And, we’re back again……

Following trips to Austria and Portugal, Eddie and his lads will finish off their pre season programme with a couple of back to back home friendlies versus Italian side, Atalanta and our old friends from the Basque Country, Athletic Bilbao.

First up, this Friday evening (19.45) it’s Atalanta. 

Full name: Atalanta Bergamasca Calcio 

Colours: Black/Blue striped shirts. Black shorts & socks. 

Stadium: The 21,000 occupancy Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia. Based in Bergamo, Lombardy.

League: Serie A. (Finished a healthy 8th last season)

Head Coach: Gian Piero Gasperini

Player Profile: Probably the best known player for Mags is Colombian forward, Duván Zapata. Standing at 6’2”, he has been with Atalanta since 2018; firstly on loan, then as their player following a stint at Napoli. In all competitions, he has scored an impressive 66 times in 126 appearances for the Nerrazurri. The fast and physical striker is one of a myriad of players ‘linked’ with a move to SJP this summer, and will be worth watching.

Trivia: Atalanta’s main rivals are nearby Brescia. Animosity between the two cities goes back to the Middle Ages (!), when armed paggas were the norm. The match is known as the ‘Derby Lombardo’ and regularly sees naughtiness between the two groups of supporters. This most infamous example of this in recent times was back in 1993, when a game had to be halted three times as they went to war in the stands. Twenty supporters were hospitalised; a few, with serious injuries. I reckon Danny Dyer should get himself over there.

On Saturday at 3pm we face Athletic Bilbao.  

Full name: Bilboko Athletic Kluba (Basque) Athletic Club de Bilbao (Spanish) 

Colours: Red/White striped shirts, Black shorts & socks.

Stadium: San Mamés (53,300 capacity)

League: La Liga (also 8th last season)

Head Coach: Ernesto Valverde

Player Profile: Iñaki Williams. The 6’ 1” Spanish/Ghanaian striker has been with the club since 2014, scoring 53 times in 272 appearances. During that period, he managed a consecutive run of 224 games. Nee Callum then!  Bizarrely, for a player with such average stats, Williams signed a nine-year contract in August 2019, with his release clause set at €135 million!  Sounds like an Ashley deal, on stilts!

Trivia: Athletic are a club steeped in English history.  An industrial port town which many migrant workers flocked to, it’s believed that Southampton and Portsmouth folk were responsible for bringing the ‘beautiful game’ to the shipyards there. Bilbao FC was formed and later became ‘Athletic’.

Originally, donning the Blue & White halves of Blackburn Rovers, a young student returned from England having managed to get his hands on 50 Southampton kits. The colours have been the same ever since.

They’ve also had success with English managers at the helm. Whilst an Edwardian Newcastle United was tearing it up here, Midlanders Fred Pentland and then, William Garbutt had the Basques flying in the 20’s and 30’s.

Alongside Barca and Real Madrid, Athletic are the only clubs never relegated from the Spanish top flight, since its inception in 1929.

Those of us in our middle years look affectionately towards Bilbao, having locked horns with them in a UEFA Cup tie back in 1994. In typical Magpie fashion, an Andy Cole inspired United were playing them off the park, three up and coasting.

A ‘Mexican wave’ rippled around St James’ and the game finished 3-2.  In the return leg, we suffered a 0-1 reverse (natch) and were dumped out on the ‘away goals’ rule.  However, the main thing about this tie was that there was a strong bond forged between both sets of supporters.

Having been received with open arms in the pubs of Tyneside, the Bilbao support went home, told their pals and reciprocated when a few thousand Mags visited their place.

Alongside, Feyenoord away, it remains my biggest 90’s Euro travel regret that I did not attend this one.

Here at True Faith, we know a few Los Leones supporters.  I met and deposited a ticket to a Bilbao lad outside the away end at Anfield back in 2018.

Another example of our friendship is @Julen_Iza. A Basque lad I know who is primarily Bilbao, but very much a Mag too.  Due to a pal’s wedding he can’t make it this Saturday and is suitably gutted!

I’m no lover of friendly matches, but have plumped for the Saturday fixture with my boys, and am looking forward to getting back into the NE Mecca of English football.  It’s worth looking back a year, when only 20,000 hardy souls dragged themselves to a similar pre season kick-a-bout with (then) Premiership rivals, Norwich City.

It was preposterous, playing such opposition, but frankly those were the times.  We were shite, with an ‘out of office’ owner and a stumblebum in the dugout, possessing more air miles than football nous.

I think it’s a good exercise for all to recall the moribund atmosphere enveloping the club twelve months ago. Then march into SJP, watch the flags flutter and listen to the lusty support from the stands. We’re a club reborn, so drink it in.

I’ll be back next week to preview the serious stuff, as Forest come to town. In the meantime, enjoy your weekend and Howay the Lads….

Nick Clark – @Clark5Nick