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Monday, April 5, 2004
ESPNsoccernet: May 26, 6:15 PM UK
The old school

Phil Ball

Luis Aragonés, currently Mallorca's manager, took charge of his 750th top-flight game this weekend, thirty years after he started out at Atlético Madrid in 1974.

A home draw with Real Sociedad wasn't quite the result he might have been wishing for (it was the 180th draw of his managerial career, in case you're interested), but then again 'Luis', as he is universally known in Spain, isn't exactly the celebrating type.

Aragonés started life as a manager at about the same time as Sir Alex Ferguson, and although he has no solid claims of a Glaswegian school-of-hard-knocks type upbringing, he was from a humble enough background, from Hortaleza in Madrid.

It's hard to avoid the inevitable cliché, but the irritable, chain-smoking bespectacled man still doing the business in Europe's most demanding league is one of the 'old school'.

Like Ferguson and Robson in England, he is one of the last in a dwindling line of men who were invited into management not simply because they were good ex-players or because they seemed to possess some tactical nous, but because they had officer qualities, because they possessed that elusive facet of personality that somehow commanded respect and fear, in equal measure.

They belong to a generation of the working-class who were brought up to expect nothing much, unless they rolled up their sleeves and got on with it. This turned them into what the Americans used to call 'crap shooters' - people who do not suffer fools gladly.

The Spanish love of nicknames - of literally institutionalising people by turning them into noun phrases, has of course not escaped Aragonés - 'El Sabio de Hortaleza' (The wise man of Hortaleza).

Famous players or managers are almost always referred to here in terms of their town, 'barrio' (neighbourhood) or even country, so that for example Camacho is always 'El de Cieza' and Toshack is 'El Gales', but few earn the distinction of the extra attribute.

Aragonés is also what one used to call a 'character', although he has never actively sought to be considered one. Anyone these days who speaks from the hip and who shows precious little respect for the vagaries of political correctness will always be branded a character, maybe because the corporate world would prefer these sort of people to just melt away slowly, like the ice-age.

But Luis seems to have no intention of going gently into that good night, and on Saturday declared that he would 'die on the bench'. He claimed that because he had been doing it for so long he couldn't stand the inactivity of the sofa. 'I get pissed off at home', he added. 'I start kicking things'.

The Spanish press have been terrified of him for years, and in the rather enclosed world of football journalism here you are not allowed into the funny-handshake magic circle until you have plucked up the courage to ask Aragonés a provocative post-match question.

An extraordinary record, only explained by dint of the fact that he has won a fair amount of trophies and that a certain type of president (i.e. Jesus Gil, Josep Nuñez) would seem to have taken a sort of perverse delight in having a similarly belligerent presence around the place.

It's a rite of passage here, and one that is strictly observed. His temperamental storm-outs and acerbic put-downs are legendary. When a youngish journalist dared to ask him last year why he always seemed to end up in conflict with Atlético Madrid, the side that he has managed on three volatile occasions, he replied 'Why don't you take that question out of your arse and ask me it again?'

His bust-ups with arrogant over-paid players have been immortalised within the canon of Spanish footballing anecdote, particular reference often being made to his famous scrap with Romario, when the two coincided, like nuclear fission, at Valencia.

Romario's refusal to show any enthusiasm during training (when he managed to turn up) drove Aragonés round the proverbial bend, resulting in the famous training-ground exchange: 'Si fueras mi hijo te daría un par de hostias' (If you were my son I'd give you a good clout) to which Romario replied with impressive timing 'Y si fueras mi padre me mataría' (And if you were my father I'd commit suicide).

As a player Aragonés turned out for Atlético with some distinction, scoring 123 goals in 265 games and winning twelve caps for Spain. His most famous moment, recorded when he had a full head of hair, was the free-kick he curled past Sepp Maier which took Atlético to a replay with Bayern Munich in the 1974 European Cup Final.

They lost 4-0 in the end, but Luis had written himself into Spanish European lore. He actually played for eight teams in all, in a career that spanned the period 1957 to 1974, from Elvis Presley quiffs to dodgy sideburns.

Since then he has been on an impressive tour of Spain, managing eight different sides but with a twist; Atlético Madrid and Betis three times, Mallorca twice, with Seville, Barcelona, Valencia, Oviedo and Espanyol only inviting him on single occasions. Surely no other manager alive in the modern game has so consistently returned to the scenes of his former crimes?

It represents an extraordinary record, and can only be explained by dint of the fact that he has won a fair amount of trophies and that a certain type of president (i.e. Jesus Gil, Josep Nuñez) would seem to have taken a sort of perverse delight in having a similarly belligerent presence around the place.

His successes cannot be sniffed at - a league championship and the 2nd Division title with Atlético, four Kings Cups and the Intercontinental title in 1974 making up a decent enough CV.

The one obvious thing missing is his conspicuous absence from the list of men to have managed the national side. He came close to it in the early 1990s, but was allegedly excluded from the post for wanting to choose his own support team.

The truth would seem to be that like Clough in England he was never quite the type - too grumpy with the press (although Camacho wasn't exactly Mr Nice Guy), too foul-mouthed (but so was Clemente) and most important of all, too impatient to sit around in an office dreaming up squads of players with whom he would only have been in contact from time to time.

Which is a pity, in truth, because in general players respect and like him. His deadpan wit and his utter conviction that he is always right have always gone down well with most players, who speak of him in affectionate terms.

As Soler said of him: 'He could make you believe that you could do anything, that you could beat anyone.' That would seem to be exactly the sort of psychology that the national team has been lacking over the years.

His own team. Mallorca, were lacking just about everything on Sunday apart from a friendly referee, and Puentes Liera was clearly in no mood to spoil the old man's afternoon. With Real Sociedad 0-1 ahead, he disallowed a perfectly legal goal by Kovacevic and then proceeded to award a goal to Mallorca after Perera had punched the ball in the net.

The whole of Spain saw it, but not the ref. So a perfectly normal day then. At the end of the game, asked about the goal, Luis shrugged. 'Couldn't see it,' he quipped, with the slightest twitch of a smile appearing on his weathered face. 'These bloody glasses...'

  • Read White Storm, Phil's brilliant book on Real Madrid. Also available, his splendid story of Spanish football, Morbo.

  • If you've any comments for Phil, email the newsdesk

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