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Aston Villa Rob Bishop

You wouldn’t normally expect a White Christmas in Spain – not in October, anyway. But it happened when Villa played Athletic Bilbao in the UEFA Cup in 1997.

A few years earlier I’d enjoyed an impromptu violin performance from the club’s most famous fan Nigel Kennedy on the rooftop the British Consul in Milan. Now it was the turn of a quartet of Spanish crooners to serenade me with Bing Crosby’s timeless festive song – plus Danny Boy and a few other old favourites.

The man responsible for my attendance at this male voice concert was Immanol Guillen, the London correspondent for the Voz de Galicia newspaper. I’d met him when Villa played Deportivo La Coruna in the UEFA Cup in 1993 and we had stayed in touch. Although Immanol wasn't a big football fan, he was visiting his mum in Bilbao around the time of the match, so he suggested that we get together.

He came to our hotel on the morning of the match and, having helped out BBC Radio Five Live with an interview about his home city, proceeded to give me a guided tour of its most famous landmarks, including the spectacular Guggenheim Museum.

Towards lunchtime, we dropped in at a bar for a beer and were joined by a couple of Immanol’s friends before moving on to another bar, and then another. At each one, our gathering grew larger so that when it was time to eat, there were around a dozen of us.

I’d imagined we would end up in one of the many tapas bars around the city, but a table had been booked for our party in the restaurant of the Basque National Party headquarters. As a visiting journalist, I was effectively the guest of honour. I wasn’t allowed to pay a peseta for the sumptuous meal which was served up or for the wine which flowed freely throughout the afternoon. There was no rushing back to work for these boys. They were entertaining a foreign guest and, I have to say, making a magnificent job of it.

After countless bottles of Rioja, four of Immanol’s lawyer friends, who belonged to a male voice choir, decided they should demonstrate their singing prowess, belting out a few of their favourite songs in perfect English.

It was a magical afternoon and I was only sorry I had to excuse myself, turning down several offers of a taxi ride to the San Mames stadium from my new pals, for whom supporting Athletic is almost a religion. The offer was tempting but I hadn’t even packed for the flight home immediately after the game.

After such superb hospitality, it seemed only fair to reciprocate when Immanol and one of his pals came to Villa Park for the return leg two weeks later. Unfortunately, they didn’t arrive until late afternoon so I couldn’t quite match the hospitality I’d received in Spain. They had to settle for a curry at the Balti house just down the road from Villa Park.

Rob Bishop

Rob is the Aston Villa matchday programme editor and the author of Perfect 10 and Road to Rotterdam - Aston Villa FC Champions of Europe 1982.

Follow Rob on Twitter @robbishopavfc

 

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