Hierro's hunger drives Bolton to brink of history

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The Independent Football

When Fernando Hierro recounts the medals he has won, the temptation is to start writing a list. There are three European Cups, five Spanish league titles and a Spanish Cup before you start to get to the Intercontinental Cups and the Super Cups that the Real Madrid team of the last two decades picked up with their captain. "Let's see, how many was it?" Hierro asks, counting them on his fingers, "it was tremendous but you can't possibly keep that going."

When Fernando Hierro recounts the medals he has won, the temptation is to start writing a list. There are three European Cups, five Spanish league titles and a Spanish Cup before you start to get to the Intercontinental Cups and the Super Cups that the Real Madrid team of the last two decades picked up with their captain. "Let's see, how many was it?" Hierro asks, counting them on his fingers, "it was tremendous but you can't possibly keep that going."

The old tough guy of Real Madrid's midfield, latterly its defence is, quite simply, the most decorated footballer playing in the Premiership. Ryan Giggs runs him close, but the winger is running out of time to equal the haul of three European Cups and if there is one club who could consider that a realistic aim it would not be Manchester United but the side that Hierro faces this evening. Jose Mourinho's Chelsea come to the Reebok Stadium today to seal their Premiership title in what they hope will be a beginning of the kind of dynasty of success that Hierro had at Real.

No one could be better qualified to tell them the demands of sustaining an era of dominance than the former captain of Real Madrid, the man who, over 13 years at the Bernabeu, acquired the reputation for being the undisputed leader of the dressing-room. It was Hierro who was the spokesman for the players, the man who was so influential that Steve McManaman said "nothing happened without his say-so". Then with Hierro's Real Madrid crowned champions of Spain in 2003, and David Beckham on his way, came his infamous fall-out with Florentino Perez and the Real president's purge of the old guard.

When Hierro left Real he headed to play in Qatar for a season because the memory of his rejection by the club that he served for so long was too painful for him to stay in Europe. Now at 37, he has played 33 games this season for a club who are just four points off the fourth Champions' League spot and, in sixth position, comfortably placed for their first ever Uefa Cup qualification. Chelsea might be the team who are now occupying the kind of status with which Hierro is familiar, but Bolton are also on the brink of what their manager Sam Allardyce likes to call "'istory".

The first thing that you notice about Hierro is that for a man who made the decisions on behalf of some of the most famous players in the world for 10 years, there is little discernible ego. There are no complaints when he is asked to open the sliding door of one of the executive boxes at the Reebok and step into the chill of the Lancashire afternoon to have his picture taken. His English is coming along too, but its difficult to get a chance to practice when there are so many old Spanish friends in the area.

There's Ivan Campo at Bolton and Rafael Benitez and Fernando Morientes over in Liverpool, all former colleagues from Real Madrid. And today he will get the chance to catch up with another old friend when Claude Makelele comes with Chelsea. It was the French midfielder who Hierro voted for in the PFA Player of the Year awards and it still makes him sigh when he articulates what he perceives as the lack of appreciation for his former team-mate.

"I think Claude has this kind of gift - he's been the best player in the team for years but people just don't notice him, don't notice what he does," Hierro says. "But you ask anyone at Real Madrid during the years we were talking about and they will tell you he was the best player at Real. We all knew, the players all knew he was the most important. He was the base, the key and I think he is the same to Chelsea now.

"I think the Chelsea players realise that, the press and some of the fans are beginning to understand that. We knew he was the one player we could never do without. He is a very intelligent player, his fundamental ability is being able to anticipate being in the right place when his team are defending."

When Hierro talks about football, he selects his words carefully. Like Makelele, he took on Perez and the galactico system and, like the Chelsea midfielder, it cost him his job. While Makelele threatened to go on strike if the ludicrous disparity between his wages and those of his team-mates was not addressed, Hierro refused to take his players out for a second lap of honour after sealing the title against Atletico Bilbao in May 2003. He was tired of the circus that had accompanied Beckham's transfer and the increasing commercialisation of the club.

As a result of his insubordination Perez was understood to have sacked him on the spot.

But while Hierro might have fallen out of love with the current administration at Real, his passion for the club and its history has remained undiminished. "You can't compare Chelsea and Real, and one reason for that is last year Real were voted the best team of the century, everywhere, including South America," Hierro says. "They have the most glorious history in football. It wouldn't be a fair comparison between the two although Chelsea are on the right lines. I get the feeling that with Mourinho at the helm things could turn out well for them. He is a very smart guy. But for me, it's Madrid.

"The whole Chelsea phenomenon, when you have an owner who is so rich it will obviously help, but Chelsea are building for the future. They have a good youth system, I've heard they are building a new training facility. They are not just looking at the immediate future but they are looking throughout Europe for young players. In that sense they are doing things the right way."

Even at his age, there are few at the Reebok Stadium who have seen the ball used as carefully as Hierro, back in his original position in centre of midfield. He might not get forward as much as he once did - with penalties and free-kicks he is Spain's second highest goalscorer of all-time with 29 goals - but his reading of the game has not dimmed with time. He has not yet decided whether he will extend the one-year contract that he signed at the start of the year although the chance of playing in Bolton's first ever tilt at European football will prove a powerful incentive to stay.

"When I talk to people in Madrid about Bolton I tell them that they are a club who are developing, a young club and a club on the up," Hierro says. "They are a club with a desire to do well and a hunger to succeed. You talk about Chelsea doing things properly, I think Bolton do things in the right manner as well. Most of all I tell people about the players, because we have some great ones at this club. It could be an opportunity for Bolton to get into Europe for the first time in their history and we are doing everything we can to make that happen.

"At the moment the least important thing is whether I want to stay, it is the sort of decision I will take 10 days before the end of the season. What I am concentrated on at the moment is this game against Chelsea. I have had a winning mentality throughout my career and the objective at the moment is getting this team into Europe. My personal issues are unimportant."

The professionalism implicit in that kind of talk is not an empty gesture. Hierro's team-mates have been impressed by a total commitment to the club which has involved the entire Hierro family, including his two young children, moving from Madrid to the north-west of England. Something of a culture shock before you even begin to ask this native of Malaga, who began his career at Real Valladolid, to consider the grey vault of sky that glowers down above the Reebok Stadium.

"The weather is different but it is made up for by the atmosphere in the stadium," Hierro says. "People are completely absorbed by football, it's not better or worse but different. I have always been a private family person and here you get that time. In Spain you get photographers following you, but here there is not that sort of pressure. You are left alone to enjoy life and get on with your job. I have always considered myself to be passionate about football but I enjoy a close family life too."

He has been to dinner with Benitez and his wife, Montse. The Liverpool manager was a reserve team coach at Real and like Morientes, all three have reason to feel betrayed by what has happened at the club. Hierro has expressed his distaste for the galactico policy already but he is too polite to revel in the failure of his former side to win a single trophy since his departure saying simply that "teams come and go, other teams progress". Yet he is delighted to be part of the Spanish boom in the Premiership.

"Rafa's doing a really good job there," Hierro says. "He's had bad injuries, six or seven, to key players. But he is right there battling and with every chance of getting to the final of the Champions' League. Once Rafa makes his connection absolute with the players and once they get to know Rafa, the way he works, then you will see Liverpool fighting for everything. That's how good Rafa is.

"I know him well because he was assistant to Vicente Del Bosque at Real Madrid, he managed the second team. Rafa has got such a mental aptitude, and desire, he thinks about football 30 hours a day. Football, football, football."

For a loyal Madrileno, Hierro is surprisingly complimentary about Mourinho. He came close to working with him at Barcelona who tried to sign Hierro before Real intervened in 1989. On the subject of Chelsea and Mourinho's appetite for conflict this season, Hierro is clear. "Great clubs make history by winning titles - I don't know about all the ins and outs of that [Chelsea's behaviour] but in football you make your name by winning trophies."

When Hierro arrived at Real Madrid, they had six European Cups but it had been 23 years since their last one and he had to wait another nine years, until 1998, to get the next. With 13 domestic Spanish trophies and the three European Cups, he was part of a team that Madrid will find difficult to forget. As a template for Mourinho's Chelsea side there is none better.

"It is all about taking that final step when you get to the last stage, to grab the opportunity and take it," Hierro says. "That's what happened with Real Madrid, it was 32 years without a European Cup so once you do get to the semi-final stage you have to make sure you don't miss that opportunity. Chelsea have been in this position before. They had that opportunity and the experience of missing out. It will be a positive experience for them that they can use.

"We missed out on a couple of occasions and you use that experience. It's all about trophies. History is made by winning trophies. Clubs go through barren periods but once you get to the end that is it, end of story. Trophies are important because that's when you take confidence and win more. Chelsea have a fantastic team and manager. They are going to be champions - I just hope it isn't on Saturday."