Anyone walking through Airdrie in the summer of 2000 would have been forgiven for believing they’d stumbled into an alternate universe. The sight of football fans decked out in sombreros and the arrival of the club’s ‘Spanish Armada’ heralded a new era in the club’s history, one spearheaded by Steve Archibald.
Although success followed in the shape of the Challenge Cup, off-the-field trouble soon hit as players and staff were locked out of the stadium by administrators and a Scottish Cup tie was forfeited. Archibald ultimately failed to buy the club and the experiment was over prematurely.
Almost 17 years later, Nutmeg catches up with six of Airdrie’s foreign contingent to hear their stories.
How did your move to Airdrie come about?
Jesus Garcia Sanjuan: I was at home in Spain without a team and Steve Archibald was working with the agency who represented me, Bahia. He was supposedly going to take control of Airdrie and spoke to the company to get some players to move to Scotland.
I was shocked to be honest; I didn’t want to leave Spain and I didn’t think Scottish football was good enough for me. I was playing in La Liga so going to a First Division team in Scotland didn’t seem like a good move.
But it was the end of July, I didn’t have a team and all the teams in Spain were complete so my company said I had to go; they said it was a step back to take a couple of steps forward. They said they needed an answer the next day, and it was a case of playing football in Airdrie or not playing football, so obviously I decided to go.
Javier Sanchez Broto: I was playing at Malaga when my agent spoke with Steve and gave me the opportunity to go to Scotland and play in Airdrie. I didn’t know anything about Scottish football so I spent two or three days thinking about it before deciding to go.
In the end, after three years playing for Airdrie, Livingston and Celtic, it was a great move for me.
Martin Prest: I was playing in Spain when Steve brought me to Scotland where he would be my agent. At first I was on trial at Ayr United but I didn’t pass the trial so I went to Livingston and played one of the best games of my life.
Steve saw the game and said, “Martin, you are not for this level, you are for the Premier League.” He took me to Dundee but I could not perform, and so I moved to Airdrie.
Antonio Calderon: My contract at Lleida had come to an end and although I had a couple of options in Spain, I didn’t like the teams. They were small clubs and I was used to competing for or winning the league.
My agency had a relationship with Steve and he contacted them about taking Spanish players to Scotland. I really wanted to go because I liked British football and that attracted me. The language was also important to me as I wanted to improve my English.
David Fernandez: My agency, Bahia, told me there was a chance to go to Airdrie because they were signing Spanish players. I had spoken to another Spanish player, Luna who was playing for Dundee at the time and it sounded exciting. I had played for big clubs in Spain but I was ready for a change when I was told about Airdrie.
Miguel Alfonso: I remember the possibility of playing in Scotland was considered at the end of the Spanish season, and eventually everything was arranged for me to go to Airdrie. The move was very hard on me, because I had always played football in my city near my family and friends.
What were your first impressions of Scotland and the football club?
JGS: I had been to Scotland some years before for a holiday and I loved its beauty, but when I arrived, Airdrie was voted one of the ugliest towns in the UK! I can’t say a bad word about Scotland though, it was a great move for me and for personal reasons it came at the perfect time and after two or three months, I wanted to stay forever. I love the people, I got my Scottish accent and my team-mates taught me Scottish bad words!
I was living in a hotel near the training ground and stayed there the whole time I was at Airdrie. The other Spanish guys were living with me for a week and then they found flats but I decided to stay on my own and improve my English. I didn’t know I was at the end of my career; I was 29 and thought in five or six years’ time I would be coaching football so I thought English would be a good skill to have.
I was speaking English all the time with the staff in the hotel, and walking to the training ground so it was handy. I was reading the newspapers and watching TV with subtitles and within one or two months my English was very good.
Airdrie had a great stadium, with a passionate crowd – not massive but very passionate. We had to teach them that the Mexican hats were not Spanish but they were trying and it was fun.
We arrived on a Friday night and a week later we played the first game at Inverness but we hadn’t done pre-season training and lost 2-0. The first half was even because we were still fit but after half an hour or 40 minutes we were knackered.
Apart from three or four senior players, the rest of our team-mates were youngsters so as well as being team-mates, I felt like a teacher or a coach for them, because I had a career behind me but they were just starting.
We had very good players, very skilled players and 16 years ago, that wasn’t something people in Scotland were used to.
Steve’s business partner Peter Day was staying in my hotel and we talked a lot. I hadn’t come for the project, I came to play football, but when I saw the stadium and the project, it was much better than I expected.
JSB: Scotland was very different. It is sunny all the time in Spain but in Scotland it is raining! My family was in Spain so I spent all my time with the other Spanish players but I moved to a house in Motherwell once I left the hotel. It was a big change but it was no problem for me.
Steve had big plans and wanted to get Airdrie into the Premier League. It was a small club but they had a big family.
MP: For me it was something new. When I moved to Scotland, it was not normal for there to be lots of Spanish players there. Steve brought the ‘Spanish Armada’ over and after that it was very common for foreign players to go to Scotland.
It was very cold when I first arrived. I had moved in December and it was -4C. We were training in the snow, and I didn’t know if I could do it. But after four or five months I tried to learn English – sorry, Scottish! – after that I had a great time.
The club was very nice, we had a lot of Spanish people there and we won the Challenge Cup. It was a shame that we couldn’t sustain it.
AC: I loved the country a lot. It was summer time when I arrived and I remember the days were very long. I had never been to Scotland before but I loved the countryside and the people were very kind.
The football club was all about its fans, they made the club unique because the passion was amazing. The way they loved the club, that was the most fascinating thing I’d ever seen. Having so many Spanish players was good for us because we could chat together, but it was hard to compete in a league like the First Division with so many Spanish players. It took us a long time to get used to it.
Steve wanted to import the Spanish football style to Scotland and mix that with the Scottish players. I think there were nine Spanish players and maybe that was too many. There were a lot of young Scottish players but I think we needed a couple of more experienced ones.
DF: I loved Scotland. We landed in Glasgow and we were taken to Hamilton where we stayed in a hotel before everyone got their own places, it was a fantastic experience. I had moved with my wife and we were expecting our first child at the time.
We didn’t know much about the club before we got there but the supporters received us with the sombreros and we had an incredible time. It must have been difficult for the rest of the players with all the Spaniards coming in but they were very welcoming.
We spent most of the time together and were like a family really. It was difficult to learn the language because everyone spoke Spanish in the dressing room but we helped each other.
MA: I hadn’t spoken to Steve Archibald until I landed in Glasgow. He met the Spanish players and talked about aspects of Scottish football and the expectations that had arisen with our arrival. I loved the country and the people were very friendly. It helped having other Spanish players in the dressing room as it was the first time I had moved from my home – and our Scottish team-mates helped us settle in.
How did the standard of Scottish football compare to your expectations?
JGS: It wasn’t really what I was expecting, with big centre halves, big forwards, direct football and no midfield! There were some good teams in the division – Livingston and Inverness had good players, but they played direct football.
Now, Pep Guardiola and Barcelona have created a way of playing football where the goalkeepers play with their hands but at that time, we were the only ones doing it. Sanchez Broto played the ball to the centre halves and we built up play. We had to use our midfielders because we had Calderon who was a great player with great skills.
The Premier League was a very good standard, that was different, but even then it was mainly Celtic and Rangers. I remember we played against Dundee United in the League Cup and we were beaten on penalties, but we were far superior than them.
JSB: I loved Scottish football because the ball was always in the area which is so different to Spain because there it is pass, pass, pass, but in Scotland it is direct.
For the keepers it is good because you catch the ball more often and I love direct football. I think La Liga is the best league in the world but if you are a keeper, it is better to play in Scotland.
MP: The experiences I had before I moved to Scotland were in Argentina and in Spain and Spanish football is more technical and in Scotland people like to attack all the time, it is very fast. It is like England but maybe with a little less quality than the English Premier League. For my conditions and my qualities, it was the best league.
The best quality I have – or maybe the only one – was that I was very fast and powerful. In Scotland I found a lot of space and with the football being very direct, it was good. I was tackled a lot more in Scotland, but one thing I say is that in Scotland they tackle hard but never with bad intentions to hurt a player.
AC: The football was very, very competitive. If the players lacked a little quality, the spirit was always there. It was very different to Spain where I was used to a very professional approach. Having played so long in La Liga and the Second Division, going to Scotland with a small club like Airdrie was very different. We had a very nice stadium but I thought the organisation was going to be better.
DF: The football was different, especially coming from a country where it is all about possession, you realise how physical it is in Scotland that you’re not used to. It took a while to settle, but it’s the same sport so it’s just about trying to adapt yourself to the new style. With time, I improved my game and added different things I didn’t have in Spain so I was very pleased.
MA: The level of Scottish football was good. I remember it was very physical, but there were also players who were good technically. It was different to Spain as there the control of the ball is the most important thing in the game, that’s why normally Spanish players have quality with the ball at his feet.
When did you realise the club was in trouble?
JGS: I trusted Steve until the 95th minute. I was 100 per cent behind him because his plans were great and everyone was really, really excited. We were producing results, we won the Challenge Cup and reached the last 16 of the Scottish Cup. We were to play Peterhead who were in the Third Division and we had a good chance to play Celtic or Rangers in the next round, but we couldn’t play the match.
We thought Steve was going to do it but I remember the fans group gave some money to the club in advance. That was the turning point when we were thinking something was wrong. The players weren’t paid in that time; our wages went to pay the administrators to keep the club going. We expected Steve to take full control, it was just a question of money from what he was saying. But I always thought he was trying to run before he could walk.
JSB: When Steve didn’t pay the players I thought it was a bad moment. I remember the pitch was covered in snow and we didn’t have any money so the supporters came to clear the snow because the team needed to play. People wanted to throw us out of our house because we couldn’t pay the rent.
MP: Steve wanted to buy the club and be in charge, but he said he couldn’t do a deal and that he would have to leave. We went to Airdrie because of him and I had a good relationship with him, but it was a shame because we won the cup and had a great team. Airdrie could have been a great project.
AC: I think it was around Christmas time when things started to go wrong when there were delayed payments to the players. We’d had similar problems in Spain with money but in the end you get your salary. So when it happened in Scotland, we thought it would be like in Spain, we would keep on going but then the problems were getting bigger. We had a few meetings but we didn’t expect them to close the doors, that was shocking for us.
DF: It was pretty early, actually. They kept telling us not to worry, that it was a process and that it would take a little longer than they had expected, but it never happened and we got there one day and the club was shut and it went into administration. We had been suspicious and concerned that it would happen but they kept telling us it would get sorted.
MA: Our weekly wages were paid on time but there were delays to some other payments included in our contract. In the beginning, everything proceeded normally until we went to train and we were not being allowed to enter the stadium. We also had problems with the house we were renting, despite the fact we never stopped paying rent.
What happened next?
JGS: Steve called a few of us on the day he said Airdrie were gone, to say we had to have a meeting to decide our future. It was really sad but there was no chance of me going back to Spain. That was in the February and I was totally committed to staying in Scotland.
Airdrie supporters still remember us for everything we did and I would love to have stayed for many years. I did have the chance to come back when the club changed hands – Jim Ballantyne created a new Airdrie and I could have gone back but I decided to retire. My brother is a football manager and if he goes to Scotland, I might go with him as an assistant manager.
It was one of the best times of my career and the best football I ever played. I felt very important, the manager said I was the rock of the team, and that’s great to hear.
I moved to Kilmarnock and loved my time there because it was a proper Scottish team. I then started my golf business the day after I finished my career. We organise trips to Scotland and I spend four or five months of the year in the country.
JSB: Steve said not to worry, that they would transfer all the players. I thought about going back to Spain but we waited and waited because it is your life and in the end it was fine because I moved to another team. Steve said there was the chance for me to move to Livingston and the club needed money so I had to go.
I set up a company called futbolemotion when I was at Airdrie and it is now the top company in Spain for football. We have several shops around the country and sell boots and shirts around the world on the internet.
MP: At that time, the transfer window was open all year so I moved to Ross County. I went there for the last three months of the season and I think I performed well. They extended my contract for another year and after that I moved to Raith Rovers. I had a great experience because we won the Second Division but I said to the manager, Calderon, that I wanted to go back to Spain after five years in Scotland.
Now I am in Malaysia where I am an agent for a football club called Johor Darul Ta’zim. The owner is the Crown Prince of Johor and I’ve been here for four years. I am also doing the job of a manager; I bring all the foreign players but I do many things.
AC: I wanted to stay in Scotland and I was confident that I would find another team but if that hadn’t happened then I would have come back to Spain. I went to Kilmarnock and then to Raith Rovers, and now I am managing a team in Madrid, Fuenlabrada, in the Second Division.
DF: It was around January or even before that when things didn’t go our way. The club went into administration and we went to see what was happening with us. We thought about going back home or maybe staying in Scotland and in the end I thought it was a better to stay and develop as a player.
The Scottish people made us feel very welcome at the beginning, which is a difficult thing to do when people come from a different country to your country. That was one of the things we appreciated and we were actually playing good football, and I enjoyed every single minute of my time there.
I saw Miguel Alfonso two weeks ago and we said if things had been different, we would have loved to have stayed at Airdrie for 10 more years.
I moved to Livingston where we managed to make history [finishing third in the SPL] and without a doubt it was an incredible experience.
I am now a scout for Manchester City and based in La Coruna.
MA: Initially I wanted to go back to Spain but it was complicated because the transfer window had closed and the best option was to find another Scottish team, so I joined Raith Rovers. Despite the bad moments and the problems with the contracts, I was privileged to spent time in Scotland. I now own a sports clothing company that my brother and I inherited from our father, meaning I retain links to football, just from another angle.