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Wednesday, 27 August 2014

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Ex-Carlisle Utd ace Zigor’s debt to Spain legend Iniesta

Penalties? Don’t talk to Zigor Aranalde about penalties. Euro 2012 has now reached the point where the infamous shoot-out is likely to settle a game or two, but Carlisle United’s most elegant foreign player has had his fill of the spot-kick roulette for one summer.

Zigor Aranalde photo
Zigor Aranalde

”We were nearly there,” says Aranalde, describing how his first season coaching Albacete in the Spanish third tier came close to glory, until fate intervened during a play-off semi-final against Cadiz.

“We had more over the two games, and should have won the first leg by one or two goals, but when you can’t score, you’re always waiting for the last thing, which is penalties. They [Cadiz] were better than us in the penalties and that was it – we were out, end of story.”

Albacete, where Aranalde once played before embarking on his winding journey to England, may regret that they couldn’t call upon the 39-year-old to size up a shot from 12 yards.

Upon hearing this tale of woe, the memory instantly punched out the sight of Aranalde almost tearing the net with a penalty that saved United’s hide in an FA Cup tie against Grimsby back in 2007: one of many fine left-footed deeds which launched the Basque into a high place in Blues fans’ affections over three happy years.

The journey has now taken him back home – or, more precisely, his wife Begona’s home. After years of wandering Aranalde last summer accepted a job which satisfied both his own yearning to advance a coaching career, and his wife’s wish to move closer to her roots.

This may yet be a temporary arrangement. Asked if he would be tempted to leap back across to his favourite football island and the answer speeds back: “Of course, of course.

“At the moment I am focusing on what I have, but I enjoyed football in England, saw a lot of wonderful places and so many people who treated me fantastically. If I can give that back sometime, I will. There’s no doubt I will be coming back if I can.”

The prospect of England colliding with Spain in the Euro 2012 final requires a couple of big leaps of faith but it is realistic enough to make a conversation with Aranalde too tempting to resist, four years after his time with United ended.

“If I could choose, I would choose that final,” he says, as a man who does not share some of his fellow Basques’ dislike of the Spanish flag. “My wife is Spanish and my son also. If my country was able to compete in tournaments I would support them but I am happy to support Spain. Plus the Spanish team always has very good Basque players [Xabi Alonso being one].

“I would put Spain as the favourites to win the tournament because of the way they play. Individually and collectively they are a lot better [than England]. But of course England have the players to win any game, and anything can happen in one match.”

Aranalde would be forgiven a little extra loyalty towards one member of Vicente Del Bosque’s stellar team. Albacete are not an especially wealthy concern, with a recent history of debt problems, and were grateful last season for the investment of 420,000 Euros from Andres Iniesta, the pocket genius who won the World Cup for La Furia Rioja and remains among the game’s greats.

“At the beginning of the season he bought some shares and sponsorship as well,” Aranalde says. “It was important. The club needed the money and I hope he will continue.

“Before he went to Barcelona at 13-years-old he was coming through the ranks at the Albacete academy. That is his connection, so he belongs to the club. He does not often come but for the club and its image this is important.”

Since leaving his chief scout’s post with Brighton a year ago Aranalde has moved further into a place where balance sheets and turnover will govern his working life. Mainly, though, it has been tracksuit time for ‘Ziggy’, who has assisted his friend Antonio Gomez in their bid to have Albacete climbing again after some years on the skids.

A promising season featured a dramatic two-legged King’s Cup win against the giants of Atletico Madrid (who would later claim the Europa League) and a fourth-placed finish in Segunda Division B, before the play-off misfortune.

“I am like the bridge from the manager to the players,” he says. “My role is to be close to them. Last season I enjoyed a lot and I have a lot of experiences now, all positive.

“It’s a bit different from the scouting job, which I also enjoyed, and I will always be in touch with Gus [Poyet, the Brighton manager] for giving me that chance. So it was a difficult decision to leave but I was coming home with a good mate and it felt like a right decision.”

Asked to discuss his style and manner on the training ground and Aranalde delves into his long history of working under a range of coaches and managers, many of them English. One managerial idol stands above all others. His identity may or may not surprise United’s supporters.

“For me, Neil McDonald was the best manager I had in England in my whole nine years there,” he says of the one-season boss who was sacked in 2007.

“He was a direct man, who would tell you everything to your face, which is something you remember when you meet people in the future. You will always shake hands with people who are like that.

“His footballing ideas were good. I still do not understand why he got sacked. But the main reason is the way he is. It is a quality I like in anybody.”

This title-winning contributor to United’s rise under Paul Simpson six years back now finds himself preparing a side at the same tier as the Blues. The parallels and differences are equally stark. When Aranalde talks about Albacete’s thin budget and battle for bigger crowds, he could still be strolling into Brunton Park.

When he then hits upon the Spanish style of playing, he is just as plainly discussing his own land.

“In our division, we are one of the biggest clubs,” he says. “We have been in the top league on a few occasions and should be fighting for promotion. After the previous season, which was very bad, we had 2-3,000 people, but the average is now nearer 5,000, with 11-12,000 for some matches. If we manage to be near 10,000 next season that will be good. But Spanish is not the same as English football. People don’t come to the stadium in the same way.

“The football is different. There will always be more passing in Spanish football than English. Everybody wants to think that every Spanish team plays like Barcelona, which is not possible, and there are some that play direct football in the lower divisions. But nobody plays direct football like the English.”

Since Aranalde left Carlisle the garlands have continued to be thrown. In a recent edition of FourFourTwo magazine he was nominated as the Blues’ finest-ever foreign player. He sounds thrilled to be informed of this, and then spins it into something useful he can apply to his coaching life.

“That is amazing,” he says of the honour, “and it tells me that people appreciated that I was a player who was working all the time, who put everything in. I always tell my players you have to work. After that, the prize will come. If you are a good worker that is the main thing.”

When the Spanish season ended, Aranalde hopped on a plane and returned to one of his favourite old English haunts: Walsall’s Banks’s Stadium, for a charity game against a team of Wolves old boys. His hero status in the Black Country is similar to that in Cumbria and the silvering old defender cheered his former fans with a goal.

“Just inside the box, with the left foot,” he says, cheerfully. “I enjoy it a lot, mainly because we beat Wolves. That’s why I come..!

“I joke, I joke. A very good friend of mind who has been my sponsor which I came to England organised a charity match against cancer. It was good to have a day and a half to go and play and see people. It was all positive.

“I do look out for Carlisle also, of course I do. I know the club had a very good season. They just missed out in the end but on the money the club has, it will always be very difficult to get into the top position. I spoke to Dolly [physio Neil Dalton] sometimes last season and I must speak more with Greg [Abbott].”

There will always be a pocket of admirers who wish that he might return to the club, one day. Zigor in the dugout? Why not, the man says, but reality for now keeps him contentedly under the Spanish sun.

“I’m happy anywhere I can work,” he says. “My son Asier is 11 now and in the academy here [at Albacete]. It is a place I lived before and is easy to settle. But I was also happy last year, and you know how happy I was in Carlisle.

“I am always focused on what I have at the moment, my role. I’m gathering experience, getting to know how hard the job is, having the chance to develop my abilities. Maybe in the future I become a manager, or maybe I stay with my mate [Gomez] all my life. I just want to be ready for anything.” Penalties presumably included.

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