Saturday 15 December 2018

Emery carries the hopes of his homeland as he bids to bring Arsenal back to the top

Football is in the blood of new manager's family and Basque hometown is his biggest supporter, writes Jeremy Wilson

Arsenal manager Unai Emery. Photo: Reuters
Arsenal manager Unai Emery. Photo: Reuters

A global audience in the hundreds of millions will tune in tomorrow for the start of a new era at Arsenal and the biggest single spike in viewers can be safely expected on the Basque border of Spain and France.

Hondarribia is Unai Emery’s stunningly picturesque hometown and you do not need long speaking with residents to discover that most of the 16,000 population became overnight Arsenal fans on the day that a first new coach for almost a quarter of a century was confirmed.

Jose Maria Olazabal is a second sporting celebrity to call this most northern seaside Spanish town home but, with Emery’s mum Amelia, brothers Koldo, Andoni and Igor still in residence, as well as other relations and childhood friends, pretty much everybody is personally acquainted with a family drooling in football heritage.

“It is a little town – just one football club,” says Alex Arieta, a close friend of Emery (right) for 40 years. “Everybody knows everybody. He is back when work allows. Usually Christmas, although not this year but I think we will see him in September during the international break.” The timing could not be better.

The first weekend without Premier League fixtures will coincide with the annual parade to celebrate the 1638 Siege of Hondarribia when 27,000 French soldiers surrounded the town, fired 16,000 shells and left only 300 survivors.

Hondarribia might have been largely destroyed but its people would never surrender.

September 8 was the day that Spanish soldiers prevailed and bestowed a motto that has endured over almost four centuries: Muy noble, muy leal, muy valerosa y muy siempre fiel (very noble, very loyal, very courageous and always very faithful).

“It’s the big day,” explains Mikel Jauregui, another resident who was Emery’s coach as a young player.

“It is a festive military parade with a lot of colour that people live with a lot of emotion. Hondarribia is a border town with France and the Bidasoa River separates the two countries.

“For many centuries it was a place for all the kings who ruled there. It was a walled city with great strategic value. Periodically, the French would try to seize it.”

Thousands converge for the parade and, with its dramatic scenery and strong sense of community, it is obvious why this is a place that many never leave.

And it is in the wider Gipuzkoa province that the family’s football history can be traced. Emery’s grandfather Antonio was twice a winner of the Copa del Rey during the 1920s for Real Union, a Basque club who were among La Liga’s founders and famously defeated Real Madrid in the 1924 final.

Emery’s uncle Roman, 89, was also a professional and his father Juan, who died three years ago, played for teams including Deportivo La Coruna, Granada and Logrones.

From the age of seven, Emery had played with Arieta and a talented group of boys who would train at every opportunity whether on the beach, street or town’s pitch.

This crop were virtually unbeatable locally and also included Kote Pikabea, who would also become a professional at Real Sociedad.

“We would take the bus to play around the region,” says Arieta. “Unai’s father was a great influence – he knew what it took in terms of training, discipline and rest.”

Jauregui was their coach from the age of 13. “Unai was technical, left-footed, good driving with the ball and had good vision,” he says.

“In his beginning, he was physically fragile but he compensated with his technical qualities.

“His biggest flaw, something he always recognised, was that he was not competitive enough. He was better in training than in games. He was rarely able to extract all his talent.

“ Over time, he was able to turn that into a virtue. He learnt from his deficiencies. That is one of his great qualities as a coach.”

Jauregui, who would later work as Emery’s assistant at Valencia and CSKA Moscow, describes his friend as “cheerful, positive, hard-working, tenacious, passionate and persistent”.

His emergence as a coach began in his late teens. “From that age, he was beginning to have a more global vision of soccer; he stopped looking at himself and liked to discuss with coaches why things were done,” says Jauregui.

Arieta can also recall how Emery became interested in books about the psychology of a team.

Emery remains a prolific reader and, while football is all-consuming, he also finds time to relax by playing paddle tennis. He and wife Luisa have a 15-year-old son, Lander.

Emery, 46, has already overseen more than 700 matches in management, from beginning at Lorca Deportiva, who he guided to the second tier of Spanish football for the first time in their history, to UD Almeria, who he took up into La Liga through to Valencia, Spartak Moscow, Sevilla and Paris St-Germain.

In five seasons at the latter two clubs, he won theEuropa League three times, the French League and the French Cup twice.

Yet it was his four previous years at Valencia where, with the club forced to sell their best players, three finishes of third behind only Real Madrid and Barcelona were arguably an even better achievement.

“He has always been a close person with people; humble and hardworking, to whom nobody has given anything,” says Jauregui.

“Everything he has achieved has been on his own merits. He was not given an elite team for being a top player.

“He started in modest teams and, with a lot of talent and dedication, little by little, has managed to be one of the best coaches in the world. That’s why we’re all very proud of him.”

What struck Arsenal’s chief executive Ivan Gazidis most during his interview was Emery’s preparation, right down to knowing everything about the club and how he would improve even the most peripheral players.

“He is very meticulous, he does not like to miss any details and leaves nothing to chance,” says Jauregui.

And so, what do they expect at Arsenal? “He is an expert at optimising the resources of the team and making players progress,” says Jauregui.

“He is excited to train a historic club like Arsenal and has a great sense of responsibility.”

Arieta also underlines a need for patience and the depth of a journey to PSG and now Arsenal that started with clubs in the lower reaches of Spanish football. “Arsenal have got a great coach and a very good man,” he says. “Give him time and he will take them to the top.”

One especially striking aspect of Emery’s background is the comparison with a younger Arsene Wenger.

He has arrived at Arsenal at an almost identical age, not by virtue of his playing reputation but a career in coaching that is indelibly shaped by a family’s pure love of football and simple, strong and unbreakable community values. Emery has earned this chance.

© Daily Telegraph, London

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