Back in 2006, when word leaked out that John Sheridan had taken a 22-year-old Spanish striker on trial at Oldham Athletic, I trawled the internet for information and was amazed by what was found. Diego Cervero, a burly six-footer with long sideburns, was playing for Real Oviedo where he had become the idol of the crowd. He was also the drummer in a rock band.
YouTube video-clips showing some of this prolific goal scorer’s craziest goal-celebration moments created great excitement amongst Latics supporters on the fans’ Internet Forum.
I was also impressed to learn of his loyalty in refusing to leave Oviedo, when the club had flirted with extinction in 2003 and was demoted to the fourth tier, before leading them to promotion within 18 months.
He turned down a twelve month deal from Real Oveido and came to train with Latics for about three weeks. He started in three friendlies for the Reserves, scoring in two and causing nuisance to the opposition throughout.
Despite this, the fans’ excited anticipation and the Commercial Manager’s research of the Club’s potential marketing opportunities, all dreams were dashed when the Manager decided that he was no better than the existing strikers, and Diego returned to Spain to study medicine.
I did my best to ‘immortalise’ his memory as the Latics’ nearly-legend by adopting the name ‘Diego Sideburns’ as my Forum user-name and the name of my Flickr photographic site.
I met Diego briefly when he sat in the Chaddy End at Boundary Park, whilst on trial, and I liaised with him after he returned home, as he responded to Trust Oldham’s appeal for funds by donating two of his Spanish club shirts for auction.
During 2007 Diego was leading scorer in the top four divisions in Spain, outscoring Barcelona’s Samuel Eto’o, Real Madrid’s Ruud Van Nistelrooy, et al!
After spells playing for U.D. Marbella, C.D. Lealtad and U.D. Logronés, during which he completed his medical training, he became Doctor Cervero.
Less than twelve months ago, Real Oviedo, the Club that produced Mata, Cazorla and Michu, was close to going out of business. Michu and Diego Cervero are best friends and together they had helped the Club win promotion from the third division to Segunda Division B (third tier). As an illustration of passion for the Club, Michu once turned down the opportunity to play first division football because the club making the offer was Sporting Gijón, Oviedo’s rivals.
The club was on the verge of liquidation and in desperate need of €1.9 million to stay afloat. However, Sid Lowe (correspondent of The Guardian) organised a Twitter campaign and worked tirelessly to raise awareness of Oviedo's plight among football fans. The three ex-players now in the Premier League, together with Atlético Madrid striker Adrián, who made his debut for Oviedo at 17, the year after Michu did, all promoted the drive to buy shares and they bought shares themselves in “significant” amounts. Thousands of people in more than 60 countries on 5 continents, purchased shares priced at €10.75 each, totalling around €1,930,000 to help save the club. A local radio station contacted the son-in-law of the world’s wealthiest man, Mexican telecommunications magnate Carlos Slim, and joked that he should come and save the club. On the final day of the share issue Slim bought over €2m worth of shares, because of Oviedo’s “history in Spanish professional football and above all for the extraordinary support of its fans.” He owns 32.44% of the shares, but he is not the majority shareholder, the fans are: 40.81% of the club is owned by small shareholders and Oviedistas.
Mrs. ‘Sideburns’ and I kept promising that we would go to Oviedo to see Diego Cervero play, but our procrastination seemed to have cost us that opportunity when he moved elsewhere. However, he has returned to a hero’s welcome to play for Real Oviedo once again.
He is El Capitán and regarded as ‘God’ by his adoring supporters.
At last our promise became reality when we made the trip to celebrate our wedding anniversary – last year it was Leyton Orient, this year Oviedo! This was to be our opportunity to become Oviedistas and understand why Real Oviedo is such a distinct club, with a tragic history and, above all, a special soul.
After flying from Stansted to Asturias, we went the remainder of the way by bus to Oviedo, the birthplace of Formula One driver Fernando Alonso. Our flight had been delayed but the bus waited for us, which proved to be the first of many kindly gestures to be experienced over the weekend.
Having got a great deal, we stayed at the very futuristic-looking Ayre Hotel, designed by world-famous architect Santiago Calatrava, and built on the site of the original Real Oviedo Stadium. The Hotel thanked us for our support by leaving in our room a picture from Real Oviedo’s play-off last season and generously provided us with two free match tickets.
I am grateful to the Guardian’s Sid Lowe, who, on behalf of Diego Cervero, had previously requested information about his brief time at Boundary Park, and now in return had put me in in contact with the people who would arrange our meeting with the Latics’ nearly-legend.
Friday’s meeting with ROST President Matías García was the start of what will be a long friendship. He drove us to the stadium for a private tour, and then up to the top of Mount Naranco with spectacular views over the city, followed by drinks in a cider bar.
Our visit coincided with the Supporters’ Weekend festival organised by the Grupo Symmachiarii, (Real Oviedo’s Ultras) and the Real Oviedo Shareholders Trust (ROST).
On the Saturday, a full day comprised:
a walking tour of the city with ROST guides/interpretors;
a typical Asturian lunch courtesy of the Symmachiarii in a bar used by supporters for matches in the old stadium;
a visit to the Club Shop in the Modoo Commercial Centre: and
a six-a-side football match between locals and ROST members. Peterborough United supporter Malcolm looked like he had come off the Posh assembly line of strikers, as he scored four goals, and Port Stewart supporter Alan also scored in a 6-2 ROST victory.
We finished off the day in Matías’ local cider bar, which is decorated with Real Oviedo memorabilia. My preferred tipple is cerveza, and particularly cerveza negra. However, happy in the knowledge that the day’s football results back home meant that we would be going to Yeovil next season, it was only right for me to be a cider drinker.
Still cider in Asturias is always served escanciada, which means it is poured into the glass from a great height and the oxygen it acquires on the way down gives the drink an essential kick of freshness. The waiter holds a glass at arm’s length, as low as it will go. In his other hand, he brandishes a bottle, also at arm’s length, way over his head. Without looking, he pours a sparkling stream from on high. The cider splashes on the side of the glass and he hands it to you with a flourish. The cider is downed in one, but a little is always left at the bottom of the glass, custom dictating that this must be chucked out onto the floor to sterilize the rim of the glass.
It’s quite easy when you get the hang of it!
On Sunday April 27 we all met at mid-day (over six hours before kick-off) in the stadium car park, where the Symmachiarii had erected a large marquee with a bar, plus outdoor chairs and tables for the food and drink. We were joined by AFC Bournemouth and Luton Town supporters.
The meeting of ROST members, joined by a representative of Supporters Direct, was held in the media room, and was followed by a tour of the stadium, the museum and the trophy room to see the Club’s extensive silverware. We also visited the young oak tree planted to commemorate the formation of ROST.
Then it was time for my dream to come true, when Diego Cervero came along to meet us. He was as thrilled to receive a Latics shirt like he wore when scoring against Blackpool Reserves as Senora Sideburns was to be kissed by him!
Our mission to present the shirt was also covered in the local newspaper.
He still remembers fondly his time in Oldham, and he has not given up hope of playing in England before his career comes to an end. He has asked me to stay in touch by phone and email.
By this time a rock band was playing in the marquee as part of the Club’s 88th Anniversary celebrations. A presentation took place on stage to the man who was the Supporters’ President at the time of the twitter campaign to save the Club. This was followed by another presentation to the parents of Armando Barbón, the Club’s 19 year-old player who was killed in a traffic accident in 2003.
Then, to our great surprise, we were called up onto the stage with the announcement of our wedding anniversary, to great cheering and chanting by hundreds of Ultras. Gracias afición! Margaret was presented with a bouquet of blue and white flowers, and the ceremony made our special day extra-special and memorable, for which we are very grateful to the thoughtful organisers.
On entering the stadium as guests of ROST, we placed Margaret’s bouquet at the memorial to Armando Barbón and spent several emotional minutes chatting to his parents, with the help of Vic, our interpretor.
There was a minute’s silence before the game In memory of Tito Vilanova, the former Barcelona manager, who died aged 45, following his battle with cancer.
Strengthened by all that has happened since November 2012, Real Oviedo are still trying hard to get promoted to the second tier, from where the Club hopes to return to the place where it really belongs, La Liga, where it has not been since 2001 after spending 38 seasons there. However, it is notoriously hard to escape the Second division B, where four divisions funnel into one and an almost perfect season can be destroyed by one bad game in the play-off. (I just had déjà vu about Latics losing out to Leeds on away goals in the play-off.) Therefore against Sporting Gijón B today it was a must-win game.
The game started with the Oviedo manager preferring to play with a 5’6”striker (the same height as Oldham Athletic manager Lee Johnson), and with top scorer Diego Cervero on the bench.
All was going well until the 10th minute when, inexplicably, Javi Hernández cleared the ball against the body of Yacine and his pass allowed ex-Oviedo player Jony to put the visitors in front. It remained 0-1 up to half-time and the second half started the same way, with an obvious need for a tall, powerful, experienced striker. If you are the youngest manager in the League, who may not like the timing of his substitutions to be questioned by supporters, you may be in need of divine intervention. He chose to wait until the visitors’ Yacine made the score was 0-2 before bringing ‘God’ into the proceedings in the 55th minute.
Almost immediately, Sporting B, who included three youth team players, were almost out of sight. They were cutting through the Oviedo defence like a knife through tortilla, and then Dani Ndi used pace to get clear and score to make it 0-3 after 57 minutes.
By this stage praying for ‘God’ to work a miracle was asking too much. He started to make his physical presence felt and win the aerial battles, and his flick-on led to Sergio García reducing the deficit in the 62nd minute.
The season’s largest crowd of over 15,000 lived in hope and the Symmachiarii did their best to lift the team’s performance.
However, passes continued to go astray and crosses were over-hit, with the outcome of the match never being in doubt. In stoppage time Pablo Pérez completed the rout at 1-4, and the Stadium became a bleak place with the Ultras exploding to unleash their anger, screaming “mercenary players” and “you don’t deserve the shirt!”.
It was not only the result, but also the abject performance of the players which angered the supporters, illustrated in the local newspaper the next day, with a rating of ‘1’ for four of the starting eleven and ‘0’ for the others.
After the match the fans waited for the players, under police escort, to leave the stadium so that they could show their displeasure. It was a very sad ending to the Club’s 88th anniversary and Supporters’ Day celebrations.
The result ensured that the visitors were mathematically safe from relegation, but left Oviedo with the virtual impossible task of getting a play-off place, with only one game left and being one point behind the fourth placed club, which has two games left and a better goal difference. In addition to the likely failure to reach the play-off, there is a danger of losing the financial opportunity to take part in the Copa del Ray, with the overall financial loss estimated between €200,000 and €300,000.
The following day training took place at the stadium instead of the training ground, to avoid public view. With the Club under siege, the captain and the only Oviedo-born player, Diego Cervero, volunteered to face the Press. He is known to be the most passionate of the players and he described the team’s performance as his worst personal moment. He apologised to the fans, saying everyone started the season with some high expectations and the players did not reach the minimum required. Although it now appeared to be a lost cause, he pledged that the team would keep training and fighting in the final match next Sunday with the greatest possible dignity and professionalism.
We spent Monday sightseeing around the beautiful city and sampling the regional food and drink. Unfortunately El Desvan, the Ultras’ pub, was closed.
That owl resembles the one on the Oldham Athletic badge!
This trip has not been simply another of our many football excursions. It has established friendships, which I am sure will be long-lasting, similar to those we have already established with supporters of Shamrock Rovers and Eintracht Frankfurt. Not only did we have football-related interests in common with our hosts, but also music tastes ranging through rock ‘n’ roll, 60s, indie, Britpop, and even to a lesser extent, heavy metal. Without trying to cause a big s-s-sensation most of the time we were talkin' 'bout my generation.
It is difficult to express fully our gratitude for all their efforts. Special thanks to two of the other ROST founder-members, Matías García and Juan Ramón González (the driving force behind the Club’s campaign partners). Matías looked after us and went the ‘extra mile’ every day, much of which was at his own expense, to make our visit fantastic. Juan made arrangements for us to meet Diego and members of the Symmachiarii and some other supporters’ groups. We are also grateful to Vic, Deli and David for their interpreting skills and their fascinating knowledge and conversation. The city and the Asturias region should be proud of you for your ambassadorial roles carried out so effectively. Not to forget the friendships established with all the spouses/partners and children, two of whom now recognise Chaddy the Owl.
We look forward to the opportunity to repay our hosts in England
Until then, muchas gracias y hasta la vista amigos.
‘Diego Cervero’ thread on the Football Forum in 2006 when Diego was on trial at OAFC:
‘Diego Cervero = God’ thread on the OWTB Forum 2007 - 2013:
La Nueva Espana newspaper article:
Diego Sideburns’ flickr pictures & videos:
Real Oviedo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/diego_sideburns/sets/72157644477285973/
Oviedo, Asturias: https://www.flickr.com/photos/diego_sideburns/sets/72157644436356301/
‘The Real Oviedo Story’ is a film about fan support. It features interviews with Michu, Sid Lowe, Diego Cervero and others.