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Hinchas y Jugadores - An exclusive interview with Mikel Alonso (4th May, 2017)

I interviewed Mikel Alonso in December 2015, where he opened up about his hiatus from professional football. You can read it here.

He agreed to a second interview, where I ask some more questions about his experiences as a footballer.

This is that interview.

Before Real Sociedad, you were playing for Antiguoko. This is an academy that has produced amazing footballers such as yourself, your brother, Mikel Arteta, etc. What is it that differs it from other academies? Did you see anyone play there who you knew were going to be playing top level football - apart from yourself, of course!

We worked a lot on technique and skills. It was a different kind of academy. The coaches made all the difference - Iñigo Santin, Pitu, Txurun, Oscar, Kepa Estebanez and many others. They loved this game and show us how to love it and understand it. We tried to look at the big picture of various game situations. They were inspirational. The managers were really passionate and tried to pick the best players in the area. There was a great taste in the way they encouraged us to play football; they wanted us to pass, pass, pass. To treat the ball carefully, to have resources. Many players have been playing top level from that school. Not just Aduriz, or Arteta, or Xabi and me. Think about Aduriz, Iraola or many others. But there were others such as Azpilicueta, Olondris, Fagoaga, Altuna, Saizar, Careaga and so on….To be honest there were so many good players, quality players. We always dreamed of being a professional at Antiguoko, and playing together professionally when the time to depart (each one had to take his own path after Academy years finished) arrived.

Not just that, to play top level you must be lucky; it’s not just to have the talent. There were so many players those years, in that academy enough talented to have played top level. It was easy to play as a kid alongside such talented friends.

How supportive were your parents about a career in football?

My parents always focused us in saying that the most important thing was to study. My father knew too well that put all your effort in being a professional is too dangerous, because you must be lucky. And apart from that, football finishes soon. I think they were too conscious that the footballer life is something too precarious and they tried to tell us to focus in study, in being good people ready for real life, that is outside of football - to study or to have a job. That doesn't mean they didn't want us to play and to enjoy and give our best (football is very educational, a great school of life), but they didn’t want us to put all our lifelong expectations in there.

Last time we did an interview, it was the 2015-16 season. Real Unión had been third for most of the season and in the last two games fell to fifth place and Toledo came in fourth. This season, once again, Toledo are fourth and Real Unión are fifth - what is the atmosphere at the moment and do you feel confident about making the playoffs?

It is weird. Last two year we were great in December, January, February and March, and performing poorly in the last two months. Now we are doing the other way around. 2 months ago we were far from playoffs, and weren’t expected to have chances. However we won many games in a row and now we have some chance, although it is difficult: we don’t depend on us. We need to win every game and expect the others to drop points. Hopefully we can be lucky. Of course we are confident, but it is being hard because many teams are involved in that fight to get into the first four places. But we want it too. It is going to be a terribly demanding last few games.

How would you describe your time at Tenerife?

The last two years before Tenerife, I didn’t play continuously, neither in Real Sociedad, nor in Bolton. At Tenerife, I had the chance to be in a great group of people and the manager trusted in me from the beginning.

It was great. Tenerife is such a great island to live. I really enjoyed those two years and a half there. We played beautifully and got promoted to La Liga the last year. After two years, to have the chance to play again with continuity in La Liga, was so great. The atmosphere in the stadium, Heliodoro Rodríguez López, was amazing and I enjoyed it so much, especially the love from the fans. The manager had very attacking football ideas and we enjoyed ourselves; and what it is more important: we made the fans enjoy so much as well. However in away games, we weren’t solid enough and that got us relegated at the end. The second year in Segunda was much harder: the expectations of coming back soon to Primera played against us, and nobody was patient. We went straight to the Segunda B.

Tenerife is like a second home for me. I have fond memories from there. Such a beautiful place to live and enjoy the passion of football. Both years I played a lot of games, many times at a good level, and I felt the respect of the club when they proposed to stay in the club after those years.

I remember when Tenerife were relegated twice in two seasons - before Charlton came calling do you think you would've stayed with Tenerife in the Segunda B? 

Yes, why not, it was an option. The club offered me a new contract and I was happy in the island. I was happy because the club trusted in me and I loved to play there. However Charlton offer was something different and exceptional. But the offer of Charlton was very good. I couldn't say no.

Given how your time at Bolton had been, what were the first thoughts in your mind when you heard Charlton were interested?

I knew it was going to be hard, but the interest of the owner of Charlton and the sport manager was really enthusiastic in signing me - they knew me from Tenerife and Real Sociedad. I was happy for the new opportunity to have the chance to enjoy English football from within. Being League One, I knew that wasn't going to be exactly like Bolton that was in Premier League. But it was a big club, in League One, with a great stadium and great supporters. A classic London club that had played in Premier League some years ago. They were trying to “rebirth” the team and bring it again to the top. There was a lot of signings those years and the team did well and we went up to the Championship. I was curious, eager to learn and try to add some quality and experience to the squad. I would have liked to play more than I did, but team was very competitive and I just played a very few games which is sad. I really would have loved to play more in the Valley, and I am always going to remember that chance.

As someone who has witnessed the pressures of professional football and how damaging it can be on a psychological level, do you think that modern football puts too much pressure on footballers to succeed and how fair do you think this pressure is?

I think that is modern life, isn't it? It is not just about football. It is about any accomplishment or job you try. You can feel it in journalism or being a doctor. Sometimes the pressure comes more from inside than from outside. I mean: a football player can feel more pressure in front of a crowd of two people than other player in front of 100,000 people. Sometimes it is more about oneself that about the task of being a footballer. Or the surroundings: television, big crowds. All that being said, it is true that maybe sometimes we have a wrong idea about what success mean, or we put maybe expectations in a level that makes it difficult to match them with reality afterwards. In football, with some many people around watching at you interested in what you are doing, that feeling can be bigger and more demanding. And apart from that, in Spain (at least in San Sebastián or in Tenerife) the game of the weekend is too important for everyone, that can make you feel anxious and too responsible, and at the end feel blocked. But it is true that, at the same time, that is what makes it so interesting.

What advice would you give any footballer or sportsman who felt the way you did during those times?

I think it is important to express yourself. Don't feel ashamed of being weak, or having feelings like “I'm hating football”. Sometimes you can feel guilty because what everybody told you it was going to be dream, it is being a nightmare. But there is nothing wrong with that. Feelings are natural, and sometimes we don't know why  we are not enjoying ourselves. Probably, depending the situation and the particular player, psychological professional help can be very helpful. At least to have the opportunity to have people around to talk about what is going on in your career and what are your thoughts. And apart from that I would recommend to have friends from outside football, to think about things outside the football. We live in a bubble of privilege, and sometimes we are too comfortable within it. We should be able to look outside that bubble more often while playing football.
What are your plans for the future in terms of playing on the pitch?

I have been injured the last three months. I started playing again last week. I would like to go on playing. My career has had many ups and downs, but I'm enjoying every day more and more with the subtle complexities of this beautiful game. At the same time I’m learning, I’m studying to become a coach too. Despite my age - I turn 37 next month! - I'm physically at a good level, so I would be happy to go on playing and doing my best for the club I play for. In my many ways I think this year I was playing the best football of my career, and becoming more mature mentally and physically. So let’s see what happens, but I see myself playing next year.

This interview was also published on You can read it here.


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