Huelva has a very special place in the history of Spanish Football. For this dusty industrial port close to the south-west border with Portugal, saw the birth of the modern game in a country that has dominated the world at a club and international level. Huelva may not have been the first location to experience ex-patriot muddied oafs kicking the bejesus out of a pig’s bladder, but it is where Huelva Recreation Club was founded in 1889. Thus making its direct descendants, Real Club Recreativo de Huelva, El Abuelo del Fútbol Español or the Grandfather of Spanish Football.
To find the very beginning, we need to travel back to 1873 and the arrival of the Rio Tinto Mining Company in the hills some forty miles to the north-west of Huelva. Phil Ball in his excellent book Morbo describes how British troops fighting in the Carlist War, played a match in September 1874 against navvies working on the railway link from the mines to Huelva. Rio Tinto formed a club for the workers in the town that had sprung up around the mines and Club Inglés or Rio Tinto FC, as they were to be known would go through various phases and mergers before folding during the Civil War. The rail link reached Huelva in late 1874 and almost immediately, a community of British ex-patriots sprang up in the city. The Barrio de los Ingles was built to house the great and the good of the mining company and one of them, Dr William Alexander Mackay set up a sports and social club practising in the very English sports of Cricket, Lawn Tennis and Football. The Recreation Club, as it became known, would participate in matches against ships crews arriving in Huelva and against Club de Regatas de Sevilla. This was a similar club that had been set up in the Andalucian capital by German-Spanish businessman Wilhelm Sundheim de la Cueva. Sundhiem, who had been central to attracting British investment in the mines, convened a meeting on 18 December 1889 that would see the formation of Huelva Recreation Club.
Whilst initially a multi-recreational club, footballing activity grew quickly and several matches were played against Club Inglés Rio Tinto and Sevilla Foot-ball Club, who they met for the first time on 8 March 1890. The club used fields owned by the local gas company, one in the centre of town, where the current Guardia Civil is located and another near the mouth of the Rio Odiel, close to the current Estadio Nuevo Colombino. In December 1890, the Rio Tinto company purchased land just to the south of the city and Huelva Recreation Club set about developing the site. It took 18 months for the ground to be properly developed, but finally on 13 August 1892, the Estadio del Velódromo opened for business. As the name suggests, the Velódromo was also suitable for cycling and other sports and on occasion, the footballing arm played matches back on the fields owned by the gas company. By the turn of the twentieth century, football had begun to dominate club activity and the club took up permanent residence at the Estadio del Velódromo. A pavilion was added to the site in 1903 and in 1906 the club accepted an invite from Madrid FC to play in a tournament in the Spanish Capital. In 1909, the club sought and received royal patronage and became known as Real Club Recreativo de Huelva. The Andalucian championship was won on three occasions between 1903 and 1917, but with the rise of professionalism, the club faded in prominence, so much so that when the national leagues were formed in 1928, Recreativo did not receive an invite.
Recreativo did play in the inaugural Tercera championship of 1929-30, winning the regional title before losing to Cartagena FC in the play-offs. The same would fate would befall the club a year later when it lost out to Celta Vigo in the play-offs. The following season saw an event that would shake the club to the core. On 25 October 1931, Recreativo was playing Real Betis in a regional championship match, the winner of which would almost certainly qualify for the national championship. With Betis leading 1-2, the referee was hit by a stone thrown from the crowd who were less than pleased with his decision making. He threatened to abandon the match but was persuaded to carry on and Betis hung on to win 1-2. The local Southern Federation, who had a strained relationship with Recreativo, fined the club an astonishing 17,000 pesetas. Recreativo appealed and won support from many non-Sevilla based clubs, who were also tired of the Southern Federation’s perceived bias towards teams from the Andalucian capital. The National Federation stepped in and suspended the fine, but banned Recreativo from using their name for a period of five years and forced them to leave the Southern Federation, in effect forcing it to reorganise. So on 12 December 1931, the club was renamed Onuba Foot-ball Club, taking its name from a small club that existed in Huelva between 1910 and 1913 and in October 1932, Onuba FC joined the Western Federation.
Onuba FC dominated the Western Federation in the years leading up to the Civil War, then following the end of the fighting, was readmitted into the Southern Federation. It was also admitted to the reformed La Segunda, which thanks to government interference was structured to include as wide a regional representation as possible. Onuba finished sixth in that 1939-40 season and was relegated to the Tercera. In 1945 the club successfully requested the reinstatement of its name and a year later won its third Tercera title but failed once again in the play-offs. It was the same story in 1950-51 when another title was followed by a further failure in the play-offs. With the growth of the game in the fifties and Recreativo attracting larger crowds, work started on a new ground half a mile to the northeast of the Estadio del Velódromo. Recreativo saw out their time at the Velódromo with another Tercera title and finally found success in the play-offs. UD Melilla and Elche CF were defeated and Recreativo said goodbye the old stadium and travelled to the new Estadio Colombino and La Segunda for the start of the 1957-58 season.
Work had begun on the new stadium in February 1955 when the local municipality purchased a plot of land for the club in the district of Isla Chica for 69,000 pesetas. Architects Miguel Rodríguez Cordero and Ricardo Anadón Frutos were commissioned to design a modern stadium that featured a full length seated grandstand with a cantilevered roof and an athletics track. The rest of the stadium was made up of a single tier of terracing giving it an overall capacity of 20,000. At the southern end of the ground was an elaborate gateway and a series of raised arches that stood above the terracing. From here you could look down upon a formal garden that was all part of the 15 million peseta budget. The ground was inaugurated on 6 September 1957 when Recreativo played a combined side featuring players from Real Madrid and Athletic Club Bilbao. The first season in their new home was not a success and Recreativo was relegated. They bounced back and played the 1959-60 season in La Segunda, only to be relegated again. Some stability was achieved following promotion back to the second tier in 61-62 when Recreativo embarked on a seven-year stay in the second division. In reality, Recreativo never came close to promotion to the top flight, and finally dropped back to the Tercera in May 1968, from which there would be no immediate return.
The 1970’s did not start well with lowly finishes in the Tercera. Results gradually improved and Recreativo won promotion to La Segunda in 1974. Unlike the previous visits to the second tier, the club avoided a relegation battle and eventually started to challenge for promotion. The 1977-78 season saw the club win 18 and draw 10 of its 38 matches, which was good enough to secure runners-up position and a place in the top flight for the first time. The 1978-79 season proved to be a difficult campaign with Recreativo winning just 8 matches and finishing bottom of La Primera. What’s more, the club overstretched itself financially and was plunged into an economic crisis on its return to the second division. Unable to compete financially, Recreativo did well to remain in La Segunda throughout the eighties, although they never truly managed to compete at the top end of the table. Relegation to Segunda B and further financial woes followed in in 1990. The best part of the 1990s saw Recreativo struggle to get beyond the promotion play-offs, but finally, in 1998, the club was dealt a relatively easy playoff group and ascended to La Segunda.
Promotion to La Segunda meant that the club had to become a limited company and in order to raise the necessary capital Recreativo sold their only asset, the Estadio Colombino to the understanding municipality. The club played on at the old stadium and had a remarkable escape in the 1999-00 season when finishing 21st in the league, but avoided relegation. This was thanks to the demotion of CP Merida and CD Logrones for financial irregularities and Atletico Madrid B’s demotion following the relegation of its first team. The club took full advantage of its reprieve and so would start the most successful period in its history. However, this success would take place away from the old Estadio Colombino. Recreativo had done little in the way of improvements to the stadium in the past 40-odd years and it showed. Blue and white bucket seats had been added to the grandstand and the east side, reducing the capacity to 13,000, but it was purely cosmetic. The stadium was old and falling to pieces and not fit for La Segunda, let alone an assault on promotion to the top flight. Luckily the municipality had a plan. It was redeveloping the waterside area to the south-west of the city, which went by the romantic name of Barriada de Pescadería or Fish Slum. The plans included a new 21,000 seated stadium on the site of the former gas company’s field where Recreativo had played some 100 years before.
The old stadium saw its last first-team action on 9 December 2001 when Recreativo was held to a 0-0 draw by Levante. Recre’s reserve side played Linares in the final game at the old stadium on 30 June 2002. The municipality and the Andalucian government then held protracted discussions over the future use of the land, all of which meant that the old stadium fell into disrepair. The demolition teams finally got to grips with the old ground in 2007, levelling everything except the southern terrace and the old gateway that stood next to the gardens. By 2010 that had been demolished as well and the site is now an ugly sprawl of temporary car park & open wasteland, still awaiting a plan that the municipality and the government can agree upon. The site of the Estadio del Velódromo can be found on Alameda Sundheim, named after one of the club’s founders. Here you will find a sculpture commemorating the stadium on the aptly named Plaza del Velódromo. Hopefully, the politicians will sort out the future of the site of the old Estadio Colombino and celebrate the fantastic old stadium that stood in Isla Chica with an appropriate monument.