Paco Gento and a bookshop in Leeds

Quite a compelling weekend’s action in Spain, with some knife-edge encounters but also the death of Paco Gento, mourned at the beginning of the Elche match in the Bernabéu.  One of Spain’s most iconic players, his fame and influence bestrode two eras – from the post-war crackling radio generation to the emergence of a television public – from the black and white recordings of Real Madrid’s European dominance to the era of colour, or more precisely, from the 1956 European Cup final in Paris to the 1971 Cup Winners Cup final against Chelsea. When his teammate  Alfredo di Stéfano died in 2014 it felt as though something had ended – that tangible mix of pipe-smoke and maleness that characterised the game in general, or the sense, more specifically, that there could never be players like him again, players who stood apart from systems or who refused to be a part of them. But Gento was still standing. There was still something left. 

Fittingly, The Guardian newspaper asked the 90 year-old Brian Glanville to write Paco Gento’s obituary this week, and he obliged with his classic mix of drama and technique, rather like the player he was mourning. Interestingly, while focusing on his speed and his role as a ‘flying winger’, as they were known back then, Glanville made the point that Gento was always frustrated by the limitations of his position, stuck ‘out there’ on the wing.  The player felt that he should have been a wing-half, where he could have had more influence on the game in general – an odd observation for someone so successful.  Perhaps he was the greatest winger of all.  He certainly transcended borders, and was remembered by a pan-European audience. I distinctly remember my father talking about him.  Like all Brits he mispronounced the initial ‘g’, producing a sound like the ‘g’ in ‘gentleman’, which Gento no doubt was. 

When I wrote ‘White Storm’ for the Real Madrid centenary, the British publisher sent me off on a tour of England’s Waterstones bookshops to do some evening talks, sign some copies and find some fish and chips. It was kinda fun. Maybe it was the reading demographic or simply the time of night, midweek, that influenced the turn-outs, but in general the audiences were a mix of middle-aged (men) and pensioners.  Maybe they were just bored and it was better than sitting at home. Whatever, after a few cities I got the hang of it, and in those pre-Powerpoint days I began to notice how the audience would warm to me, the further I went back in Real Madrid’s history. One night, in Leeds, I’d been waxing lyrical about the Real Madrid v Eintracht Frankfurt game in Hampden in 1960, perhaps the most famous of all European finals, with its astonishing attendance of 127,000 cloth caps.  I’d mentioned Gento at some point, and when after the talk I’d left the bookshop to wander back to my hotel, an elderly man pursued me and asked me to stop.  Since his appearance hardly suggested that he was about to beat me up, I did as he bid and was rewarded by his story of having been at the Hampden final with his father 45 years before.  ‘There was Puskas, Di Stéfano, Del Sol….couldn’t believe I was seeing them in the flesh – but the one that stood out was Gento. I was down at pitch level and he was flying up and down my side. Quick as a whippet. Never forgotten it.  Thanks for the memory’ and he wandered off slowly into the Yorkshire evening. Ships that pass in the night, brought together by Gento. 

And there’s more to me and Gento. In the children’s novel I recently finished, the protagonist, an unfeasibly fast galgo from a farm in deepest Castilla La Mancha, is named ‘Paco’ because his old but kindly owner, Faustino, supports Real Madrid and keeps a picture of Gento on his mantlepiece, as a reminder of the good ol’ days. As a retired dog breeder, he knows Paco is the fastest he’s ever seen…..but then it all goes wrong. No spoilers.

Real Madrid, unfortunately, failed to do his memory justice, coming back from the brink yet again to draw a game that they were losing 2-0, to the modest but difficult-to-play Elche.  As in the recent cup game between the two sides, Madrid managed another Houdini act and escaped from the seemingly chained-up chest, this time with a late headed equaliser à-la-Ramos from Militao. When Pere Milla scored the second on 76 minutes you could tell by the players’ reaction that that thought they were home and dry.  But it wasn’t to be. Modric scored a penalty and Benzema missed an earlier one – the first time he’s done so, in fact.  Perhaps the shadow of Gento was a little too long. 

Not to worry though, since Sevilla missed the chance of a catch-up by only drawing (2-2) at home too, in a pulsating affair on Saturday night at home to the much-improved Celta.  Again, to underline the weekend’s pattern, they came back from 2-0 down but have now failed to beat anyone by more than a single goal since the 2-0 at Betis in early November, and of course came out the worse for wear from the infamous cup derby last week, suspended mid-match and replayed the next day. Call me a doubter, but it’s not really Champions League form. Their points haul so far should see them over the line, with Barcelona eleven points behind in 5th place, but they’ll desperately want to stay ahead of their noisy neighbours Betis who are rather on fire at the moment, stuffing Espanyol 4-1 on Friday night in Barcelona. 

The final comeback worthy of mention was of course Atlético’s 3-2 win at home to Valencia, who also chucked away a 2-0 lead. Hermoso’s eventual winner in the 93rd minute sparked scenes of chaos and joy at the Wanda, and may well have saved Simeone’s bacon, given the rumours of squad in-fights, dissatisfaction with the coach’s tactics and general trouble at the mill, sparked by a poor run but also by their elimination in midweek from the King’s Cup at the hands of a vastly superior Real Sociedad.  Twelve players (six from each side) were booked in the game, which at the very least keeps up the reputation of the philosophies of Simeone and Bordalás.  Next up in the league for Atlético (after the break) is Barcelona away, which should be interesting, as should the Champions League tie in the Wanda against Man Utd.  As my gran used to say, ‘No peace for the wicked’. 

Which brings us onto Levante, although I’m not sure how wicked they are.  Their 2-0 home loss to Cádiz was a bit of a hammer blow, coming as it did after the joys of finally winning again the previous week had raised their long-suffering fans’ expectations. Whatever, with one solitary win in 21 games, the only way is up.

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