How Gernika's bombs spawned the first Spanish footballers to play in England

Basque refugee children looked to sport as a way to settle into their new lives

Antonio Gallego reads a newspaper with football news from March 1947.
Antonio Gallego reads a newspaper with football news from March 1947.

Basque football players will be at the heart of Spain’s campaign to become the first country to defend a European championship next month. Xabi Alonso, a World Cup winner in 2010 and an architect of Real Madrid’s Liga triumph this year, could be joined in Spain’s Euro 2012 squad by several of the latest crop of young players from the region. Fernando Llorente, Andoni Iraola, Javi Martinez and Iker Muniain – members of the stylish Athletic Bilbao team that saw off Manchester United en route to this year’s Europa Cup final – are all contenders to swell the Spanish team’s Basque contingent.

But as Europe prepares for a summer of football, a significant milestone looms for a previous generation of Basques that was no less mad on the sport.

This week marks 75 years since thousands of children were evacuated to destinations across Europe from Bilbao to escape the civil war that tore 1930s Spain apart. Among them were a handful who also went on to make their mark on football -- in England, Spain and internationally.

Emilio Aldecoa was one of 4,000 refugees who sailed to England on recommissioned cruise liner La Habana on May 21 1937. He became the first-ever Spaniard to play professional football in England, signing for Wolves in 1943 from a factory works team and before joining Coventry for two seasons in 1945.

Leaving Bilbao was sad, but our mother was just pleased to get us out alive"

But for a twist of fate it would never have happened. The British government initially refused to accept the child refugees, citing the non-intervention treaty. Prime minister Stanley Baldwin added that the “climate wouldn’t suit them.” However, international media coverage of the bombing of Gernika on April 26 1937 sparked a public campaign to allow the children entry, and Baldwin eventually caved in.

The children the British government didn’t want were welcomed with open arms by the English football league. A further four of the evacuees followed Aldecoa into first and second division teams – José and Antonio Gallego, Raimundo Pérez Lezama and José Bilbao. They provided the first Spanish influences on English football, paving the way for the likes of Silva, Torres, Enrique and Arteta today.

Antonio Gallego, now 87 and who played in goal for Norwich City, is the only one of this group of Spanish players who still lives in the UK. Most, if not all, of his contemporaries have died.

He says football played a big part in helping the children -- the boys at least -- traumatized by the war, to settle into a new country and a new language. "It was all we thought about. As long as we had football we were happy," he says.

In the spring of 1937 the fiercely Republican Basque Country was surrounded by Nationalist-held territory. Gallego remembers the bombing raids on northern Spain by Nazi planes, ordered by Franco as the fascist leader tried to wrest the region from Republican control.

“Leaving Bilbao was a sad occasion,” Antonio says, his Spanish accent still strong even after three-quarters of a century away from his native country. “But things were so bad I think our mother was just pleased to get us out alive.”

Football meant everything to us; it was the only thing we knew about"

“Our house in Spain had been ripped to bits, our dad had gone, fighting for the Republic, and she wanted us to get in the clear,” he said, sitting in an armchair in his bright, tidy sitting room in the 1960s Cambridge cul-de-sac where he lives with his wife Joan, 87, and son Paul, 59.

With nowhere for her family to live, their mother had placed Antonio, then aged 12, José, 14, and three of her other children in an orphanage in Bilbao, while she found shelter wherever she could with her youngest child, a baby girl who sadly fell ill and died.

When news came that a ship was sailing for England, the children were taken down to the docks and put on the boat. They were told they would only be gone for three months, but while most had returned by the end of the Civil War, many never made it back. It was 10 years before the Gallego siblings saw their mother again.

Gallego describes the crossing as “bloomin’ rough,” with children packed close together and vomiting everywhere. “We stuck together,” he says. “José was the eldest; he looked after the younger ones the best he could but really that job fell to me because he was so shy. As long as I had my brother behind me I could stick up for myself.”

From the quayside at Southampton, the children were taken to a nearby camp at Eastleigh, from where they were eventually dispersed to children’s homes, or colonias across the UK. The Gallegos, along with other children who had lost one or both of their parents, were sent to a home in Cambridge, an hour northeast of London. The city quickly became their second home, thanks in large part to football.

“Football meant everything to us; it was the only thing we knew about,” Gallego says. “We got attached to Cambridge and made a lot of friends here through playing football. If it hadn’t been for football, we would have lived a very different life.” The boys at the home set up a team and played in leagues against other local sides and Basque boys’ teams from around the country, including against Aldecoa.

The brothers, who after a while became known as Tony and Joe – “The English weren’t very good at pronouncing our names” – joined local amateur team Cambridge Town. It was from there that in 1947 they were both spotted by league clubs – José by first division Brentford and Antonio by Norwich City six months later. José, a left winger who went on to have the more successful footballing career of the two, took a bit of persuading to go pro, says his brother. It was partly his shyness again.

“He wasn’t keen. I had to push him to do it, otherwise he wouldn’t have gone. He didn’t want to be domineered by a big club,” he said.

José then signed for Southampton in 1948, but a series of injuries kept him off the pitch for most of his time there. In 1950 Southampton wanted to sell him to Exeter City, but he refused. “Joe loved Cambridge. He never liked moving away. He was always a Cambridge lad, very homely,” says his brother. Instead, he joined the closer-to-home Colchester United, playing four matches as they made their league debut, before finally returning to non-league football in the place he’d wanted to be all along. He joined Cambridge United as they entered the semi-professional United Counties League, while Tony was back at Cambridge Town.

Meanwhile, star left winger Emilio Aldecoa had returned to Spain after three seasons in the English league, signing for Athletic Bilbao. He later moved to Real Valladolid and then Barcelona, where he won a league title and the Copa Latina – an early incarnation of the Champions League – in the early 1950s. He joined Sporting Gijón, and was capped once for Spain, before coming back to the UK as assistant manager of Birmingham City in 1960.

By this time, José and Antonio’s mother had tracked her children down through the Red Cross and undertaken a tortuous journey to find them. She had been living in Paris during World War II, but crossing the channel from France was impossible in the mid-1940s so she headed back south to Portugal and sailed to England that way. She arrived in 1947 and rented a house in Cambridge with her younger children where they lived together as a family again.

Once reunited, she would have been relieved to discover two of her sons had chosen to devote their energies to football, not politics like their father.

“My mother always begged us not to go into politics. Our dad was a socialist, very active, very strong minded,” says Gallego. For many years after he disappeared, the family didn’t know what had happened to him.

“We only found out later that he had been killed at Gernika but we don’t know how and we never had a funeral for him. We never got his body. Things were too upside-down to do anything like that,” Gallego says.

While these first Spanish players in the top divisions of the English league never turned into international megastars like their modern-day protégés, the Gallego brothers did become local celebrities in their adopted city.

“We used to go around town and people would stop us and say hello. My son would ask, ‘Who’s that?’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t know’,” recalls Gallego with a smile and a typically Latin shrug of the shoulders. José and Antonio - Joe and Tony - both continued to play amateur football into their fifties, while José worked as a meter inspector with the Cambridgeshire gas board, and Antonio as a cigarettes and sweets salesman, flogging his wares to the convenience store owners of East Anglia. José died in 2006, aged 82.

While the Gallegos, Aldecoa et al share their Basque heritage with the likes of Martinez and Alonso, their sporting education could not have been further removed from the well-equipped and organized youth academies producing today’s finely tuned football machines. Similarly, it is hard to imagine any of the current crop of Basque footballers following the same route into retirement.

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS