The fallen giants of Spanish football

Referring to Real when talking football means only one club.  However, dominance of Spanish soccer by a Real was once not the exclusive claim of a club from Madrid.  Welcome to IBWM Jamie McGregor.

It's a cold November night in Irun. The water from the sprinklers is causing mist patches to form on the pitch, disrupting the players pre-match warm up. Barely 300 metres to my right I can see the border with France, a small uninspiring bridge. Most people who stop here don't stay long, usually going on to the more picturesque cities of San Sebastián (in Spain) or Biarritz (in France). To the untrained eye, there's nothing much to see in Irun except warehouses, factories and petrol stations. Unlike most of the town's visitors, I've not come to buy cheap tobacco or petrol but rather to see one of its historic buildings.

The Stadium Gal is the home of local football club Real Unión de Irún. It's a small stadium with two seated stands along the side of the pitch and two small terraces behind the goals. If I had to say one stadium it reminded me of most, I'd go for Forthbank Stadium, the home of Stirling Albion. With a capacity of 5,000, it's typical of most third tier Spanish grounds. I am at the Stadium Gal for Real Unión's Copa del Rey first leg tie with Primera División side Sevilla. Two seasons ago, Real Unión pulled off the shock of the Cup when they knocked out Real Madrid. Most of the near capacity crowd are hoping they can repeat that feat tonight. The cup win over Real Madrid was one of the highlights of the last 70 odd years at Real Unión, however, it wasn't always that way.

Real Unión are what you might call a fallen football giant. Like Queens Park in Scotland, there was a time when Real Unión challenged for honours. To pass the Stadium Gal in 2011 provokes little or no reaction. In fact, most people who do pass it, probably don't know the name of the local team. However, had you been passing the same ground in 1926, the year of the stadium's inauguration, you'd more than likely have had a fair idea of who its tenants were.

A year after the opening of the Stadium Gal, Real Unión won their third Copa del Rey, defeating Arenas Club Getxo (another fallen giant) in the final. It is the only all Basque final to date. It was one of the highlights of the golden twenties in which Real Unión and their Basque neighbours dominated Spanish football. The club's place in Spanish football history was cemented a year after their third cup win when, along with nine other clubs, they helped found the Spanish Primera División.

As well as being one of the co-founders of the league, Real Unión were also involved in the first ever goal scored in Primera División. Unfortunately for them, they were on the receiving end of a Pitus Prat strike as they fell behind to Espanyol after just five minutes. It wasn't the first time Real Unión had been involved in a historical goal. In 1920, Real Unión player Patricio Arabolaza Aranburu scored the Spanish national team's first ever goal. Real Unión were also the first team to defeat Athletic Bilbao at San Mamés.

Real Unión's success in the twenties was a great achievement but unfortunately it didn't last. As professionalism crept into the game, a team from a small town like Irun just couldn't compete with the clubs from bigger cities. San Sebastian is just 25 kms from Irun and in 1930 striker Garmendia made the short trip to sign for Real Sociedad. A year later, Luis Regueiro moved to the capital to join Real Madrid. A year after that, deprived of their best players, Real Unión finished bottom of the league and were relegated.

The drop was to prove permanent as the club failed to get back into Primera División and soon dropped further to Segunda B then to Tercera and even to regional leagues. Real Unión were joined there by Arenas Club Getxo as the 1927 cup finalists found themselves playing lower league football.

Today, both clubs still find themselves in the lower leagues with Real Unión in Segunda B and Arenas Club in Terecera. The chances of them ever returning to Primera seem slim, to say the least. The same year as their famous cup win over Madrid, Real Unión gained promotion to Segunda, the league directly below Primera. However, they lasted just one season, finishing second last and thus returning to Segunda B.

With the number of Basque teams in the top flight dropping from four to two, it might be reasonable to assume Basque football was declining in importance. However, it was in fact consolidating its dominance as Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao grew at the expense of their smaller neighbours. This is much the same way as Rangers and Celtic have grown at the expense of once successful Glasgow clubs such as Clyde and Queens Park.

Like their Glasgow counterparts, Real Unión might not have returned to cup finals or even to the first division but in much the same way as Clyde and Queens Park, they have popped up every now and again to remind people of their presence.

In the sixties, a young player by the name of Javier Irureta came through the Real Unión ranks before moving to Atlético Madrid. Irureta was a fairly successful player but is perhaps best known for being the manager who led Deportivo La Coruña to their only league success in 2000. A decade later, another young player by the name of Roberto López Ufarte emerged from Real Unión. Ufarte went on to win back to back league titles with Real Sociedad in the early eighties.

In the last ten years, Real Unión have made most of their headlines in the cup. In 2002 they shocked Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey. That was followed up with the aforementioned 2008 victory over Real Madrid. The victory against Madrid was all the more remarkable due to the scoreline. The tie finished 6-6 on aggregate with Real Unión going through on away goals. The second leg was played in Madrid with Real Unión becoming the first team from the third tier of Spanish football to eliminate Real Madrid in the Bernabéu.

With that victory still fresh in their minds, Real Unión prepare to take on cup holders Sevilla. The atmosphere is that of typical midweek cup game and for a moment I feel like I'm back in Broadwood, watching Clyde take on an SPL side. Unfortunately for Real Unión, despite starting fairly well they find themselves 0-1 down at half time and it soon becomes apparent that even a second string Sevilla team is too strong for them. The final score is 0-4, meaning Real Unión are effectively out of the cup despite there still being a second leg to be played.

I leave the stadium a little disappointed that I haven't witnessed a cup shock but happy to have visited such a historic club. They may not attract top players or sponsorship deals but in my opinion teams like Real Unión are as essential to the game as Barcelona or Real Madrid.

Jamie is site editor for one of the best football websites we've visited over the last twelve months and a real house favourite at IBWM.  Don't let that link pass you by if you've never visited.