Levante Union Deportiva’s history may lack the glory & the honours that Valencia CF have accumulated over the years, but it is a story full of twists and turns. And whilst the club’s highs have been few and far between, the fact that they have been achieved against a background of adversity, makes them all the more sweet.
Founded as Levante Foot-Ball Club on 6 September 1909, it originally drew support from the tough working class district of Cabanyal and took its name from the nearby beach. Home matches were played at the tight and basic Camp de La Platgeta, but after a few years of competing in the regional championship, the senior team was dissolved and the club concentrated on junior football. The senior team was reformed in 1916 and once again competed in the regional championship. The top club in Valencia at this point was Gimnástico Foot-ball Club and in 1919 a new pretender arrived on the scene in the shape of Valencia CF. In the shadow of two more popular clubs, Levante moved in 1922 from the Camp de La Platgeta to the larger Camp de la Creu, which held 10,000 and was closer to the centre of the city, opening up the potential for new support.
Whilst the rest of Spain started to embrace professional football, Levante remained strictly amateur with a strong focus on youth development. In 1924 its youth team was crowned champions of Spain and three years later these players formed the nucleus of the senior team that won the Valencian Championship of 1927-28. The league came down to the final match where Levante beat Valencia 2-1 at the Camp de la Creu to secure the title by a single point. Despite this success, the club missed out on a place in the new national leagues in 1929 and had to make do with competing in the regionalised Tercera. The second division was restructured in the summer of 1934 and Levante was invited to compete in the regionalised section that featured teams form Valencia and Murcia, including cross-city rivals Gimnástico. Two creditable third place finishes were achieved in 1934-35 & 35-36, before the league was suspended due to the outbreak of the Civil War. Unlike many other regions of Spain however, football continued on the Republican held east coast, much to Levante’s benefit.
The outbreak of war threw up many weeks of uncertainty especially for Gimnástico, who had close links to the Valencian Nationalist Party. Levante on the other hand issued a statement in August 1936 acknowledging its absolute identification with the left wing Spanish Republic. In 1937, Levante, Gimnástico, and Valencia joined five other teams to form the Mediterranean League which was won by Barcelona with Levante trailing in fifth. The top four teams qualified for the cup competition, the Copa de la España Libre, but Barcelona’s decision to tour the USA and Mexico left the door open for Levante to enter. They took the opportunity with both hands and topped the mini league and qualified for the final against second place Valencia. The final was played on 18 July 1937 at Espnayol’s Estadi de Sarria and Levante prevailed thanks to a goal 12 minutes from the end of the match from inside forward Nieto. After the war, Franco’s government declared void all tournaments that were played in the Republican zone and whilst Levante has campaigned for official recognition of its win, the Spanish Parliament officially rejected the proposal in 2007.
Football all but petered out by late 1937 as Valencia came under heavy bombardment. Levante’s Camp de la Creu was destroyed and when hostilities ceased and thoughts turned back to football, an unlikely alliance was formed. Gimnástico had fallen on hard times during the mid 1930’s and the quality of their playing staff had declined. They did however have a stadium, the Campo de Vallejo which had been their home since 1923. This was a compact arena that had a capacity of 10,000 and stood in the shadow of the convent of Nuestra Señora del Carmen, close to the north bank of the Rio Turia. Levante on the other hand, had some of the best players in the east of the country, but with no stadium and no friends in high places following their declared allegiance to the Republic. This unholy matrimony of left and right was forged over a two week period in July 1939, the result of which was Unión Deportiva Levante-Gimnástico.
Initial signs were encouraging as the club comfortably won its section of the regionalised Segunda, but missed out on promotion to the top division in a very tight play-off group. The 1940-41 season saw the club finish third and miss out on the play-offs. The club’s name was not popular amongst either the dominant ex-Gimnástico’s or the smaller ex-Levante fans, so in 1941 a compromise was found. The club would in future be called Levante Unión Deportiva, but play in Gimnástico’s traditional colours of blue and red striped shirts. The first season under this new branding saw the club finish eighth and fall into the Tercera.
The next decade and a half saw Levante’s fortunes fluctuate and the club spent equal amounts of time in the Tercera and La Segunda. Then in the late 1950’s Levante started to look like serious challengers for a place in La Primera. Second place was achieved in 1958-59, but the play-offs cost the club dearly once again as Las Palmas ran out 3-1 winners on aggregate. Three consecutive sixth place finishes followed, before Levante gained a further runners-up spot in 1962-63. This time however, the play-offs were successfully navigated with a 4-1 aggregate win over Deportivo La Coruna. The club’s debut season in La Primera was solid if unspectacular, with a tenth place finish. The following 1964-65 was a struggle however and despite a 5-1 win over Barcelona and a 2-1 victory over Valencia, the club finished fourteenth and faced CD Malaga in a relegation/promotion play-off. Malaga won 4-2 at La Rosaleda and sealed promotion with a goalless draw at Vallejo. The two season stay in the top flight had highlighted two important factors. Levante could attract decent attendances and the Camp de Vallejo was hopelessly outdated, even by 1960’s standards. Two reasonable seasons in La Segunda followed, before the club bid farewell to the Vallejo with relegation to the Tercera.
The site of the old Camp de Vallejo was sold for housing and work started on a new stadium to the north of the city in 1968. Levante moved in with rivals Valencia for the 1968-69 season, but couldn’t escape the grips of the Tercera and was firmly entrenched in the third division when the new stadium opened on 9 September 1969 with a friendly against their cross-city rivals.