‘It’s great a lad from the town has done well for himself’: Kells remembers the summer of Xabi Alonso

Bayer Leverkusen’s illustrious manager spent a summer learning English – and playing football – in Co Meath

Headfort Grove rarely needed the assistance of international players to be competitive in the Kells inter-estate football league during the nineties.

The Grove tended to do just fine in the jumpers-for-goalposts tournament even without having their ranks bolstered by any of the urbane and modish students over from the continent for the summer to learn English and fine-tune their shifting skills.

Each housing estate’s team had a badge of identity – the Grove were hard, Rockfield were soft, Windy had an electricity pylon plonked where the centre-circle ought to have been and McCullen’s pitch was a hill – you either played up it or down it. And every summer, one or two of the estates landed a baller for several weeks whose tricks and flicks had only ever previously been seen on Match of the Day or Football Italia.

Now, nobody can be certain Xabi Alonso graced the league during his month in the town in the mid-nineties, but he certainly played plenty of football while in Kells. Indeed, there is no shortage of locals now in their late 30s or early 40s who swear they once schooled the former Spanish international in the art of the beautiful game.

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“The best player Xabi Alonso ever played against was Seanie Curran,” smiles Skol McGovern, the town’s living encyclopedia.

Alonso is back in Ireland this week, where on Wednesday night he manages Bayer Leverkusen in the Europa League final against Atalanta at the Aviva Stadium.

The former Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich player stayed with the O’Brien family in Headfort Park, a sweeping row of houses on the entrance to Headfort Grove – where Alonso played most of his football while in the town.

Fidelma and Liam O’Brien looked after students for several summers.

“I suppose he was just one of the many we had over the years, but it’s fair to say he was the most famous one,” says Fidelma.

“The July he was here, it rained nearly every day, but Xabi was out all the time. He’d be down the Grove or over in Rockfield playing football, he was always out playing football.

“And it was noticed that he was a bit special, it definitely was recognised at the time that he was talented. And he wasn’t going around wrapped in cotton wool either, he’d go out there with the boys and whoever was about they’d play for hours.”

The Spanish students regularly congregated at the local GAA pitch each summer, and it was there Alonso was exposed to Gaelic football and hurling – north-Meath hurling being its own unique and rustic brand of the small-ball game.

Speaking at his pre-match press conference on Tuesday evening, Alonso was asked about his time in Ireland.

“I came here at 14 to Kells, I enjoyed my summer here,” he replied. “It’s always great to come back to Dublin, I feel that connection since then and my Liverpool years as well, the connection with Ireland is really strong, so it’s great to be here.”

When asked several years ago about his time in Kells, Alonso admitted the football was, erm, robust.

“It was very different to go to Ireland from the north of Spain, because of the weather, for instance. The culture is totally different but it was nice to spend a month there,” he said.

“It was the first contact I had with the UK and Ireland, and I realised that they liked to tackle and the physical contact. But I really enjoyed it.”

Liam passed away in 2022, but over the years he had continued to follow Alonso’s career closely.

“He would have been very excited and interested in what is happening this week with Xabi managing a team in a final in Dublin. Liam always kept an eye on how he was doing,” said Fidelma.

“With our own kids, they would also have been watching to see how he was getting on and where he was playing, some of the boys were Liverpool fans for a while.”

Mark Butler (40) is vice-chairman of Kells Celtic, he can’t say for certain if he played against Alonso in the nineties, but he’s not quite prepared to say he didn’t either. Mark will be in Dublin tonight to attend the Europa League final.

“It would be fitting if his first European trophy as a manager was won in Ireland, given the summer he spent here as a teenager,” he said.

“Most people here will be hoping Leverkusen can win, it’s great that a lad from the town has done so well for himself!”

For as they will tell you in Kells, Xabi Alonso is one of their own, so he is.

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning is a sports journalist, specialising in Gaelic games, with The Irish Times