From The Vaults

29 August 2023
Juan Arzuaga: an Iberian sporting legend

Sporting and Social historian Keith Gregson delves into the story of Juan Arzuaga, the Spanish football star who cut his teeth on the rugby fields of North-East England.

His links to rugby were discovered recently in a brief online biography of the Spaniard. Here the writer notes that Juan was educated in England where he also played rugby. Elsewhere it is suggested that this education took place in the North-East of England - somewhere around the rivers Tyne and Wear. Fortunately, records have survived to prove this to have been the case.

Juan Arzuaga turns up in the 1901 census in Gateshead - south of the Tyne and in the county of Durham. He was 19 years old and a marine engineering student boarding with a local family. It is therefore very likely that he was serving an apprenticeship in one of the shipyards on the Tyne or Wear. From what follows it is clear that he stayed for between three and four years and was in the region due to the massive trade and ship building links between Bilbao and North-East England. (The author's maternal great grandfather, a ship master, took coal to Bilbao and brought iron back to North-East ports on a regular basis in the late 19th century).

Juan was, without doubt, a talented sportsman and this is confirmed by accounts in English newspapers covering the period from November 1898 when he had just turned 18 to the spring of 1902 when, at the age of 21, he moved to Germany to work in engineering. By then he was playing rugby at a very high standard.

To date only one newspaper reference to his playing in the 1890s has turned up and that is for North Durham 2nd XV v Northern 3rd XV in November 1898. The first account of his involvement in an actual game comes against Sunderland 1st XV for North Durham 1st XV in February 1901 at Sunderland's Ashbrooke ground. Sunderland won 31-3 with Juan scoring the three penalty points for his club. The Sunderland side contained two future internationals and Barbarians. (This account is particularly pleasing as the author of the current article is historian of Sunderland RFC where one son coaches and another plays for the 1st XV).

Juan's final season (1901/2) provided numerous references to his rugby involvement. By November 1901 he was still turning out for North Durham and receiving glowing reports. In that month he scored both tries in a victory over Durham School - one brilliantly run in from the school's 25-yard line. In December 1901 he scored the only try in a narrow loss to the tough coal miners' side Hamsteels. He converted tries into goals in both these games. In January 1902 he was elemental in securing a 5-5 draw against the mighty Northumberland based Northern side. He scored all the points - the try secured by dispossessing Northern's star full back and by crossing the line at pace; the conversion was a difficult yet successful one.

Most of the other references are for the last few months of the 1901/2 season when he transferred to Rockliff (today Whitley Bay Rockliff). He is likely to have been head-hunted due to the glowing reports already mentioned. At this time Rockliff was one of the leading sides in Northern England. In many of his games for the club Juan played on one wing while England international Tom Simpson (11 caps) played on the other.

Juan's first appearance for Rockliff took place against top side West Hartlepool in mid-January 1902. He was said to have had 'a poor game'. However, a Newcastle Journal reporter vouched for his pace and reckoned he would be as successful as Simpson in the near future. The same reporter also noted that the Rockliff crowd, baffled by his name, came up with the nickname 'XYZ' - this being the name of a famous racehorse still recalled today in an annual race at Newcastle's High Gosforth Park. (XYZ was remembered for its speed and is also named in a well-known Tyneside street song). In February he played against Durham City and Carlisle. In the latter game he 'dribbled speedily over the line and scored' in an 11-6 victory.

In March 1902 Juan turned out against Percy Park. He also scored another try in a return game with Carlisle. On 6 March he scored two tries in the County Cup defeat of Walker and was flagged up as being a major threat in the ensuing final against Percy Park (again). According to the press he was now playing with confidence and he and Simpson were proving an indomitable pair. 'Speedy and resourceful' he helped Rockliff to defeat Percy Park in the final 9-0. On 28 March Rockliff registered a magnificent 9-0 victory over the mighty Northampton with Juan picked out for his magnificent kicking which included a points scoring drop goal. The game was played at Northampton in front of 5,000 spectators.

April 1902 saw three further prestigious games. The first was a loss to Swansea in front of 15,000 Welsh spectators. In this match, he had a drop goal ruled out. The Welsh tour continued with a match against Newport- very much a top side at this time. Juan was injured and Rockliff had to play the second half with 14 men. A heavy defeat ensued. His last game for the club was a 9-8 loss to a strong Hartlepool Rovers side where he attempted and just missed a couple of drop goals.

It is possible to pinpoint Juan's departure from Rockliff (and possibly from rugby though he may have played some rugby in Germany). This is due to the discovery of a full report on the club's annual dinner in late April 1902. According to a report in the Newcastle Journal Juan's move away from the North-East was imminent and, as a consequence, he was awarded a gold medal for his efforts on the rugby field. Juan said he would love to return to play in the red and yellow of the club (still the colours today) as they reminded him of the Spanish flag. The dinner was attended by a number of international players and the entertainment was provided by W E Catcheside Warrington - known to modern cultural historians as a significant promoter of long-lasting Tyneside songs such as 'Blaydon Races' and 'Cushie Butterfield'.

Athletic Club 1910

Juan Arzuaga (back row, far right) left North-East England for Germany and ultimately for his home city of Bilbao and fame on the football field. While he was with Athletic Club the first XI began to play in red and white stripes and recent research is confirming increasingly that this was due to various links between Bilbao and the port of Sunderland and its football club - famed for its red and white stripes. Indeed, it is now felt that Bilbao's first red and white strips were actually purchased from a sports shop in Sunderland. Is it not then significant that one of Bilbao's stars who wore that shirt had once played sport in Sunderland? By pure happenstance Arzagua eventually opened a sports shop in Bilbao himself!

Juan Arzagua was a real star and must have been the only person to have been victorious in finals of both a Spanish Association Cup and an English County Rugby Cup.

About the Author - Keith Gregson is a Sunderland-based semi-retired freelance writer, historian and musician. He has written numerous books about the history of sport including 'One Among Many', 'Sporting Ancestors' and 'Australia in Sunderland'. Details of his work can be found at and his books can be purchased from Amazon.

With thanks to Borja Valle Sarasketa, historian of Athletic Club, for his work on Arzuaga the 'footballer' and the club's links to Sunderland AFC.