On March 14th, 2010 at 8 PM, Alonso Olano played against Valladolid and won 4-1.
Confusingly enough, on the same day at 4 PM, Alonso Olano played against Espanyol. The final score? 4-1.
Real Madrid and Xabi Alonso had won. Tenerife and Mikel Alonso had won too.
Mikel Alonso is a player who has seen both the bright sides and the dark sides of football. He is a Sociedad graduate and played with them till he was 27. He has seen Sociedad come second in the league. He has seen Tenerife relegated twice in two years. He has even had two spells in English football. And after a two-year break from the sport he is back at Real Unión, in the form of his life – at the age of 35.
More importantly, he has never been happier playing football. It has been quite the career, one which has seen the ups and downs of football - for both sporting and non-sporting reasons.
And so, in an exclusive interview, I talked to Mikel Alonso to find out more.
When did you make the decision to pursue football and what motivated you to do so?
I don’t think that I ever took a decision about it consciously. But I love football. It’s the thing that makes me happier - it’s like flying! But I never thought about it as a job. Things came naturally - I played well and professional teams got interested. At first I was a bit scared of making it a job. I mean, it’s great being paid for it, but I didn’t want to play because of the money. I was 18 years old and was quite romantic and idealistic.
What was the experience like when you played for Sociedad for the first time?
All your life you’ve been playing against very small audiences and suddenly one day they put you in front of a crowd of 25,000. You want to run and escape - the fear of making a big mistake is massive. When I received the ball, it felt like a fish on my feet.
How would you describe your time at the San Sebastián?
I couldn’t be more proud of those years. I was playing for Real Sociedad - it was fulfilling a big dream. There were good games, and victories, and I am grateful. But looking at it from a distance, I suffered too much instead of enjoying. I put too much weight on my shoulders, and I would even say that I was too fearful. Many times, it was a torture to go out and play. I wish back then I had a bigger smile rather than a contrite gesture of big responsibility.
I must ask - how did you manage to learn such fantastic English in just a year?
I love languages. When I arrived in England I tried to hang out with English people and I devoured English literature. I even enrolled in a Chinese course in Manchester University. It was fun. But I would say that my English is not so good. Hopefully I can improve myself much more.
You had an offer to join Swansea and Roberto Martínez and trained there - what made you change your mind and join Tenerife?
To be honest I wasn’t in very good shape back then. Real Sociedad had sacked me with an employment regulation order, and I stayed for two months with the Swansea team. I was frankly disorientated. My motivation was low. I was even thinking about not playing any more. Swansea never offered me a contract.
And then, at the end of winter transfer market, Tenerife called and it was like a second chance, and at a sunny place! We managed to play great football and I even gained confidence and motivation again. But sometimes I was very hard on myself and my performances and that didn’t help.
How would you describe your experiences in England - both at Bolton and at Charlton?
I was never able to adapt myself to the game and even to the clubs. I felt very relaxed, living in the city (I lived in Manchester when playing with Bolton and in London with Charlton), and I think my performances could have been better than they were. Some bad injuries didn’t help me, but I always say injuries come very frequently to a troubled mind and I wasn’t calm and confident in my game - and injuries come at those moments.
At Bolton, I was signed by Sammy Lee. I’m very grateful with the chance he gave me, but he was sacked soon. It was a difficult year, we had many players and many rotations. At the end it was sad. I wish it had been a more successful year and I could have had the chance to show more of my quality. But I’m very grateful to have stayed there and I learned a lot with different teammates, trying to adapt to the English mentality - especially because it’s a different spirit compared to Spain - and to the universal language of football.
At Charlton, everything went wrong from the beginning. I joined the club late, then I had a very bad ankle injury. When I recovered the team was doing very well in the league and it was difficult to get into the team. I tried to learn and to adapt. Just like Bolton, the people in the club, the manager - everybody was great, and I’m thankful for that year. I was sad I couldn’t show the best of me, but as I said before I was too worried, I didn’t enjoy what I was doing, and again I was being too hard with myself. That never helped me in my performances. What a stadium it is though, The Valley. What a fantastic crowd! It’s a pity I couldn’t enjoy that. I played just one game, against Brentford. I was back from my injury and it had been a long time without playing. I think I performed terribly, committed a penalty, and never had a chance to play again.
What made you take a two-year hiatus from football and did you ever think about pursuing football again at the time?
When the Charlton experience finally ended I was hearing The Doors song in my head - "This is the end…". I declined various offers, even a chance to play with a Brazilian club. But I was exhausted, I didn’t enjoy it. It made no sense to go on. Then I had dinner with a friend who now is the manager of Chilean club Deportes Antofagasta, Beñat San José, and he told me: "Lay down that whip you are beating yourself with… You say you don’t, but you love football".
But there was something wrong in my head and I was worrying about unimportant things. So I started training with Real Unión at home, not competing on weekends, trying to enjoy it and be happier with myself. More offers came, but I decided to keep training. At the end of the year, New York Cosmos offered me the chance to train with them. I didn’t sign and thought again that it was the end, so I stayed in New York for six months without playing. I did seek professional help to fight some demons and went to therapy, and I’m still in it. When I came back to San Sebastián, I started playing with my school friends and it was a great experience, liberating. I felt a great team spirit in amateur football. One might say that I had already retired after two years without competing!
In that summer Real Unión made me an offer. The president, Ricardo García, had trust in me, even after I had gone so long without playing. I feel grateful to him. I felt more confident, I wanted to enjoy and decided that I didn’t have much to lose. I think the therapy was helping me a lot too.
Over the past two years you’ve played in multiple midfield positions - which one do you feel most comfortable in?
I think that I can adapt myself quite well to many systems in the midfield, but because of my abilities, I perform better when I have freedom and space. I mean, I would consider myself a good box to box player. I think I have the tactical and technical abilities, and the strength and the endurance for it.
Real Unión are in the promotion playoff places - do you think the team can make it to La Segunda?
Definitely. But we must be very humble. Every game is very hard to win, and we must give our best to have chances. If we don’t work well, we’ll be very far from it.
What are your plans for the future?
It’s a good question! But I’m working on it right now. I like writing, I might try to become a manager, and I have dreams in my head. But what I desire most is to go out to the grass, to the football pitch. My legs are still strong, they are quite fresh because of that hiatus I guess. They are not worn out like those of a veteran, and I feel more mature. In my head I’m doing the most important thing - what I didn’t understand why I couldn’t do for so long - and that is to enjoy. That is the biggest victory of my comeback.
What do you do in your free time?
I love reading - my house is full of books. I’m quite a creative person, so my free time is an ongoing search of new activities, courses, learnings of all type. I finished my MA in Philosophy some months ago, and now I’m training in Sign Language. I love writing too.
Anything I haven’t covered and you would like me to mention?
Yes. Just one piece of advice for young players. Players, all of us, are very selfish, but it is much better to play for the team.
A huge thank you to Mikel Alonso for taking the time out to do this.
A quick comment on the interview:
Before this interview, I thought I was exploring Mikel Alonso’s life and his career.
At the end, though, I got to know so much more about a personality which stands timeless in the face of adversity. A person who just doesn’t want to play football - but enjoy it too.
A brilliant philosophy - from a brilliant man.