A humanitarian crisis and a Conservative Prime Minister unwilling to open the door to those in need of an escape. We’ve been here before and it was the people of these islands who made sure that some humanity prevailed. They did not know that their collective efforts would create a small but significant footnote in the nation’s football history.
Emilio Aldecoa was one of the many that the government of Stanley Baldwin did not want in Britain in the winter of 1937. There was a non-intervention treaty to abide by so the Spanish Civil War was not the country’s problem: that was the party line. This boy and all the rest were from the Basque region, too. “The weather won’t suit them,” Baldwin insisted. Aldecoa was six months past his 14th birthday, and living in fear of the noises overhead. They came from the bombers, which General Francisco Franco had persuaded Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini to send into northern Spain to attack those Basque areas which were still in the grip of Republican control.
It was the events of 26 April which burst the dam of British indignation: a squadron of 24 planes and their 22-ton payload of explosives destroying the market town of Guernica in a raid for which Franco attempted to deny complicity until George Steer of The Times – one of the most formidable journalists of them all – hunted amid the wreckage for the bomb casings.
There would be no British financial support for these children, Baldwin still insisted, when the collective protest of the more enlightened newspapers, civil society organisations, the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief and MPs from all parties forced him to accept that Basque children must be granted sanctuary. Yet they came – 4,000 of them, crowding into trucks and fishmongers’ vans to make it to Santurce docks, north-west of Bilbao, where they boarded the SS Habana, a recommissioned cruise liner. It sailed for Fawley at the entrance to Southampton Water, docked at Southampton a day later and deposited them there.
Their refugee experience was the same one that the former Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba told me he experienced when he made it here from Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo after his father’s three years in and out of asylum detention centres finally ended in 1999. That is to say, the sense of alienation, the impenetrable language, the solitude – and the fear. Watch the film about Britain’s Basque refugees, Ninos futbolistas de L’Habana (“Young footballers of the Habana”) researched and written by Amnesty International’s Naomi Westland, who was the first to investigate their story, and you will see that it was not their choice to make the journey.
With no financial support, it fell upon the British people to help them, at the “colonies” to which the children were dispersed from a central holding camp in Hampshire. The nation’s essential humanity sustained them, as Basque Children’s Committees sprang up in every major UK town. After the economic depression of the early 1930s there was an austerity beyond our modern understanding. But communities did what they could. The wealthier schools asked for a penny a week from parents. Bunting left over from the recent coronation of George VI was used to make the refugees blankets
Stafford took young Aldecoa in and discovered a committed worker. The English Electric company, shorn of men when the Second World War started in 1939, found him to be a useful lathe operator, turning electric motor armatures, and it was while playing football in the town that he was spotted by a Wolverhampton Wanderers scout. He was signed in 1943 and was 20 when he ran out in the old gold colours for the first team. That appearance against Crewe Alexandra 1943, in one of the Saturday regional games which Molineux put on in the war years, made Aldecoa the first Spaniard to play professional football in England.
He took up a position at inside-left which, he did not know then, would place him first in that most illustrious line of Spanish technicians in the English game that would grow substantially 60 years later. He finished the 1943-44 season as Wolves’ leading scorer – eight goals in 31 games – though it is from memories of his subsequent time at Coventry City, from August 1945, that we find the evidence of what so many refuse to see in refugees, or those seeking asylum: a willingness to work, and to give, in return for refuge.
Aldecoa lodged in Coventry with a local family, the Thompsons, through a club connection, and it was there that he set about home improvements, laying the patio that his landlady had been unable to create because of her husband’s poor health. He worked on ground improvements at Coventry City in the close season. The Thompsons’ son, Chris, still remembers Aldecoa marrying a Spanish girl who had occasionally come to visit. With Britain still under rationing, the street decided to provide the wedding cake. “Everybody in the street turned up with a lot of dried fruit for the cake,” Thompson remembers. “We had to pool all our fruit to make it for him.”
The young man prospered, scoring on his Coventry debut against Portsmouth, and thrilled the Midlands. “He was fast, skilful; probably the only Spaniard they had ever seen playing. He seemed like a matinee screen idol,” said Coventry City historian Jim Brown. After three seasons in the Second Division, he departed for his beloved Athletic Bilbao, later moving to Real Valladolid and then Barcelona, where he won the league title and the Copa Latina in the early 1950s. Aldecoa was capped once by Spain and briefly returned to the UK as assistant manager of Birmingham City in 1960. He was not the only one of the 4,000 evacuees whom English football seized upon: Jose Gallego and Raimundo Perez Lezama (Southampton), Antonio Gallego (Norwich City) and Jose Bilbao (Coventry) were the others.
The story suggests, as Muamba has put it to me, that refugees are “just like us, they have all the same hopes and fears. They are part of humanity.” It also makes you hope that, as Amnesty said last week, David Cameron will begin to “show some humanity too”. For Chris Thompson, so thrilled to have a Coventry star in the house all those years ago, the episode simply reflects a different kind of world. “Emilio was a quiet man but he was kind and we all saw that,” he reflects. “Those were harder times, but better times, I think.”
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