Howard Kendall had just guided Everton to their second league title in three seasons when he made the move to Athletic Bilbao. With the club unable to sign non-Basque players, the switch would be a test of Kendall's coaching abilities. He performed creditably in a two-and-a-half year stay that saw European football at San Mames and a rebuilding process begin at the club. Paul Gleeson caught up with him to find out more about the challenge of managing Athletic Bilbao...
What prompted the move?
I'd sampled Europe [with Everton]. We'd 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 [by the ban on English clubs in Europe]. And I really enjoyed the European scene. I'd signed a pre-contract with Barcelona the year before.
To replace Terry Venables?
Yeah, he was going to leave. And then he decided to stay at the last minute.
So you joined Athletic Bilbao instead. What were your first impressions of the club?
They were under threat of relegation when I went there. So I felt I wasn't going to be under as much pressure to either win La Liga or win a cup. The pressure that was at Barcelona or Real Madrid, I didn't have that at Bilbao because they were down there. But still to this day there have only been three clubs that have never been relegated. Bilbao are one of them and we all know the other two. It's a tremendous achievement. And it's a massive club with a huge fan-base. It's one big happy family really because they're all Basques.
Did you ever feel on the outside because everyone else there was Basque?
Well, not really because they'd had British trainers before. Ronnie Allen and Mr [Fred] Pentland who was the original. He was where it all started. The reason the strips are the colour they are is because of Sunderland. There are strong links because of the ship-building industry. There was that connection.
When I went there you had Real Sociedad and Osasuna. They were Basque-only too. But then they changed their policy and decided they were going to let new players come in. Real Sociedad soon brought three British [and Irish] players in - John Aldridge, Kevin Richardson and Dalian Atkinson. Osasuna took on Sammy Lee and Michael Robinson.
The thing about Bilbao when you settle in and learn the philosophy is that you realise they bring in a foreign trainer to sort them out when things are going wrong. Then when everything is OK, they bring in their own.
How did that first season go?
There were a lot of older players at the club. Andoni Goikoetxea had left for Atletico Madrid. Inigo Liceranzu and Manuel Sarabia were coming toward the end. They still contributed to our success that first year but it was a transition period. That gave me time to look at the younger ones with a view to bringing them in. Rafael Alkorta, Ricardo Mendiguren and Ander Garitano all came through.
There wasn't much pressure because they'd had a bad year so if you go in and get an improvement then they'll accept it. Which we did really, getting into Europe. We finished fourth and qualified for the UEFA Cup.
So you were a popular man after that first season?
The general manager of the club could speak English and he asked me to pop up to the board room after the last game of the season. So I went up there and there was a painting waiting for me. It was of the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle where I'd grown up. It was a present. They'd sent a painter over to Newcastle to do it for me!
And how was that UEFA Cup experience the following season?
We beat AEK Athens but were then very unfortunate and drew Juventus in the next round. They had Michael Laudrup and we lost 5-1 over there. For the home game, I changed it tactically. I turned it 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?' I think we hit the bar after that. There was panic. They went through but we won on the night.
It must have tricky identifying targets when you could only sign Basque players?
I didn't find it too frustrating because I knew the rules before I went there. You just get on with it and get the best out of what you've got. I mean, the youth policy they've got is second to none. They have a school in the training ground and buses come from all over the Basque area full of kids because they can't really afford to have a young Basque player snapped up by somebody else. On the flip side to that, it's made a little easier because all the parents that are Basque don't want their son to play for anyone other than Bilbao. Later, when you get decent offers for them, they'll go. But then they'll come back.
The first game I went to was the Copa del Rey final. John Toshack's team Sociedad were in the final and they had a player called [Jose Mari] Bakero who eventually went to Barcelona. I knew there were two Basques out there, [Pedro] Uralde and Bakero. So I looked at the game and I wanted Bakero. So they said: 'Right, fingers crossed that Atlético Madrid win' - because then Sociedad wouldn't have been in Europe and they wouldn't have been able to hold onto Bakero. Well, I'm going in a taxi back to the airport because 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!'
How did you communicate with your players?
I had an interpreter. He came from Leeds. He had no idea about football but it didn't matter. I remember telling him to tell the players to stay out of the penalty area. He replied: 'What's the penalty area?' You don't need to know where it is, just tell them!
You had your assistants though...
My assistant was Txetxu Rojo. What they were doing was grooming him to take over from me, which he did in 1989. He took over and later went on to Zaragoza and other clubs.
Were you not tempted to have an English assistant?
They wouldn't allow that. That was part and parcel of it. You worked closely with the Basques and I actually lived with a Basque family. The guy I was staying with was a former player called Jesus Renteria, who was actually a janitor at the training ground. He'd watch the young lads and the second team. If anybody caught the eye, he'd be telling me.
An unofficial scout?
Well, yeah. He'd be at the training ground watching all the teams, all the ages. He told me to have a look at Alkorta. So I had a look at him training and playing, and in he comes.
You finished seventh in your second season but things started to go wrong after that...
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. We were halfway up and 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 microphone 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?'"
So I realised it was time to go. I'm sure the new president would have come to an agreement as well if I hadn't said that. It was a very emotional meeting really. All the board were there. They just said how pleased they were with me and it was all very amicable. I had a farewell dinner with a singer, it was absolutely brilliant.
So no regrets?
No, I don't look back in regret on anything, really. I really enjoyed my two-and-a-half years there. It was an unbelievable achievement to be given that particular job.