DERMOT CORRIGAN: San Mames deserved a better goodbye

Friday night’s last ever Basque derby to be held at Athletic Bilbao’s Estadio San Mames should have been a celebration of La Catedral’s 100-year history, but instead turned into yet another low point in one of the club’s worst seasons.

Real Sociedad deservedly won 3-1, sinking Marcelo Bielsa’s side, who thrilled neutrals throughout Europe just 12 months ago, even deeper into the gloom.

The old ground, opened in industrial Bilbao in 1913, had seen better nights. The first derby against swankier neighbours Real Sociedad, from along the coast in San Sebastian, came in February 1914. Athletic won 3-2, with the stadium’s first goal fittingly scored by legendary striker Rafael Moreno ‘Pichichi’, whose name lives on in the trophy given to La Liga’s top goalscorer each season.

In 1928-29, Athletic came from 0-2 down to win 4-2 in the first La Liga meeting with La Real. Los Leones’ all-time record goalscorer Telmo Zarra scored five in a 7-1 derby win in the 1950/51 season. In the 1983/84 campaign, when the derby came on the final day, centre-half Iñigo Liceranzu scored twice in a 2-1 win which clinched that season’s La Liga title.

Non Spaniards (and non-Basques) have also been prominent in San Mames derbies. Athletic choose Basque players, but have had English coaches from Fred Pentland in the 1920s to Howard Kendall in the 1980s.

In April 1991 Irish striker John Aldridge became the first ‘foreigner’ to play in a derby, and remembers in his autobiography the abuse he got from fans in a bar after the 1-2 loss at San Mames.

The old ground also saw important international and European action. Northern Ireland drew a European Championship qualifier 1-1 there in 1963, while the Basque representative side have often been hosted in recent decades. European club visitors have included Honved, Borussia Moenchengladbach and Juventus. Last season’s 2-1 Europa League quarter-final second leg victory over Manchester United, sealing a 5-3 aggregate win, now goes down as the stadium’s last momentous night.

That game will also likely mark the highpoint of ‘El Loco’ Bielsa’s time at the club. His first months in charge brought thrilling, attacking football, and the embrace of supporters in Bilbao and elsewhere, but particularly since losing May’s Europa League and Copa del Rey finals things have become increasingly nightmarish.

Keystone midfielder Javi Martinez forced an acrimonious exit last summer. Talismanic centre-forward Fernando Llorente has barely played this season and is joining Juventus for free in June.

The rest of the squad now look worn out by Bielsa’s super-intense coaching style.

Athletic went into Friday night’s game 15th in the table, with in-form La Real up in 6th. This brought concern to the build-up to Bielsa’s 100th game in charge, but it was a 40,000 sell-out, with supporters queuing through the night to secure a ticket. Inside the ground the atmosphere was friendly, with red and white and blue and white clad fans seated side by side.

The home crowd was roused when winger Ibai Gomez made it 1-0 on the half-hour, but they should have known better. Just four minutes later slack defending let Antoine Griezmann equalise and the second half was like a slow motion car crash as Imanol Agirretxe and former Arsenal forward Carlos Vela sealed La Real’s first win in Bilbao since 2001. It was a third straight defeat for Athletic, and left fans worried about a first ever relegation from the Primera Division. The team still should have enough quality to avoid that and ensure that next season brings another derby at the nearby €200m, 55,000-seater new San Mames. But the old ground deserved a better goodbye.

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