Two men meet next to a metro entrance.
Donald Rumsfeld has his known unknowns, and two Irish lads know without knowing, that flash of recognition.
When Robbie Dunne arrived, I knew it had to be him.
I was there with Meri, 50% of El Arpa, at the Nuevos Ministerios station – itself a worn symbol of a new Madrid back in the ’70s, back then; today, in the same way, Irish emigrants, with their bastardised th sounds, along with other international arrivals, announce a new Madrid. Of cosmopolitan couples and the hacking out of careers.
To all corners of the city, and to Vallecas, where the ‘c’ becomes a hard ‘k’.
And Robbie has been very successful at that, the carving out of a career. An up-and-coming sports journalist with the first book under his belt, it’s quite the story. But, even though we did touch on his wonderful Working Class Heroes: The Story of Rayo Vallecano, Madrid’s Forgotten Team, we also discussed the immigrant experience, moving around Chicago and Spain, and the very question of what it means to be a writer.
The Robbie Dunne Interview Starts With A ‘Why?’
At this point, with all three of us seated, the inevitable what brings ya over here? emerges. In my case, it was the deflation of opportunity, of possibility being sucked out of an ailing economy. The Celtic Tiger died, Eamon Dunphy was calling the place a kip on national television, and fingers, somewhere, fumbled in greasy tills.
And everyone else was leaving too.
For Robbie, it was a Spanish girlfriend and an appetite to experience Spain. As an avid sports fan, the chance to see world-class teams compete in basketball and football was impossible to ignore. The Spanish summers aren’t bad, either.
Both countries share many things in common, such as a focus and commitment to family, yet Robbie sees as many differences as there are similarities. In the world of sport, the Spanish, he says, approach tournaments with confidence, with an expectation to win, while the Irish are caught in a self-inflicted underdog loop. Subconsciously, we don’t believe we can conquer the world.
Before we moved on to the nitty-gritty of writing, we also discussed Spain’s footballing success between 2008 and 2012, and Robbie argued that Spain comes with a lot of goodwill attached. People associate the team with good weather and fond holiday memories. Football, then, is a soft-power – one which can do the work of 100 diplomats in just 1 tournament.
We talk journalism & book writing
Robbie described in another interview how the idea for the book came while he was in a bookshop. Look for the story that hasn’t been told yet, he said. And I found it to be a beautiful way of thinking.
And his mother called it, she predicted – to much bemusement at the time – that Robbie was going to write a book. It was a good bet because, in our chat with Robbie, he talks about how he was always fascinated with the creative process. What is more, he describes himself as impulsive. He craves projects, so why not put pen to paper?
His journey to publication was remarkable – using his own initiative and will, he got in touch with journalists and writers and gave himself a grounding in an unfamiliar story, in a new country and with a different language. All the while, he told an authentic story of his exploration of Rayo and Vallecas – the reader was learning with him.
Robbie speaks passionately about creativity. There’s a sense that the school system funnels people into set paths, but Robbie’s thoughts and own lived experience show that if you follow your passion, great things can happen.
Influence & Philosophy
Sid Lowe is absolutely brilliant. His writing style is so unique.
Robbie doesn’t see himself as a writer or even a journalist. He does himself a disservice by saying that – it’s clear that he can write very well. But he demonstrates humility and a genuine desire to learn throughout our interview, and he name-checks a lot of wonderful journalists. El Sid, the man for Spanish football coverage in English, is the standout favourite. For Robbie, he’s the benchmark.
After delving into the merits and faults of American sports, and of LaLiga’s plans for global expansion, we settle back closer to home by speaking about Vallecas and Rayo Vallecano.
‘The beauty is in the struggle. I mean, if you were going to guarantee me happiness for the rest of my life, after a week I’d be like, I need an obstacle now’, he says with a laugh. He is referencing Rayo’s yo-yo nature, with frequent promotions, relegations and problems. Winning all the time is boring, and meaning and identity can be derived from Rayo’s fight for survival.
It’s obvious that Robbie is an avid reader. He talks about the book Skin in the Game and bemoans the fact that many super clubs have owners who care little for the local fans. In other words, they don’t have a ‘skin in the game’, no obvious loyalty to the locals.
In Vallecas, it’s different. If you wear the club colours, people will talk to you, smile at you, accept you. Robbie finishes by saying that ‘every time I step off the metro or drive into the city and walk down to the stadium, I just think how incredible it all is’.
It’s the club, the fans, the community… that’s Rayo.
Things We Didn’t Have Time For…
In our extensive and far-reaching chat, we fell down a very pleasant rabbit hole. As an interviewer, there is always a list of questions on hand; it’s a printed compilation designed to give security, to help your mind navigate a topic. But with the best interviewees, and Robbie was certainly one of those, you discard that list and melt into an organic conversation.
There’s the issue of how Rayo, a club that wears its social conscience on its sleeve, can stave off the opportunism of those that might want to cash-in on this pure, hard-earned image. There are the accounts of intriguing, larger-than-life characters – the cowboy Feline; the little pot called Potele; and the humble Willy Agbonarvbare, who could be seen shopping in the local supermarket.
And innumerable acts of kindness, of shared chants and moments, and the question of how a well-organized, left-leaning group such as the Bukaneros – the passionate Rayo fan group – can play a larger role in a country where the political discourse is poking at the extremes.
Robbie details all of this and more in his book, with aplomb.
You can listen to the full interview with Robbie on our podcast. If you’re interested in more football related content, you can check out the story of John Aldridge and another about Damien Duff against Spain in the 2002 World Cup.
Robbie’s excellent book, Working Class Heroes: The Story of Rayo Vallecano, Madrid’s Forgotten Team, is available on Amazon, while you can follow his football journalism in the Spanish daily, AS.
Thank you for reading our Robbie Dunne interview – we have more in the pipeline!