Marcus Maher goes back 38 years to an unofficial match with far-reaching consequences
It was the year the Pope arrived at Phoenix Park to over 1.25 million people.
There was more strife as the Troubles continued, north and south of the border. Over half a million was lost to the exchequer in industrial action. The punt left the sterling and joined the European Monetary system. Jack Lynch resigned to be followed by Charles Haughey and a group from Dublin rode high in the charts complaining about Mondays. 1979 was that year.
Also in 1979, in a northern bolt hold of Spain - Bilbao to be exact - a small band of Ireland’s best, a select XI would play a game of football against a select Basque XI. But what was so special about that game?
Well, it wasn’t the Spanish national football team, but the unofficial national team of the Basque Country (Euskadiko Futbal Federakundea). It was a game that is still remembered today some 38 years later, for the significance was far more than a game of football.
For Spain, it was a time of great upheaval, slowly emerging out of 45 years of dictatorship under ‘Francoismo’.
Franco’s rule in Spain had left an indelible mark on the psyche of the people. Spain, like Ireland was in state of flux, no more so than the newly autonomous regions of the Basque Country, Cataluña, Galicia and Valencia, all
unified by a unique language and culture.
Top row, left to right: Arkonada, Villa, Alesanco, Zelaieta, Eskalza, Kortabarria, Iribar.
Bottom row: Zamora, Satrustegi, Dani, Alonso and Txetxu Rojo
Democracy was fragile, the restoration of the King and open elections proved controversial, no more so than the Basque Country, where in 1979 they voted out of the constitution and elections recognising neither the King or the
national parliament in Madrid. To compound things further the Basque national football federation decided to hold its first autonomous football match.
It seemed only natural that they would reach out across the Bay of Biscay to its northern brethren in Ireland to come and participate in that first game. Ireland dutifully accepted and on August 16th, the League of Ireland select XI travelled to Bilbao and in front of a capacity crowd at the Athletic Bilbao’s San Mames Stadium they took their place in history.
For Pat Nolan, the occasion took on an extra, and sadly, poignant significance. In August of 1979, shortly before the team left for Spain, Pat’s father passed away. He told Pat that it was vital he went. He made the journey and was determined to make the game matter.
"I know some of the lads also felt the same way, but we didn’t take this game lightly. We weren’t going there just to make up the numbers," he says.
A Limerick United regular, Pat Nolan would turn out for a select League of Ireland XI on a number of occasions, notably against Maradona in '82 and the great Brazilian side of the early eighties.
"Back then it wasn’t much fuss. You’d get the phone call from the FAI to tell you’d been selected and the next thing you’re going to wherever," he tells me.
"Looking back I didn’t really appreciate the significance of this game. I was 23 at the time. I do now"
What greeted Pat Nolan was wall of noise, he also recalls the warm reception that he and his teammates received
once in Bilbao.
"I remember looking at our Captain Johnny Fulham as we scanned the stadium and it was literally a wall of green and red. It was surreal, then they began to sing the Basque national anthem."
The national anthem proved to be something of a moot point. Joseba Gotzon is a local football historian from Bilbao. He tells me that the occasion meant a lot to the Basques and especially that it was against Ireland: "We have a kind of kindred unity with the Irish, call it historical and of course political."
Johnny Walsh's commemorative plaque of the game
The politics he refers to was brought into sharp focus once the national anthem started playing - the Spanish national anthem that was.
"The head of the Basque National Federation was Carlos Garkotxea. He was Navarrese. He took exception to
the fact the crowd started booing the national anthem and with that he got out of his seat, said nothing and left the VIP box, never to return."
It didn’t help maters either that shortly before the game - five minutes before to be precise there was a "bomb" threat and for a moment confusion ensued.
"Word had come through that there was a possible bomb left inside the stadium, but most ignored it and carried
on singing the Basque national anthem’," says Gotzon.
Today things like this would be unheard of, even the slightest hint of a terrorist threat (The nascent Basque separatists ETA were only then making their presence felt) would be cause for alarm and an evacuation. For Pat Nolan, he sensed nothing was amiss: "There was whistling and I remember a load of fireworks. I recall some of the lads were just smiling, but it felt more of a carnival atmosphere than anything else."
General view of the new San Mames Stadium. Picture by Adam Davy EMPICS Sport
Ireland’s team consisted mostly of the League’s best at that time, some notable names, but most were taken from Bohemians, Sligo, Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers. There was a spot for the then little unknown Ronnie Whelan who was playing for Home Farm at the time. He would play again a few days later against a Liverpool XI in Dublin, enough it seems for Bob Paisley to be impressed to sign the young man a few months later. The manager was Billy Young who had overseen the bulk of the League’s select XI. However, his opponents were the cream of the
region making up the two power house clubs of Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad.
"The Euskadiko Selekzioa was a great honour so the competition was fierce," claims Joseba Gotzon.
"We had some very notable players at that time. There was the captain Jose Angel Iribar, Dani, Villa and Satrusegi and others. These players would go on to be capped many times for Spain also and appear in the World Cup in 1982."
Also in the team would be the father of the current Spanish International and ex-Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich player Xabi Alonso, Miguel Alonso.
"The game started badly for us, we were down 2-0 after 20 minutes and staring at a possible humiliation, and then Ronnie got one back," says Nolan.
José Angel Iribar, Sánchez Arminio and Johnny Fulham. Image by Carlos Extabe
"We hung in there and of course we couldn’t play them off the park, we held our own".
Into the second half the Basques added two more as Dani scored his second to make the score in the end 4-1 to the Basques. What Nolan recalls is something that today would be seen as something paradoxical when I
mentioned it to him.
"We wore blue shirts that day, Marcus, with a big Shamrock crest". Having studied history, I pointed out to Pat, "You know the last time Irishmen wore blue in Spain was under Eoin O’Duffy, under his infamous Blueshirts and it was he who was supporting Franco’s forces in 1937."
The strange vagaries of history is what makes for good drama and here their were a plenty and Ireland have
never played in a blue strip before or since. Having left the field to an ovation Pat Nolan recalls the reception afterwards: "We were ushered into a massive function hall by the Mayor and we were given a silver plate, to celebrate the game. Sometimes I could punch myself because I don’t have it or any mementos from other games."
The plaque still stands in proud of place however in the home of Johnny Walsh. The legacy of the game is still remembered by most. I go into an Athletic Bilbao bar opposite the San Mames stadium and start to chat
with some of the locals, one fanatical Athletic supporter begins to tell me how that game gave the region confidence and feeling of self-identity that was denied under Franco’s rule.
"It was brave of the Irish to come here," says one, "They obviously have their own problems, but we greatly appreciated it and to be honest it wasn’t more of a game of football but of a beginning of something."
Joseba Gotzon agrees: "We played Russia, Mexico and other teams after that, but the game against Ireland will always stand out as it was the first time we were Euskadiko Selezioa (Basque Selection)."
This stands today as a rule for those who play for both Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad choose the majority of players only from the Basque region, a way of preserving their identity and culture. For Nolan, although the souvenirs and the gala have all gone it’s the memories that will forever stand.
"I was talking to an old pal the other day and I said 'You can have all the caps, you can have all the medals, but if you don’t have the memories then you’ve got nothing."
Well this is one game that will live long in the memory.