Guillermo Amor at Livingston

If Guillermo Amor wanted to impress you, he wouldn’t have to try very hard. A product of Barcelona’s fabled youth academy, La Masia, he graduated to the first team to become a regular in Johan Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ and a Spain international.

Amor was an artful midfielder, poised and perceptive, despite his slim, almost spindly build. He was also a goal threat – particularly in the early days of his career – capable of breaking through with a forward run and always composed under pressure. He was the kind of player who would round the keeper in a one-on-one situation, or throw a dummy in the run-up to a penalty, but there wasn’t much swagger to go with it. No ego.

He was versatile too. At various times he wore the number 4, 6, 7 and 9 for Barça and he even got his hands in the No.8 shirt in 1995/96, when the formidable Hristo Stoichkov moved to Parma for a season. But most often, at his peak, Amor was No.10. For Barcelona.

As a teenage prodigy, he also stood out for his thoughtfulness and his readiness to ask questions during training sessions. He wanted to understand the game on a deeper level, to get to the bottom of what they were doing. And that got him noticed, not least by a young midfielder called Pep Guardiola, who was three school years below him at La Masia.

“At the time, when I started to pay attention to everything that you did, I was thirteen years old,” wrote Guardiola, in a sincere address to Amor in his autobiography My People, My Football (an excerpt from which is reproduced in Guillem Balague’s recent book, Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning).

“I didn’t just follow every one of your games, but also the training sessions; I paid attention to your attitude, because you faced everyone as if your life depended on it.

“I used to have my practical football lessons at 7 p.m. on an adjacent pitch; but I used to turn up two hours earlier, so I could listen in on the theory class on pitch number 1: seeing how you carried yourself, how you encouraged your team-mates, how you asked for the ball, how you listened and how you earned the respect of everyone around you.”

In 10 years as a first-teamer at Camp Nou, Amor made 421 appearances, winning five league titles, three Spanish Cups, two European Cup Winners’ Cups and two UEFA Super Cups. He was a member of the squad that won the European Cup in 1992, but he wasn’t in the team for the final. When he did step out onto that stage two years later, it was in defeat to Fabio Capello’s AC Milan. Still, when you can say there are only seven players to have played more games for Barcelona, you can safely say you have made your mark on the game.

The two years at Fiorentina that followed were far less memorable, as Amor struggled to adapt to the Italian game. But he was a key man at Villarreal in the early 2000s as they made their way towards the top of the Spanish league.

Then there were his 37 caps for Spain, including appearances at Euro 96 and the World Cup in 1998. Where would you start when reflecting on such an eventful career? Probably not with the three games he played for Livingston in 2003. Well, actually, why not? After all, what on earth was Guillermo Amor doing at Livingston…

The answer lies in understanding the circumstances of the club and the player at that moment, in January 2003, when their paths overlapped and Livingston manager Jim Leishman found himself telling the media, “Considering what he has achieved, he’ll be the biggest name ever to come to Scottish football. This man is the pick of the bunch.”

Consider that, in 2005, aged 35, Pep Guardiola elected to spend the last year of his playing career with little-known Mexican club Dorados de Sinaloa, learning from Juan Manuel Lillo, the coach who became his mentor. He saw it as a chance to retreat from familiar surroundings, to take a step back, observe and consider what he might do when he became a coach himself.

Amor had been at the same stage of his career when his contract at Villarreal came to an end in the summer of 2002. He was to turn 35 midway through the next season and, when a move to the United States fell through, he was left without a club for the first half of the 2002/03 campaign.

Then something unexpected happened – an offer from left field. It came from Livingston, an ambitious, upwardly mobile club 15 miles west of Edinburgh, who had finished third in the Scottish Premier League the previous season. Only Celtic and Rangers had outdone Livi that year, which had also been their first in the top flight – only six years after they had achieved promotion from the fourth tier and seven years since they had relocated from Edinburgh and changed their name from Meadowbank Thistle.

However, Livingston were having a disappointing follow-up season. They were third bottom of the table in January 2003, having taken 23 points from 24 games, so the idea of a player like Amor arriving in January might have been considered a tonic to what was threatening to become the club’s first retrogressive season in some time.

“That was a time when we were trying desperately to bring in a big-name player, it’s clear,” recalled Grant Russell, Livingston supporter and correspondent for Scotland’s STV Sport network.

“Earlier that season, Livingston had signed Sergio Berti, the Argentine international. We’d signed him at the start of that season, when he must have been about 33 or 34 and he was looking for a club. He came to open trials in England and we picked him up from there. He was on a ridiculous wage, it wasn’t working out and then he was accused of spitting on a youth team player during a pre-season game at Blackpool, and was sacked!

“It was nothing like English Premier League levels, but around that time, between 2000 and 2003, Scottish football had a great TV deal. You just have to look at the squads Rangers and Celtic had, with the likes of Tore Andre Flo and Henrik Larsson. I could go on about the players they had, but they spent big money. Celtic signed Neil Lennon, Stilian Petrov, Alan Thompson and so on.

“Livingston thought they could be the third force in Scottish football. That’s such a cliché up here – any new owner that comes in wants to make that club the ‘third force’. Nobody says that anymore – nobody with any common sense!”

So in stepped Amor. He may have been used to playing in front of Guardiola and behind the likes of Hristo Stoichkov and Romario, but he was full of humility when he pitched up at the Almondvale Stadium in West Lothian.

“I haven’t played for a while, so I want to get back into competition and see what happens,” he said. “There has been a good mood back home about me coming here. This is a good move for me. I also had a chance to play in the first division in Spain, but I did not want to do that.

“The most important thing for me is to try and help Livingston and work for the club, not to think about my ambitions. I want to try and help my team-mates. There are a lot of good players here.”

But how had Amor become aware of Livingston and how did the club know about his availability?

“We had several Spanish players at that time and they were from the same agency, an organisation called Bahia, from Barcelona,” Leishman, who was Livingston

manager on two separate occasions between 1995 and 2003, explains to The Set Pieces.

“We had already got David Fernandez, Oscar Rubio, Quino and Javier Sanchez Broto. It was like a small family of Spanish people. The first two [Broto and Fernandez] came from Airdrie, and the same agent introduced us to the rest of the players. They were super guys to manage, all of them.”

That response answers one question, but it raises another. Why did Airdrieonians have these talented Spanish players in their midst? The Diamonds weren’t even a top-flight side and they had gone into administration in 2000 due to their parlous financial situation.

That episode looked set to come to an end when former Tottenham and Barcelona forward Steve Archibald rode in with a takeover bid ahead of the 2000/01 season, and he quickly utilised the contacts he had made during his time as a player, agent and director in Spain to bring some exciting new faces to the Excelsior Stadium.

Within two months of the season’s start, Archibald unveiled nine continental signings – seven Spaniards, one Frenchman and an Argentinean – causing quite the media fanfare at the Lanarkshire club.

“I didn’t want the same old faces who have been around the Scottish lower league scene,” he told the Independent in September 2000. “They are all good players and can play with style, and I have no fear that they can’t handle themselves.

“They get English lessons three times a week, but football is a body language. I could not speak to anyone at first when I was at Barcelona, but once you get half a dozen words, you are away.”

By the following March, with two months of the season still remaining, the full takeover that Archibald had hoped to complete fell through, resulting in not only his departure from Airdrie, but all of the players he had imported as well. Just over a year later, the club was liquidated.

When Leishman and his assistant David Hay expressed an interest in the club’s star striker Fernandez and their goalkeeper Broto, the players’ agents saw an opportunity to open up the lines of communication with Livingston as they looked to establish themselves in the Scottish Premier League.

“He recommended these boys to us to go and see,” recalls Leishman of the two-year spell when Livi were offered several players whose promising careers had stalled somewhat.

There was Oscar Rubio, who had played for Real Madrid, making his only first-team appearance in a Copa del Rey semi-final against Valencia in 1999. Argentinean forward Rolando Zarate had also spent a season at Real Madrid, making six appearances in 1999/2000.

Both men enjoyed fruitful spells at Livingston, with Fernandez’s success in his first season encouraging Celtic to sign him the following summer. Of all of Archibald’s recruits at Airdrie, he was by far the most successful, enjoying 10 years in Scotland in total. Leishman was quite happy to accept the players he was offered. They were talented and they had something to prove.

“They weren’t that dear, and we gave them an opportunity,” he continues. “They weren’t getting huge wages. Fernandez is a legend at Livingston. A legend.

“The fans would come with their sombreros on. It was great. I loved the boys. I started learning Spanish. No problema para mí!”

As Archibald had said, “Once you get half a dozen words, you are away.”

The Spanish contingent were joined by three Frenchmen and two Italians in the Livingston squad for 2001/02, the season that Livi finished third behind the Old Firm and qualified for the UEFA Cup.

Former Real Madrid and Zaragoza midfielder Juanjo Camacho arrived the next season, and then the club got wind of Amor’s availability. It was big news for the media, but it seems the fans weren’t all that clued up about his past. After all, he may have been a regular in one of Barcelona’s strongest-ever sides, but Amor wasn’t an internationally renowned superstar. Or, to put it another way, his achievements far outweighed his fame.

“He arrived to a relatively decent fanfare,” Grant Russell recalls. “I think there was an unfortunate ignorance among the Livingston support about what this man had actually achieved in the game.

“I was 17 at the time and I didn’t have the perspective of who this man was. I could see he was a very technically gifted player, but I was almost ignorant to what he achieved at Barcelona.”

Amor made his Livingston debut on a cold Tuesday night in Partick, and although he lacked match fitness, he immediately looked to bring the game under his spell after replacing his compatriot Quino in the centre of midfield.

“He came on at half-time and absolutely controlled the game from the centre circle,” recalls Russell. “It was a masterclass in receiving the ball and moving it into space for other players, who just looked completely confused by this player who, at 35, was still a cut above them – a significant cut above them.”

Four days later, Amor was asked to do a different job in his first start for the club – a televised game at home to Kilmarnock. It didn’t go well.

“He started the match in what seemed to be a more defensive midfield role, and he got completely overrun until he got hooked after maybe an hour,” remembers Russell.

“He made one further appearance, as a sub at Celtic Park, but after that we never saw him on the pitch again. He was clearly still an incredible player but the rough and tumble nature of Scottish football, which was so direct, didn’t suit him.”

Three appearances in 12 days probably wasn’t what Amor or the club had in mind when he signed for Livingston, but he did remain at Almondvale until the end of the campaign. What’s more, Leishman hints at a possible secondary motive for Amor’s move in 2003, offering some hope that his five months in Scotland were not completely fruitless.

“Guillermo was coming to the end of his career,” Leishman explains. “He wanted to come and see the training and he was a pool player for us really.

“I seem to remember Barcelona did him a favour by letting him come out to us, but he was always going to go back to Barcelona, initially for a coaching role with the younger kids. That was part of it – he wanted to go and get experience for that role.”

On the pitch at least, the move hadn’t worked out for Amor or Livingston. It appears he wasn’t the right fit for the hustle and bustle of the Scottish game at that stage in his career, but he is fondly remembered by the man who brought him in.

“The Scottish game was completely different at that time, but he was a smashing man,” says Leishman. “His family was lovely and he was a great person.”

As for Russell, a subsequent trip to Camp Nou would reveal exactly who he had been watching at the Almondvale Stadium during that underwhelming 12-day stretch in 2003. “I’ve since been to Barcelona and done the stadium tour and he is revered there,” he explains.

“He scored their 4,000th league goal and they’ve got his picture in the museum from when he did it. He was part of that ‘Dream Team’ and that’s when you start to think, ‘Bloody hell! This guy came and played for my team and I watched him play!’ You don’t get these sorts of player coming to Livingston.”

Well, for a brief period you did. Unfortunately, Livingston’s rapid rise to the top was soon followed by an equally swift descent, as they found themselves in a similar situation to Airdrieonians.

The club first went into administration in February 2004, were relegated from the Premier League in 2006 and, under new Italian owners, went into administration for a second time in 2009. As liquidation began to look inevitable, the club were rescued at the eleventh hour, although the Scottish football authorities punished their financial imprudence by demoting them to the Third Division.

Two promotions and one relegation later, they are currently top of the Scottish League One, in the third tier, leading – of all clubs – the reformed Airdrie in the race for promotion to the Championship.

Leishman left Almondvale in 2003 to take up a role as general manager of Dunfermline Athletic, and he remains an honorary director at the club he led from the Scottish Second Division to the top flight in the 1980s. He eventually retired from football in 2006 to move into politics and was elected a Scottish Labour councillor in 2012, five years after being awarded an MBE for services to sport.

He was also the last manager Amor played under, and the Spaniard has gone onto become a fine coach in his own right. As Leishman recalled, he returned to Barcelona to become a youth coach and was eventually named Director of Youth Football, a post he held when his friend Guardiola took over as manager of the club.

In 2014, he made another surprising move, to Australia, where he became technical director of Adelaide United, having been invited by the club’s manager, and his former Barcelona colleague, Josep Gombau.

When the latter had to resign from his job due to family reasons, Amor took on the manager’s role – his first such position – and led the South Australia club to the domestic double in his maiden season.

Most impressively, he did so having failed to win any of his first eight games in charge, during which time the #Amorout tweets predictably reared their heads. It showed remarkable strength of character and, most of all, composure under pressure, the very characteristic that had earned him the adulation of a teenage Pep Guardiola all those years ago at La Masia.

Pic Credit

Update: After sharing this feature on Twitter, we received the following messages from former Livingston midfielder Scott McLaughlin, who played alongside Amor at Almondvale:

 

Guillermo Amor at Livingston
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