Football and Friendship
Football was an important part of life in the Oakley Park and Rollesby colonies, providing the boys with a welcome distraction from the news from Spain and the chance to socialise with the local community and make new friends.
The short passing style of the Basque players often proved too much of a challenge for local teams. The boys played a number of football matches where, according to the Diss Express, they beat Hoxne three times, including a game where they won 3-2 in a ‘thrilling struggle.’
They also played Brome and Oakley, with the Basques falling behind in the first match: ‘With the lead it was only natural that the Brome and Oakley 11 should give of their utmost to maintain it, and likewise the lads from the land of the olive to strain their footballing souls to get on terms’. The Basques won after ten minutes of extra time. Their final game in Suffolk was played in very wet conditions against Brome and Oakley at the Rectory ground. They lost 6-2. One newspaper reported: ‘The larger pitch and heavy ball affected the play of the Basques, who were unable to get going with the short passes for which they are renowned.’
Basque Boys Make An Impression
In their two months at Rollesby, the boys played numerous games against the local villages. The boys’ football impressed local observers, with one journalist noting: ‘Their canny footwork is the result of the Spanish rule banning shoulder charging. Jose Luis Bilbao is a marvellous goalkeeper for his age and an eye is being kept on him with a view of making him a professional’.
Taking note, Norwich City manager Bob Young donated a ball and blue kit to the boys and, although there’s no record of the boys attending any City matches, it is well known that Poppy occasionally took some of them into the city and had them run errands for her.
Certain stereotypes of English football (muscular, big, used to muddy conditions) and Spanish football (skilful, canny footwork, short passing) emerge in contemporary match reports, with one describing a loss of 4-3 to a Filby team: ‘The standard of the Spaniards’ football was far higher than that of Filby, who were stronger and heavier than the foreign lads’. This suggests that brute strength and size overcame Spanish skill.
Background image: The Basque Boys at Wellesley Road, Boxing Day 1937. Right to left from Backrow: E. Aldecoa, F. Arana, F. Pérez, W. Barrutia, B. Lopez, J. Treco, A. Altube, J. Ibarra, A. Fernández, E. Ochoa and J. Ibarra. Used with kind permission of the BCA’37 UK. The Association for the UK Basque Children.
Support for the Basque Boys
The highlights of the boys’ football games in Norfolk were the two games against Great Yarmouth Boys at Wellesley Road, both of which were watched by crowds of over 1,000. The first match in October finished with a score of 8-2 to the Spaniards, with Francisco Pérez scoring six goals. One local paper reported: ‘The Basque boys, playing in blue shirts given to them by Norwich City had brought with them not only 30 refugees but a large part of the village of Rollesby as supporters.’
Even though the Basque Boys left the Rollesby colony in November, twenty of them were invited back by local families over the Christmas period. This led to a ‘re-match’ between the Basque Boys and Great Yarmouth Boys on Boxing Day 1937 at Wellesley Road, with the Basque Boys winning 9-0.
Most of the Basque child refugees had returned home to Spain by late 1939 when the Second World War broke out, but about 400 remained in Britain, including Emilio Aldecoa from the Rollesby colony, and the Gallego brothers from the Pampisford Colony in Cambridge.
Aldecoa and the Gallego brothers went on to have careers as professional footballers. José and Antonio Gallego played for a variety of League clubs, including Norwich City and Cambridge United. Emilio Aldecoa played a single game for Great Yarmouth Town before his footballing career took him to Wolves, Coventry, Athletic Bilbao, and Barcelona, where he gained a champion’s medal as well as an international cap for Spain. He returned to England in 1960 to coach Birmingham City, where he was assistant manager for two years.