Howard Kendall On Bilbao

Eighties Spain was suffering from a real case of Anglophilia with Terry Venables, Mark Hughes and Steve Archibald at Camp Nou and John Aldridge playing with Real Sociedad. The country was experiencing an influx of Brits unprecedented, except for on the beaches of Benidorm and Torremolinos.

Hidden, though, amongst the roster of moustachioed and mulleted ex-pat journeymen is one of our less heralded exports: Howard Kendall.

Arriving at Athletic Bilbao preceding the 1987 season and off the back of his most successful tenure in management at Everton, the move always seemed odd to me as a child. Why Leave? Surely nothing could top managing Everton. What the hell was a Bilbao and what is it doing in a Basque? In hindsight it’s not all that surprising: Bilbao were, at the time, amongst the most dynamic and competitive teams in the league. Plus, most importantly, they could compete in European competition.

“Having sampled Europe [with Everton], we won the Cup Winners Cup. When all of a sudden, looking forward to the European Cup, as it was then, the challenge had been taken away. And I’d really enjoyed the European scene,” Howard explained.

Taking the Bilbao job in order to fulfil his ambitions was hardly the easy route to European glory. Just how much easier things could have been: a season earlier Kendall had been on the cusp of a move to Barcelona – with a pre-contract agreement being signed - only for Venables to stay on for a further campaign. Despite this and the restrictive Basque-only transfer policy at Bilbao, Kendall does not look back with any regret on missing out on the Camp Nou hot seat:  “No, I don’t look back in regret on anything, really. It was an unbelievable achievement to be given that particular job.”

Kendall had been on the cusp of a move to Barcelona – with a pre-contract agreement being signed - only for Venables to stay on for a further campaign

If anything, as we discuss Bilbao in greater depth, it fills Howard with great pride to have been part of the clubs history, being one of only a few, select Englishman to have managed the club alongside the intriguingly named Mr. Shepard and Fred Pentland – who is credited with giving the club the sharp and aggressive style of play which characterise the team’s performances to this day.

Although the club had only a relatively small talent pool to fish from, this was by no means correlative of a lack of quality, with some of the league’s best players hailing from the region. José María Bakero, then of Real Sociedad, was of particular interest to Kendall as he readied himself to step into the shoes of José Ángel Iribar:

“Well, I went to see the cup final and I said, ‘there are two Basques out there, Uralde and Bakero.’ So I looked at the game and I went Bakero. So they said, ‘right, fingers crossed that Atlético Madrid win’ - so Sociedad won’t be in Europe and they [then] wouldn’t have been able to hold onto Bakero. Well, I’m going in a taxi back to the airport, ‘cos I had to leave to catch the plane, and Sociedad won on penalties. So they said: ‘we’ve got to go for Uralde now because we haven’t got a striker!’”

Stubbornness would latterly prevent Kendall adding another piece to his Basque-jigsaw, when the board refused to bid for Julio Salinas, then of Atlético Madrid but formerly of Athletic Bilbao. It transpired that Salinas wasn’t welcome back; having left on a free transfer, the club felt let down that after years of development and nurturing he let his contract run down, forgoing any fee he would of attracted. “They didn’t want him back whilst I was there. I mentioned him and they didn’t want him back. Because he, he let them down by not signing a new contract.”

Having missed out on Bakero and with Salinas in exile, Kendall turned to Uralde to lead his attack. Described as slightly Yakubu-esq – strong in the box but not prone to working the flanks – Uralde would go onto plunder fifteen goals in his maiden season as Bilbao finished a very respectable fourth; qualifying them for the Uefa Cup. Amongst those who rose to prominence in Kendall’s first season was a youngster by the name of Rafael Alkorta Martínez, better known as simply, Alkorta, whose discovery owed much to Jesús Renteria: both the clubs janitor and, funnily enough, Kendall’s landlord.

“If anybody caught the eye, he’d be telling me…he’d be at the training ground watching all the teams, all the ages. He said to me, ‘Have a look at Alkorta.’ So I had a look at him training and playing, and in he comes."

"I’ll always remember one of the players coming over to Dino Zoff, who was their trainer, and saying: ‘what can we do? How can we stop this?’”

Building on a fourth place finish, though, was always going to be difficult, even with a janitor masquerading as a scout. Although younger players such as Alkorta and Mendiguren continued to shine, the squads lack of experience would ultimately tell as the club finished seventh.  The 1987/88 was not without its highlights, however, with one match in particular sticking in Kendall’s mind: Athletic Bilbao v Juventus in the Uefa Cup.

“We lost 5-1 over there. The home game, I changed tactically, I turned it tactically to have a right good go at them. And we went 1-0 down…but then scored three. I’ll always remember one of the players coming over to Dino Zoff, who was their trainer, and saying: ‘what can we do? How can we stop this?’” Ultimately, Bilbao would loose 7-4 on aggregate, yet the 3-2 at San Mamés sticks long in the memory, especially when Howard recalls how stressful it was to watch.

Having instructed his players not to retreat more than ten yards behind the half-way line, Kendall employed a high-pressing tactic aimed at unsettling the Juventus team whose dominance weeks before had left Bilbao facing a near vertical uphill struggle. Successful it may have been; good for the heart it certainly wasn’t. Upon being asked by a journalist why the team didn’t employ this tactic more often, Kendall responded that, thankfully, they weren’t usually going into each game 5-1 down!

As Kendall’s third season in charge approached and with presidential elections at the club fast approaching, Kendall began to yearn for a move back to Blighty. Although the previous season, generally speaking, had been a success, Howard felt that perhaps his time in the hot seat was coming to an end. “I felt I’d had long enough after two and a half years but the president was due for re-election as well, which normally means a change [in management].”

With continued difficulty rejuvenating the squad and with the younger players lacking the necessary experience to mount a prolonged challenge – either for the title or a place in Europe – the club were wallowing in mid-table obscurity. For the first time during his tenure, the normally supportive press – in stark contrast to the Madrid and Barcelona based media outlets - began to question his position at the club.

“We’d just lost heavily to [Real] Madrid and I went into a press conference and the general manager was wanting me to do it on my own, rather than with the interpreter. And this journalist kept pushing the mike in front of me, rattling off at 100mph and I hadn’t got a clue what he said. So I just said that ‘first half we were ok, second half Madrid were fantastic.’ He said: ‘Na, na, na’ and kept pushing the microphone in my face again. So, I repeated myself: ‘First half ok, magnificent second half Madrid.’ And this English lad, I said to him: ‘What was he saying?’ He said: ‘Will you be the coach next week?’”

And so it was, that after two and a half years at the helm of one of Europe’s most decorated and prestigious clubs, Howard Kendall left Bilbao, with his departure paving the way for assistant and club legend, Txetxu Rojo, to take the managerial reigns. Even though he departed with the club mid-table, his work over the previous two seasons in rejuvenating the squad; leading them to two excellent finishes; and generally steering the club in the right direction after a tumultuous 86/87 season was not forgotten.

Howard’s time at Bilbao would arguably be the last time he was in charge of a leading club – with stints at Manchester City, a diminished Everton and Xanthi proceeding his time at San Mamés. And although his time there was brief, the reverence with which he recalls his time in charge speaks of a man honoured to have been afforded the opportunity to manage one the world’s most unique clubs.

Words by Paul Gleeson

Illustration by Will Daw