After a period partly obscured from the mainstream publicity of the game, Fernando Hierro returned to the football world’s attention when he stepped into the breach to take over control of Spain’s national team at the 2018 World Cup. It was a crisis time for the squad after Julen Lopetegui had been dismissed as coach just two days ahead of the tournament opener. The coach had been summarily removed from his post when it became public knowledge that he intended to take the managerial chair at Real Madrid after the World Cup.
As Sporting Director of the Spanish Football Federation, and a past player of almost regal standing, Hierro was the obvious choice to come to his country’s aid. When asked, he stepped up and, despite the relative failure of Spain’s efforts in the tournament – going out in the round of 16, Hierro’s noble admission of accepting full responsibility was typical of the man, and ensured that very little of the criticism was visited on the former Spain and Real Madrid skipper.
Hierro’s experiences at the tournament have therefore left his reputation largely untarnished in Spain, and there’s a corner of the Greater Manchester area of Lancashire where a similar respect for the former star applies. It may sound unlikely to any unfamiliar with the history of the times, but a player who graced La Liga, World and European Championships is also hailed a hero in Bolton.
After spending a couple of years at Real Valladolid, Hierro moved to the Santiago Bernabéu. In a 16-year career with Los Blancos, he would win five La Liga titles, a Copa del Rey, four Spanish Super Cups, three Champions League trophies, two Intercontinental Cups and a UEFA Super Cup. It’s a hugely enviable record and, when in 2002-03 he was released by Los Blancos, it was one that would guarantee him a place in the hearts of the Madridistas only available to legends of the club.
It had been a career marked by a dominant style of play, wherein a game seemed destined to dance to his enchanting but demanding tune. Equally at home at centre-back or holding midfield, he also had the nous and ability to play as a libero sweeping up at the back and setting teams moving with his incisive passing and thrusts into midfield. An imposing physique, tenacity and sheer will to win, made Hierro a much sought after signing throughout his career with Madrid, but any approaches for his services were quickly dismissed by the club. At the height of his powers, he was simply irreplaceable, and even in the later years of his career, with pace and mobility declining, his experience grew to fill any number of apparent other gaps in his game.
After leaving Madrid, a move to the Middle East, with Qatar’s Al Rayyan Sports Club, looked very much like the first steps into semi-retirement. After a year at the Ahmed bin Ali Stadium an offer to venture back into a mainstream European league persuaded Hierro to swap the heat of Qatar for the more temperate climate at Bolton Wanderers.
The club was then under the managership of Sam Allardyce who had succeeded in persuading a string of aging international stars to spend their salad years at the Reebok Stadium, rather than opting for the relatively comfortable and unchallenging environs of the MLS – or even the Middle East. Already ensconced with the club was Hierro’s former Madrid team-mate Iván Campo and it was thought that the Spaniard, together with another former Madrid star, Steve McManaman, were persuasive elements in Hierro’s decision to join the club. Hierro penned a deal for the 2004-05 season and became a Bolton Wanderers player.
If, to many, the signing of a faded 36-year-old star whose only experience outside of the Spanish league was a season in Qatar, seemed like a gamble. Allardyce was dismissive of such thoughts. The man who made a living by succeeding with such left-field signings – others included Youri Djorkaeff who played for two seasons before Hierro arrived and Jay-Jay Okocha who would play with Hierro and stay after he left – felt he had delivered another coup. Then, of course, there was also Campo, perhaps the most successful of such signings who spent five years at the Reebok.
Fitness was, of course, an issue to be dealt with but, talking to Sky Sports, Allardyce reported that, “He did some tests the other day which were fine.” Neither did he have doubts about Hierro’s role at the club and what he could contribute. “A lad of his experience will be a huge addition to his squad,” he contended. Going on to add that “I wouldn’t expect 38 games out of him at his age, but what I am getting is a player who has been world class all his life and I will look to use that experience at the right time and he will be invaluable around the place.” On the club’s website, he laid out his thoughts for the coming season. “Many people in the game know him as a defender but he has played most of his career as a midfielder and we now have the flexibility of playing him in those two areas.” All was then set for one of the most improbable transfers of the year to be tested and declared as a success or failure. Allardyce also had no doubts about the player’s commitment to the club. “After spending a year in Qatar, he is desperate to make an impression again in mainstream European football,” he explained. Hierro would deliver.
Whilst Hierro certainly didn’t play all 38 league games, turning out 29 times in one of Europe’s most competitive and physically demanding leagues, is no small achievement. As with so many imports to the British game, initially, the relentless pace and pressure that is part and parcel of the Premiership meant an early struggle to adapt, but Hierro had both experience and ability on his side and gradually settled into things. The switch from centre-back to midfield, where any lack of aged-related mobility and pace would be less apparent was a step forward, both positionally and tactically. It also allowed the elegant player to deploy his range of passing and vision for the benefit of the team. An exquisite delivery from set pieces also tied in nicely with the Allardyce game plan, often finding the target of a Bolton player in a dangerous position.
The season held out long promise for an unlikely top four finish and a place in the Champions League, but as things petered out and points were dropped towards its end, Bolton finished in sixth position. Strange to say perhaps, it was perceived as a slight disappointment at the time, but contrasting it to the situation the club finds itself in at the moment, it was an outstanding performance.
It was also a season that prompted Allardyce to laud Hierro as the best passer of a ball in the history of the club. A poll amongst fans in 2017 seemed to concur with the manger’s view. Hierro finished in a list of the top ten greatest ever Bolton Wanderers’ players. For someone who played only 37 games in all competitions for the club, scoring a solitary goal – it speaks volumes of the contribution he is seen to have made in that short period of time.
The final game of the season saw Everton visit the Reebok and despite falling behind to an early Tim Cahill goal, Allardyce’s team rallied to win 3-2 at the final whistle. Midway through the second period, with a full Premiership season weighing heavily on his then 37-year-old legs, Allardyce removed an understandably tiring Hierro, to tumultuous applause from the Bolton fans, who not only wanted to register their acclaim for his efforts, but also seemed to know that it was probably the last time they would see the player in a Bolton kit. If so, they weren’t wrong.
At the turn of the season, wiser counsel prevailed on the thoughts of the player, despite encouragement from both manager and fans to sign on for a last swansong. Whilst Allardyce’s reputation for prolonging players’ careers had been well earnt, not even he could defy the insistent demands of age, and Fernando Hierro decided to retire from professional football.
Footballers can often be like boxers who have gone one fight too far. The seductive clamour of the fans wanting one last hurrah and the financial inducements available at the top end of the game often shout down more cautious considerations, but an 18-year career covering over 700 games for club and country, with so many played at the top level of the game, was enough. May 2005 saw the curtain brought down on the playing career of Fernando Hierro, and Bolton Wanderers fans had been privileged to see his last playing season and wearing their colours. They could laud their very own Galactico.