Wednesday 26 September 2018

Sun, Sea, and Football: Adventures in Alicante

Perched high above the city's coastline and dating back to the 9th century, Alicante's castle of Santa Bárbara was once upon a time surely a fearsome sight for anyone sailing into the city. But as it currently stands, partly obscured by the large apartment type buildings that adorn the said coastline of tourist filled sandy beaches below, one can't help but feel that it doesn't look half as menacing as it might once have.

But if the castle has lost some of it's bravado since it's heyday then the same can probably be said about the town's football team Hércules de Alicante. For a period in the 1970's and 80's they were an established La Liga side spending 10 seasons in the top division of Spanish football over a 12 year period. Even when those top flight appearances became far more infrequent they still had their moments, including memorable victories against some of the country's top sides and in particular three famous La Liga wins over Catalan giants FC Barcelona. Nowadays however mid table finishes in the third tier Segunda B division are more common, whilst the club plays in a 30,000 seater stadium that is usually less than a third full for most home games. To further emphasise their decline, when they last faced Barcelona in a 2016 cup tie they lost 7-0.

Back to the city itself and leaving the castle behind a walk further along the shore and you will find people admiring the many pristine yachts moored up in the harbour, stroll further inland you will come across the old town thronging with people sat outside it's many bars, cafes, and restaurants. You have found yourself in a vibrant, multicultural, cosmopolitan, historic city.

It's a hot sunny afternoon at the end of the summer when I myself arrive in Alicante, or Alicant as it's called in the regional Valencian dialect. When on holiday this is the sort of day when you should be lounging by the pool with a drink or swimming in the sea. But I've left the holiday resort of Benidorm and our hotel pool behind, and taken the local light rail type train service known as 'TRAM' up the coast for an afternoon of live fútbol, having been unable to tempt the rest of my crew to join me.

Despite the hustle and bustle in the centre of town, once you head out towards the suburbs it's a much quieter affair. I am in search of a football ground, the Estadio José Rico Pérez to be precise, home of the aforementioned Hércules. As I walk through the backstreets of the city, I find the place mostly deserted with little more than parked cars to keep me company.

Used on occasion by the Spanish national team, the stadium which hosted England in an international friendly in 2015 is a little over a 20 minute up hill walk from the city centre. When I arrive I find a ground that from the outside definitely looks like it needs some TLC with graffiti scrawled all over it's shabby looking concrete walls. I walk around the dusty track outside and notice the place is almost as deserted as the streets I passed through on the way here. Having said that it is well over an hour until kick-off and there doesn't look much around to occupy the fans pre match. I soon arrive at several hatches that serve as the main ticket office where I find a small group of fans milling about. I purchase a ticket for today's game then nose around the club shop next door before heading further round outside where I find a stall selling scarves and various other trinkets. By now things are beginning to look a bit more lively.

Currently playing in the third tier Hércules last played in the top flight of Spanish football in 2011 where relegation was followed by three seasons in the second tier Segunda División before a second relegation to Segunda B where they have now entered their fifth campaign at this level.

The 2010/11 season was a lone season in the top flight and although it culminated in immediate relegation back down to the second level it will fondly be remembered for one very special afternoon in Barcelona. Hércules visited the Camp Nou stadium and came away with an astonishing 2-0 victory over an all conquering FC Barcelona side who at the time had not lost at home for one year, three months, and eighteen days.
Beating the giants of FC Barcelona however was nothing new, in their previous season in the top flight some thirteen years earlier they beat Barcelona both home and away, coming from behind on both occasions. Six points lost that saw Barcelona lose out to arch rivals Real Madrid in the title race.

Today's match is a Segunda B Group 3 clash with a side called CD Teruel, a small club who after promotion last season are back in third tier after a seven year absence, having never played higher than this level. For Hércules, they are hoping to continue their excellent start to the season and keep alive the 100% record they possess having played four games so far.

With a scarf purchased I find myself at losoe end and think about entering the ground. The turnstiles however are not yet to open leaving spectators standing around looking bored with nothing to do. A quick look at a map on my phone and all I can find nearby is a supermarket 10 minutes away, but with temperatures heading towards 30°C hopefully I may be able to at least get a soft drink to keep me hydrated.

Before reaching supermarket a find a small bar I hadn't spotted on the map and soon find myself sat drinking beer. Alcohol in hand I am accosted by a local who when his suspicions that I am English are confirmed introduces me to his English pal who low and behold comes from my home town of Newcastle Upon Tyne! Well they do say wherever you go in the world you'll always find a Geordie... Eventually I leave my two new friends behind and head back to the ground in anticipation of kick-off.

Inside the stadium the concourse looks as dilapidated inside as the ground does from the outside, but there are some excellent murals on the walls which at least give it some charm. I head up the stairs and into the stands to look for my seat. I find myself behind the goal in large open and roofless stadium with four large floodlight pylons towering over stands whose blue seats are partially filled with expectant supporters. The ground is far from full but with roughly 8500 in attendance it is not a bad turn out for a third tier regional league game.

The match gets underway and the visitors find themselves in front after just two minutes bringing joyous celebrations from a small row of red shirted away supporters at the other end of the ground. Despite the setback on the pitch, in the stands it is very much a vibrant affair with chanting and flag waving to my right, and drumming to my left. Hércules dominate the first half but will have to do better in front of goal during the second as they find themselves still one behind at the break. During the first period there were some rather rash challenges from the visitors who aren't afraid to play dirty, and this continues during the second half. Definitely more Don Revie than Brian Clough from the away side here.

Just as with the first half the home side dominates the second forcing several saves from the opposition keeper whilst also having god knows how many corners and at one point hitting the crossbar, all to no avail. 

With 15 minutes to go Hércules give away a free-kick after a silly foul and the visitors score from it. If that does not prove it's not going to be Hércules day then a guilt edged opportunity they miss soon after definitely does. After excellent build up play one of the Hércummles players shoots straight at the keeper with possibly one the weakest efforts you'll ever see, this after probably taking too long with the ball and helping the opposition keeper get in an excellent position to save.

Even as a neutral I find it all extremely frustrating that the opposition who have had two shots on target the whole game are winning 2-0 in a match they should probably be losing by 3 or 4 when you consider the opportunities the home side have been given. 

As we head towards full-time some of the home fans start to leave but the ones still around at the end applaud their team off the pitch knowing that despite a two goal loss they at least can't fault the players for their effort. It is just one of those days for Hércules but it's still 4 wins out of 5 and they are still top of the league.

With the match over I head out of the stadium and soon leave the crowds behind to find myself once again walking through quiet deserted streets. All is calm and peaceful with nothing but the sound of my feet pacing along concrete as I walk through dimly lit alleyways in what is a rather serene end to the performance of blood and thunder I have just witnessed on the pitch. This gives time for me to ponder over what has been another enjoyable outing to watch the beautiful game.

Clearly the high flying  days of years gone by and the historic victories over the blue and red of Barcelona seem a million miles away after games like this. But in an old stadium that certainly does not lack character, a healthy crowd are still on hand to support their local side for what is despite a lack of facilities around the vicinity still an enjoyable matchday experience, and all set in the backdrop of a beautiful city. As far as football trips go it could definitely have been a lot worse.

As featured in the November 2018 issue of Football Weekends magazine

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