“I fell for the club in a really big way” — Howard Kendall’s love affair with Athletic Club Bilbao

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The ink was barely dry on Howard Kendall’s two-year contract to coach Athletic Club Bilbao but he was regretting the decision already. “I honestly thought I’d made the biggest mistake of my life.” 

His new club had flown him out to watch the 1987 Copa del Rey Final between Atlético Madrid and Real Sociedad in Zaragoza. Kendall found it almost impossible to concentrate on the game and the trio of Basque players that he was supposedly there to evaluate. The presence of the royal family and bizarrely, Real Sociedad supporters’ audible support for Yugoslavia’s u17 side in a game against their Spanish counterparts, had heightened tensions between the two sets of fans.

Missiles rained down on the pitch and a public announcement was made threatening to abandon the match. “I remember sitting back in my seat, closing my eyes and wondering what I had let myself in for. I just didn’t know what I was going to do if every game was played out against such an intimidating backdrop.”

Fortunately for Kendall, such scenes were rare and a somewhat more genteel form of crowd management was all that exercised him as he settled into life at Athletic’s Lezama training complex.

“I don’t want anyone watching the training sessions,” he told sporting director Fernando Ochoa who responded with a shrug of the shoulders. Kendall soon found that there was no way the 100 or so elderly Basque men in berets would be prohibited from their daily routine of taking in training before retiring to the club bar for an afternoon of playing cards.

As with so many traditions and rituals at Athletic, Kendall quickly embraced it. “I soon loved having them there. The more of them that came, the better.”

So began the love affair between Kendall and Athletic, one that never faded. Even years after his departure Kendall remained wide-eyed when talking about the club that he felt nothing but affection for.

Kendall arrived at a time when British coaches were somewhat of a fashionable commodity in Spain. The opening weekend of the 1987/88 season saw four British managers in charge of Primera sides.

John Toshack was well established at Real Sociedad and had just led them to victory in the Copa del Rey final that had so horrified Kendall. 

Terry Venables was coming to the end of his three-year spell at Barcelona. He’d brought a long-awaited league title to Camp Nou. Still, the subsequent season’s European Cup final penalties defeat to Steaua Bucharest had cast somewhat of a depression over his tenure.

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Down in Seville, John Mortimore had arrived as the new Real Betis manager having just won a league and cup double with Benfica.

It could and probably should have been more than a quartet of British coaches on the sidelines that weekend.The Seville derby was due to pit Mortimore against Jock Wallace but Wallace had been sacked as Sevilla boss just days before. A miserable pre-season had confirmed the existing doubts of the board.

Wallace was irate, but if anyone had the right to feel a sense of injustice at missing out that season it was Colin Addison. Addison had guided Celta Vigo to promotion but was cruelly dismissed by Celta president José Luis Rivadulla after taking a few days away from pre-season preparations to look after his sick mother. Addison would eventually get a taste of Primera action the following season when he arrived at Atlético Madrid with Ron Atkinson. 

Kendall’s own Spanish adventure could have been very different. The Barcelona board were unabashed admirers of the man who had guided Everton to the top of the English game and to European silverware. When Venables looked set to leave Barcelona at the end of the 1985/86 season, it was Kendall who they turned to as his replacement. A provisional contract was signed but Venables chose to continue. 

Nevertheless, a seed had been sown and with the ban on English clubs in Europe depriving Everton of their place in the European Cup, Kendall was certain he would take an opportunity abroad soon.

The chance arose just as Everton were clinching their second title in three years. Athletic sent a delegation to Liverpool and found Kendall more than ready to listen. Far from being deterred by the Basque-only selection code that Athletic firmly outlined, Kendall saw it as an opportunity to become a training ground manager once again. 

As a keen cricket fan, Kendall also understood the policy in the context of an example from that sport. At that time, Yorkshire Cricket Club were still five years away from breaking with their own equivalent of the rule with the signing of a 19-year-old Sachin Tendulkar.

Kendall certainly got his wish to spend more time at the training ground. Having decided against uprooting his family, he was wary of being closeted away in a city centre hotel. The club’s vast training facilities featured some spartan accommodation, principally designed for players to rest between pre-season training sessions. Kendall struck an agreement with the family that ran the block to rent a room and so woke up each morning to the views of the rolling hills around Lezama and the shortest of strolls to training.

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Kendall spent his spare time at the complex engrossing himself in the history of the club. He was delighted to discover its connections to his native north-east. He was further intrigued by the succession of Englishmen that had managed the club during its early years including the legendary, bowler-hatted figure of Fred Pentland. 

But it was tales of the title-winning homecomings of 1983 and 1984 through the city, along the Nervión on the club’s own barge — La Gabarra — that made Kendall eager to bring success. “I was shown a video of it and it was unbelievable. I wanted some of that.”

That desire made Athletic’s early elimination in the Copa del Rey a disappointment but Kendall’s first season was nevertheless a success. After a strong run of results around the turn of the year, Athletic finished fourth. Qualification for the UEFA Cup gave Kendall back those European nights he so craved. 

There was much to toast during the long Basque lunches that Kendall became fond of. Though his living arrangements were of the budget variety, the weekly board meetings that rotated around the city’s many fine restaurants afforded him some luxury. “Do you like the house red, Howard?” was the question asked with a wink as the best wine in the establishment arrived in a humble jug — just in case any eagle-eyed fans objected to the board’s expenditure on Gran Reserva.

Kendall’s second season was to prove a more challenging proposition. Barcelona, who had finished below both Real Sociedad and Athletic, raided la Real signing José Mari Bakero, Txiki Begiristain and Luis López Rekarte. That swoop had the dual effect of weakening la Real while taking away transfer targets from Athletic. Kendall could not help but admire their ruthlessness.

There was another dispiriting cup exit and the UEFA Cup campaign quickly became complicated when they were drawn against the might of Juventus in the second round. Athletic started the first leg nervously in Turin and were torn to shreds by Michael Laudrup and Alessandro Altobelli in a 5-1 defeat. Despite a second leg victory which briefly threatened to panic Juventus, Athletic were eliminated.

With a seventh-place finish the season was by no means a disaster. Indeed, with Kendall courted continuously by other clubs, Athletic happily offered a contract extension for a third season.

Despite a solid start to that season, November brought a brutal stretch of games culminating in a 4-0 defeat to Real Madrid’s Quinta del Buitre in the Santiago Bernabéu. At a tense post-match press conference, Kendall struggled with the tide of questions coming his way and unwittingly walked out before the end, causing a minor diplomatic incident.

That night, Kendall had dinner with his wife, Cynthia, and some friends who had flown over for the game. He confided in them that he felt his time in Spain was up.

With the board midway through a re-election campaign, they too were keen to make a change. Kendall’s departure was amicably agreed at the regular Tuesday board meeting after which he and president Pedro Aurtenetxe held a press conference to announce the news.

With a tear in his eye, Kendall addressed the press in his Geordie tinged Spanish. “Athletic is the best club in the world. Any club I go to, in England or elsewhere, is a step down. This club is the best there is.”

His send-off was befitting of the mutual appreciation that had grown between Kendall and the club. The board hired Kendall’s favourite restaurant for a farewell party and even managed to find a singer that could play a few Roy Orbison numbers — Kendall was a huge fan. Kendall stayed on for Athletic’s next game and was given a standing ovation as he took his seat for the 2-0 win against Real Zaragoza at San Mamés.

That was a scene that was repeated many times over the years as Kendall frequently returned to visit old friends, catch up with the latest happenings at Lezama and take in a game at his beloved San Mamés. He was able to glimpse the future of the club as he visited the new San Mamés in 2014 for Athletic’s 3-0 victory over Malaga just over a year before his death.

Whilst Kendall always treasured the experience of managing Athletic over 100 times, he always regretted not being able to bring a trophy to the city — “I never did get my boat-trip down the river.”


Both of Howard Kendall’s autobiographies provided information and quotes for this article.

Only the Best is Good Enough by Howard Kendall and Ian James Ross

Love Affairs & Marriage: My Life In Football by Howard Kendall

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