When Real Sociedad lost at home to Logroñés in the Copa del Rey in December 1999, it was a highly defined embarrassment. Just bobbing below mid-table in LaLiga at the time, Sociedad were defeated by opponents who would be relegated to the third tier of Spanish football at the end of the season. One major plus point sprang from this defeat, however.
Javier Clemente, the much-travelled Sociedad coach, gave Xabi Alonso his first-team debut. The midfielder, having turned 18 less than a week earlier, lasted for 76 minutes, before he was replaced by Juan Gómez. It was his only appearance of the 1999/2000 season. The following campaign was an erratic one for Sociedad. Six games into the new LaLiga season, Clemente had departed the club, to be replaced by Periko Alonso, Xabi’s father.
By early-January, Alonso Snr had also relinquished the role of head coach after a run of ten league games wherein he procured only one victory, sustaining seven losses and overseeing another shock Copa del Rey exit, this time against CD Beasain, a largely unremarkable team from two divisions below Sociedad. Anchored to the bottom of LaLiga and out of the Copa del Rey, in their hour of need turned to one of their former coaches, John Toshack, who returned to the club for the third time.
Observing from a distance, Alonso Jnr had spent the first half of the season on loan at Eibar, but it took no time at all for Toshack to recall the talented playmaker. In just the Welshman’s second game back at the helm, Alonso climbed from the bench to make his LaLiga debut when introduced to the Basque derby against Athletic Club with his team trailing 2-0 and only five minutes left to play.
Within weeks, he had cemented himself a place in the Sociedad midfield. His assured passing, eye for an angle and calm authority belied the fact that he was still just a teenager. He was soon handed the club captaincy by Toshack.
From increasing certainties for relegation, Sociedad lifted themselves to a respectable 13th-place finish. In the penultimate game of the season, Alonso was sent off at San Mamés during the final minutes of a 3-1 victory in the second Basque derby of the season.
While collectively Sociedad failed to build upon their promising end to the previous campaign, for Alonso, a season of personal development was enjoyed in 2001/02. Rarely out of the relegation zone until mid-February, jettisoning Toshack in mid-March, they pulled themselves to safety once again by winning five of their last nine league games, losing only twice. Included in this run was a 3-0 demolition of Real Madrid at Anoeta.
In the summer of 2002, Sociedad brought Raynald Denoueix in as their new head coach. A year on from having led Nantes to the French First Division title, it was a shrewd move.
Alonso was majestic in a midfield he shared with Javier de Pedro, Mikel Aranburu, the veteran Valeri Karpin and, sporadically, Igor Gabilondo. With Darko Kovačević and Nihat Kahveci scoring goals for fun, Sociedad found a stride and momentum that many felt would eventually ebb away. They kept coming, though.
In a toe-to-toe battle with Vicente del Bosque’s Real Madrid, Sociedad led the table for four months, between mid-October and mid-February. When they yielded the top spot with 15 games left to play, nobody really expected them to maintain a realistic vested interest in the title race for much longer.
Alonso was their steadying figure. His influence was crucial, as Sociedad won five of their next six games, inclusive of a 4-2 victory at home to Real Madrid. Despite a narrow defeat at Barcelona, towards the end of April, Sociedad reclaimed the top of the table a fortnight later, with a 3-1 win at Real Mallorca.
With the implausible now suddenly a possibility, two points dropped at home to Valencia and a careless defeat away to Celta derailed what would have been one of football’s greatest stories. The LaLiga title was prised from Alonso and Sociedad’s hands by Real Madrid, a club that didn’t really deserve the soon to be released Del Bosque, or his success.
Ironically, Del Bosque’s departure from the Bernabéu meant that Real Madrid’s interest in Alonso would only be belatedly fulfilled. A year beyond his near-miss on the LaLiga title, Sociedad cashed in on their biggest asset, and with Los Blancos refusing to match the £10.5m bid made by Liverpool, it meant that Spain’s most successful club would be denied the midfielder’s services for another five years, with the eventual cost of the player being almost three times the amount they elected not to pay in 2004.
At Anfield, Alonso honed his unmistakable skills in the maelstrom of a physically relentless Premier League. With less time allowed on the ball and the tackle that octane or two more potent, for a player like Alonso to be able to make it in English football, it is an endorsement that they can make it anywhere. Alonso was gifted with a presence of mind that left him a second or two ahead of his opponents. It was all he needed in the Premier League, while on the Champions League stage it afforded him the time and space to paint footballing pictures.
In 2005, he was the conductor of Liverpool defeating both AC Milan and the odds in the Champions League final, in Istanbul. Inconsistent domestically, Liverpool had looked stunningly adept in Europe. Alonso was particularly crucial on the road, providing invaluable calmness in Turin during the quarter-final second leg against Juventus and at Stamford Bridge when facing Chelsea in the semi-final first leg.
On an iconic night at the Atatürk Stadium, Alonso was the man who put Liverpool on level terms at 3-3 when forcing home the rebound after his initial penalty was saved by Dida. Steven Gerrard might have been a symbolic force of nature during Liverpool’s run to glory in 2005, but none of it would have been possible without the calm assurance of Alonso.
Within a year he had added an FA Cup winners medal to his Champions League one, scoring outlandishly from his own half, away to Luton in the third round, as Liverpool set off on a road to Cardiff that would include victories against Manchester United and Chelsea.
However, Alonso’s relationship with manager Rafa Benítez soon became pressured. The signing of Javier Mascherano saw the Liverpool boss alter the composition of his midfield and Alonso’s strengths were not always played to. Regardless of this, another Champions League final was reached in 2007.
In the summer of 2008, matters reached a defined fork in the road. While Alonso was in Austria, helping his nation to their first major tournament success since 1964, Benítez was making a concerted effort to sign Aston Villa’s Gareth Barry, a move that would have certainly signalled the end of Alonso’s time at Anfield.
Liverpool’s supporters and Alonso’s teammates were incredulous at the prospect of cashing in for Barry, despite the form of the Aston Villa man. Benítez failed to strike a deal, however, and Alonso’s response was to have one of the finest seasons of his career, taking Liverpool perilously close to winning the Premier League title.
His exploits for both club and country turned heads once more at the Bernabéu. In the summer of 2009, he departed Liverpool for Real Madrid. It was a transfer that marked the start of a decline in fortunes for his selling club, yet it was not a transfer he was completely at ease with, as he had come to love both the club and the city. It was, nevertheless, a fitting way to bring the decade to an end, almost ten years on from making his Real Sociedad debut in that inauspicious Copa del Rey loss at the hands of Logroñés.
Both Sociedad and Liverpool had represented the first episode of a two-part act in his career. Real Madrid and Bayern Munich would deliver the second instalment, where he became the definitive finished article of a classic ball playing midfielder.
Throughout the noughties, though, we saw a version of Alonso who was growing into his supreme talent. At Sociedad he was a man within the frame of a boy, while at Liverpool he was emerging into adulthood. LaLiga was his playground in a blue and white shirt, while the Premier League was his higher education in the colours of Liverpool.
English football offered him a five-year learning curve that allowed him to become a midfielder who played with a rare extrasensory perception, a midfielder who would add a World Cup, another European Championship and LaLiga and Bundesliga winners medals to his impeccable collection of honours.
The owner of an absorbent footballing brain, Xabi Alonso is currently cultivating a coaching career. Having trained junior levels at Real Madrid, he has recently taken on the role of head coach of the Real Sociedad B team, who play their football in the regionalised Spanish third tier. A truly irresistible player, it isn’t particularly hard to envisage he will be outstanding as a coach too. How privileged his future pupils shall be.
By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74