My Second Team: Rayo Vallecano
For the latest in our My Second Team series, we welcome Huw Richards for the first time. Huw is Swansea through and through but as his wonderfully entertaining post shows, his sporting peregrinations have taken him to nooks and crannies the world over. Huw can be followed on twitter at @huwrichards3.
In architectural terms primary sporting allegiances are a bit like the single sweep of the modern football stadium, while second teams are more akin to the old Dell ground at Southampton. Just as you could reconstruct much of Southampton’s history from the joyously variegated collection of oddities crowding the touchlines, so secondary allegiances reflect changes in location, interests and influences.
Supporting Swansea Town, as they still were when I was introduced to them at a rather unpropitious time in the 1960s, has been a life sentence with – it is now, at 56, very clear – never any likelihood of remission or parole. It had a strong element of predestination. My father has supported them since 1945, inheriting the allegiance from his father. My grandmother had, for goodness’ sake, attended the school which shared the Vetch Field site until 1925, conferring an all-but unbeatable trump card in any battle of one-upmanship over depth of club heritage.
Second teams are different. They are generally a more conscious choice. They may meet a need not met by your main allegiance, but are supplementary, not a competitor and emphatically not a replacement. They don’t matter quite as much. It makes you a fellow-traveller, even a free-rider, rather than the real thing. I was genuinely upset when my London club Barnet lost their Football League status in 2013 and delighted when they won it back two years later, and made sure I was present on both occasions. But I was acutely aware that the emotion did not run as deep as it did for friends who are Barnet lifers, or me on comparable occasions for the Swans.
You also need some means of maintaining contact with the club and its fortunes. This is comparatively simple now, when electronic and social media make news, comment and even near-live action from regional leagues in faraway countries available at a tap of a smartphone, but was not always so. Had those facilities existed in 1978, this piece would probably be about Wiener Sportklub. Theirs was the first ground I visited outside the UK, watching a hugely entertaining 6-1 beating of Casino Salzburg while on a student Interrail trip.
But there was then no practical way to get regular up-to-date news of overseas football, at least not from nations as far away and as little reported as Austria. Even in the late 1980s, the only way I could find of getting advance information on fixtures before a trip to Germany was a phone call to a surprised but helpful cultural attaché at the German embassy.
A real renewal of affection for Sportklub had to wait until another trip to Vienna in 2015, finding them down a couple of divisions – and struggling to maintain that – but with the compensation of an engaging and inclusive left-wing fan culture, as befits a club whose stadium abuts one of the public housing monuments to the ‘Red Vienna’ of interwar years.
So Sportklub’s Friday night Regionalliga Ost fixtures are now the regular start to a weekend routine of checking electronically, and with varying degrees of anxiety, on a range of secondary allegiances. Geography mixes with personal history. Growing up in the West Midlands left an affection for Kidderminster Harriers. Summer holidays near the Scottish border explain an allegiance to Berwick Rangers, readopted with enthusiasm by my brother since he moved to Edinburgh in 1999.
Any fan who lives in London and whose real team plays 200 miles away will almost certainly pick up a London allegiance . Since Shepherd’s Bush was where I first landed, it used to be QPR, a preference which persisted for close on 30 years until their ownership’s definitive demonstration – even before employing Harry Redknapp – of how to lose friends, alienate people and make an inherently likeable club dislikeable.
The replacement had to be closer to home, by now in North-East London. And, the Swans having inflicted our overblown top flight on me, it had to be emphatically Not Premier League Nor Anything Like It. It might very easily have been Orient. Instead, largely because of one fellow-journalist friend, it has been Barnet.
Friendships make a difference. I can also blame my oldest friend in Australia for an attachment to the St Kilda Saints Australian Football team. My best friend and his son and daughter, my god-children, live in Washington DC, so attention switches in summer to the baseball-playing Nationals. And then, failing all else, comes the ‘first team I saw’ factor. St Kilda were also, courtesy of my friend, the first Aussie Rules team I saw.
None of these teams has much of a record of success. Only Sportklub and Saints have won their national championships, and neither since 1966. Saints’ single title is outnumbered not only by their wooden spoons (27), but the cricketing legends (Keith Miller and Shane Warne) who have played for them.
Perhaps that’s a missed chance. Should I have hooked up somewhere with one of the default options of the unimaginative and vicariously enjoyed a few championships? But affinity is a matter of temperament and it wouldn’t have worked, at least not for long. There were admittedly a few years, based on ‘first team I saw’ and friendship, as – in the words of another friend – ‘the unlikeliest ever New York Yankees fan’. But the 1990 Yankees may have been the worst team in the club’s history. I enjoyed the early triumphs when usual service was resumed a few years later, but did not take long to get bored.
So when I started to learn Spanish and to visit Spain, Real Madrid was not an option, even without the political handicap of having been ‘Franco’s team’. It should perhaps have been Atlético. My first Spanish match was there, and I have had years of excellent use from their scarf, a multi-coloured confection whose great virtue is that it cannot possibly be mistaken for any British club’s.
But some combination of a tedious 0-0 draw with Lleida, a certain grimness about their stadium and the ownership of Jesús Gil y Gil – a megalomaniac construction magnate with a record of corporate manslaughter (pardoned by Franco), his own populist political party and a coach-sacking habit which made Massimo Cellino look positively abstemious – ruled them out.
Next up were Rayo. Beyond their being the third team in Madrid, I knew little about them. But, informed that their nearest metro stop was Portazgo on Line 1 and kick-off for the match against Albacete was midday, I set off one Sunday in the spring of 1994.
As the metro headed south out of central Madrid, I began to wonder. Either the game had been called off, or Rayo had an extremely localised support. There was zero evidence in the dress, manner or conversation of my fellow travellers that a First Division football match was taking place a little further down the line. Only when we got within a couple of stops did the first replica shirts and feverishly scanned copies of Marca and AS start to appear, and then only a few.
I wondered how far it would be from Portazgo to the ground. Emerging into the street established that it made the walk from Arsenal tube station to Highbury look like a stage of the Pennine Way. Had the pavement been any narrower, or the lines longer, the simple act of leaving Portazgo would have meant jumping the queues at the ticket kiosks in the outer wall of the stadium.
A terrace ticket cost 1000 pesetas, or a little under £5 – a little less than I usually paid to watch the Swans play away in the Third Division. Once inside, it did not take long for a strange sense of familiarity to take hold. The Estadio Vallecas was tightly hemmed in by its surroundings – so tightly at the far end that there was no spectator accommodation, only a vast advertising board behind which a tower block of council flats loomed so close that Rayo were, many years later, able to plead successfully that they could not be held responsible for Sevilla’s goalkeeper being showered with fruit from one of the balconies.
The crowd were an intriguing mix – noisy groups of young men flourishing banners, but also many more women, quite a few with children, than I was accustomed to seeing at football. The ambience was tight-knit and self-consciously local. Had it not been about 105 degrees, I could have been at rugby league in Featherstone or St Helen’s.
I was, I suspect, hooked before a ball was kicked. That was another 0-0 draw, so my early experience of Spanish football wasn’t exactly rich on goalmouth action. But this felt different. Even with limited language skills, the passion and the raucous humour of the crowd were evident, while shirts with a red arrow angled across the chest – the Rayo of the club name – were pleasingly exotic.
And there was Onesimo, a stockily muscular winger capable of dribbling in impossibly tight patterns which tied markers – and his own legs, should there be any chance of claiming a free-kick or penalty – into knots. He played havoc with the visitors’ defence, supplying a succession of penetrating passes which Rayo’s strikers struck with unerring consistency anywhere except the Albacete goal.
About five minutes from the end, he left his marker floundering for about the 19th time, provided at a modest estimate his fourteenth potential assist and saw it once again thumped into the airspace above the advertising board. Onesimo turned in disgust and aimed several vicious kicks at the wall. You can understand why the Rayo coach left him on – nobody else looked like creating a chance and this was a relegation battle, a description applicable to most Rayo Primera matches played any time after Christmas. The main surprise when he got himself sent off a couple of minutes later was that his frustration was taken out in violence against an otherwise inoffensive Albacete player rather than one of his profligate team-mates.
Rayo were duly relegated, avoiding the bottom places but instead getting ambushed in the playoffs by Compostela. But an affinity had been struck, and subsequent trips to Madrid were timed with an eye to Rayo’s fixture list.
Following them was a process of discovery. There was a strong streak of genuine quirkiness – a postal address in Fofo the Clown Street and a club shop so cramped that the bulk of its stock was displayed beneath transparent plastic panels in the floor.
This was accompanied by an authentic, deep-rooted fan culture, derived from the political traditions of the district of Vallecas in which a strong, archetypally Spanish streak of anarcho-syndicalism supplements more orthodox socialism. When Spain had a one-day general strike, Rayo’s players joined in, not least because fan groups had picketed the training ground.
The fanbase cohabited incongruously with ownership by the Ruiz-Mateos clan. Family firm Rumasa had been, in 1983, the focus of post-Franco Spain’s first major business scandal while patriarch Jose Maria professed personal politics too loopily right-wing for even Opus Dei, which expelled him in 1986. What looked at first glance an eclectic succession of club shirt sponsors was in reality a carousel of Rumasa trademarks, most memorably Dhul (something Rayo never were) and a logo dominated by a giant bee.
There was an almost infinite supply of Ruiz-Mateos sons, who looked in photographs like a cross between the Glazer brothers and an amateur production of Reservoir Dogs. But the club presidency was held by the clan matriarch, Maria Teresa Rivero. This was initially an act of family loyalty. She was photographed for the club magazine with a Rayo scarf draped across her shoulders, looking roughly as comfortable as the Queen would wearing a Millwall shirt. But she clearly warmed to the task, rapidly acquiring the standard Rayo fan’s conviction – not entirely without foundation – that smaller Spanish clubs get the sticky end of refereeing decisions.
More than 20 years on, affection for Rayo remains. It has outlasted the Ruiz-Mateoses, whose family business once more ran into trouble in 2011. Rivero’s accusation that the players were unprofessional – which was strictly true since she failed to pay them for several months – , destroyed any last vestige of empathy with a fanbase which has never had trouble choosing between unpaid workers and the whining rich.
Yet that unpaid squad, marshalled by Jose Ramon Sandoval, a coach seemingly perpetually on the verge of bursting out of what appeared to be his only suit (he wasn’t getting paid, either) somehow contrived to win promotion back to the Primera .
It does no harm that the years since 1994 have been the best in the club’s history, including 11 seasons in the Primera , a run to the quarter-final of UEFA Cup and perhaps the unlikeliest headline in their history, when one Madrid paper declared them De Moda (in fashion) after a brief early season stint at the top of the league.
But there was also a descent into the dread Segunda B – actually the third division – in which 80 teams divided into four regional leagues compete for four promotion places which can only be secured through post-season playoffs. This is not easy – ask the Basque club Barakaldo, who have made the playoffs 10 times since 1989, but are yet to win promotion.
And I managed to be there for the victory over Zamora which got Rayo promoted back to the Segunda in 2008, accredited as a reporter from the Glasgow Sunday Herald , who had the previous week taken a piece focussed on the club’s idiosyncracies and drawing some reasonably obvious parallels with Partick Thistle.
The Herald’s interest was symptomatic of a smaller, more connected world in which it is much easier to follow the fortunes of teams abroad. I get to Madrid much less than I did, but am much better informed. Relegation this summer to the Segunda this season has merely meant a reversion from Sky’s coverage to internet feeds of varying legitimacy ,and makes no difference to the excellent unofficial online news service provided by Rayo Herald .
That smaller more interconnected world also applies to players. Swansea and Rayo were scarcely aware of each other back in 1994. But in recent seasons Michu has been a hero to both sets of fans, and Jordi Amat played 27 games on loan for Rayo before joining the Swans. Pablo Hernandez and Alejandro Pozuelo both had spells at Vallecas after leaving Swansea.
As so often, there is also a personal element. My friend and pub quiz team colleague Ian Lewis is first and foremost a Leeds United fan, but used to live in Madrid and – like a fair number of expat fans – found Rayo much more appealing than more obvious alternatives. Arcane tastes are much easier to sustain when they can be shared and debated, along with ever-changing kick-off and TV transmission times, news links and suggestions as to which unlikely source might be offering coverage of this week’s match.
But, most of all, Rayo continue to be fun. Their fanbase remains committed in both the footballing and political sense. Their recent four-season stint in the Primera was unfailingly entertaining as coach Paco Jemez eschewed the more usual defensive definitions of ‘percentage play’. He argued that, with three points for a win, all-out attack serves the under-resourced better than trying to grind out draws. Six-goal hammerings by Barcelona became routine, and there was a 10-2 at Real, but it was often gratifyingly effective – and invariably worth watching – against the division’s middle classes.
And the Jonah-like qualities I bring to other allegiances – I have seen Swansea lose on 95 different grounds and was once greeted at Barnet with the words ‘bloody hell, we never win when you come’, which was true, although they lost with equal consistency when I wasn’t there – seem not to apply to Rayo.
In those 22 years I’ve yet to see Rayo lose at home, a fact brandished shamelessly when applying for that press ticket for the Zamora match. They’ve been everything you can ask of a second team – different, but still in line with my temperament and preferences, and never dull. They’re unlikely ever to win a major trophy (although I thought that about the Swans before 2013) but have offered much more pleasure than pain. So here’s to the next 22 years……