Ronnie Allen - and President Oraa - rebuilt the sliding Athletic Bilbao league side in six short months. It was a football miracle in view of the alarming decline of the club's fortunes since 1956. Allen said: "We (the club and public) did it alone," meaning, significantly, without the support of the local Vasco press.
The truth of the widely reported and exaggerated breach between club and press, obtained from my talks with both president and manager, is simple and clear. The Bilbao board decided to reconstruct the club on English lines. No English club allows players to give press interviews without managerial clearance, so it was agreed to adopt the same policy at Bilbao. In any case had Ronnie Allen been lukewarm about making such a revolutionary change for Spain so soon--which he wasn't--the impossible conditions he found on arrival would have altered his mind.
For years it had been the custom at Athletic Bilbao for journalists, photographers and others to mill around the dressing room before a match, during the interval and afterwards. On match and training days the dressing room was, in fact, a social centre. Allen found, not surprisingly, that such intrusion upset the players, handicapped the manager and interfered with match preparation.
To quote a few problems: Players found difficulty in limbering up and were made nervous by incessant questions and feeble conversation. The manager had no opportunity of giving last-minute match instructions and no chance to change tactics or give pep talks during the interval. The trainer was impeded in his work and unable to give satisfactory attention to injuries during half-time. And ... after match cross-examination of tensed-up players by journalists brought ill-considered on the spot opinions and comments which reflected upon club and players alike. "'The whole set-up was a shambles," was how Ronnie described it.
In view-of this situation the Board and Allen evoked Rule 94 of the Football Federation of Spain's regulations "prohibiting all unauthorised persons from entering the dressing rooms, at all times, except directors and Federation members".It was not unreasonable ... and later the same FA regulation was implemented by other clubs. But what upset the Vasco press more than anything else was what reporters describe as "the banning of free diffusion of information" ... i.e. interviews with players.
The truth is that no player was ever banned from talking to the press .... merely that before giving interviews permission must be obtained from the manager. The differences first arose during the season's inaugural press conference given by president and manager. Allen explained that he would always be available----except during actual training sessions into answer any questions the press required answering.
"All the news and information I have, is available to the press at any time," he said.
Came the vital question: "Can we Interview players?"
Allen answered: "Yes ... but you must first ask permission of the manager. I assure you that there will be no difficulties or problems, except when a player's relations with the club are concerned and where an interview would be detrimental to the club's interests or the player's private life."
It was the qualification to which the press took exception. They didn't want to seek permission ... felt it an intrusion of their rights ... and demanded free interchange between player and reporter at all times and on all subjects.
When Allen, with President and Board's support, refused to give way on the "exception" proviso, the Bilbao press broke relations and declared vacations as far as the club and its activities were concerned. And Allen, of course, took the full blame.
Let me, in fairness, clarify this point. The deadlock concerns only the local press. The national newspapers, sports papers and the press of towns visited by Atletico Bilbao hold nothing against the club or Allen. On the contrary, Allen's views are sought, and freely given, wherever he goes. So are the President's. And, to his credit, Ronnie Allen has kept to his decision and fulfilled his word. Interviews with full-back Echeberria, internationals Iribar and Rojo, the brilliant Clemente and others have appeared in the national and sporting press. Recently President Oraa was asked: "Don't you think that for everyone's sake, the problem should be solved?" He replied: "Yes indeed. But the initiative is with the press. The club is always ready to co-operate with everyone in the interests of the game."
In view of the dearth of news about the club public reaction might well have been a problem. Instead supporters clubs and general public lined up enthusiastically behind Atletico Bilbao and Allen, as seen by their methods of expressing loyalty. Boxes of matches bearing the slogans "Ronnie, we are with you" ... "Atletico for Ever".... "Allen, Yes. Press, No" ... are sold in the shops; cars with stickers carrying the same sentiments are seen everywhere in the city streets, and at every match similar encouraging banners appear. Measures spontaneously inspired by the club's supporters.
This then is how the situation remains. The club standing firm on its policy ... the Vasco press still fighting for the somewhat encroaching principle they call "free Information without managerial interference".
Although all this started as a local rumpus, its effects are being felt elsewhere. Seville's Max Merkel has introduced the "no talking without permission" rule ...Real Mallorca have evoked Rule 94 ... the press are a little worried ... and considerable thinking is going on in higher circles. With the League side sails set for triumph --if not the Championship, credit and prestige--the Board have already begun implementing other phases of the reconstruction. The most important Is what Allen calls "coordination of player development".
Work is already well under way on his central training centre which will include three full-size playing pitches (two all-weather) ... a special gymnasium... ultramodern infirmary facilities and equipment... lecture rooms ... private cinema, etc. Land has been acquired eight miles from San Mamés by road ... but when a new Corporation mountain tunnel is completed, that distance will be cut to three miles. The initial cost will be 36 million pesetas (£216,000), but with 40,000 attendances at each home game Atletico are one of the few clubs not short of money. An interesting-and perhaps unique in the world---fact, is that although San Mamés holds 42,000, the club's membership is close on 25,000, an idea of the support Atletico receive.
The training staff has been increased to six and a team of scouts appointed. Allen intends to find promising players and juveniles and develop them through various stages until they reach League standard. Already he has 150 under his care. Allen's point of view is: "So many have obviously been lost and neglected because of the gap between juvenile and other levels ... the lack of continuous development ... and the absence of an overall plan in modern methods of training and coaching."
How long will all this take? "If we see results in three years I shall be more than satisfied," says President Oraa. "Sooner than that," insists Ronnie. And he might well be right. His juvenile side has already won the Provincial title ... scoring 89 goals, four against, in 15 matches.
It's a farsighted plan. Perhaps not all that new to the great clubs of the world, but amazingly revolutionary for Spain.
This article originally appeared in the April 1970 edition of World Soccer.