduced in 1990 to help improve financial management and transparency, not that it appears to have worked for Racing in 2013.

Anyway, the game kicked off and so did Cartagena’s Tomás Alarcón who was yellow-carded in the first minute. Despite this, Cartagena started much the better organised and dangerous of the two teams and they took the lead in the sixth minute. From a smart move down the right hand side, striker Ortuño tapped in Jairo Izuierdo’s low pull-back from the byline. Racing created a couple of shooting opportunities by way of response but Cartagena could easily have gone in at half time with the match out of sight. The second half saw Racing far more dominant but Cartagena defended well, content to soak up the pressure and await the occasional opportunity to break. One such opportunity saw Racing’s Iván Morante sent off for a cynical foul on seventy five minutes. Thirteen minutes later Andrés Martín made it two red cards for the home team although he had already been substituted twenty three minutes earlier so either the referee played the longest advantage ever or Andrés had a bit too much to say from the touchline. To rub salt into the wound, Cartagena’s Kiko Olivas scored a breakaway second goal for the away team in the sixth minute of injury time as the hosts threw everything and everyone in search of an equaliser.

So, an unexpected but deserved three points for FC Cartagena in their efforts to climb away from the relegation spots. Manager Calero has them playing much cuter than earlier in the season and they were able to frustrate the home team and boss the game as a consequence. 

We strolled back towards the city centre taking the more direct route from the stadium which included a half mile long traffic and pedestrian tunnel under the hills, escalators and travelators above. Once back in the heart of the city, we took it upon ourselves to research more of the bars on offer including the food and drink hall at Mercado del Este, three speakeasy styled bars and the more traditional pintxos type bars. And we had to do it all again on the Monday and Tuesday as the earliest flight back home wasn't until Wednesday morning.

Santander makes for a great football away day, irrespective of whether all participants actually like football or not. If you like your footie but your other half doesn't then this is the trip for you. Trust me. I'm an ex-bank manager.