On 24th July 2007, 84-year-old Raimundo Perez Lezama died in Bilbao a long way from Southampton and yet with his death there terminated a footballing connection between the two cities going back to a time before the Second World War.
Fourteen-year-old Raimundo Perez Lezama and Sabino Barinaga Alberdi were among 4,000 refugee Basque children who sailed from Santurce in Northern Spain on the SS Habana in May 1937 to escape the civil war.
The steamship was old, but it managed to evade the blockade of Bilbao – instigated by General Franco’s Nationalists in order to starve the automatous Basque region into submission – to reach Southampton 48 hours later.
The two young Spaniards duly attended local schools while living at Nazareth House in Hill Lane. Having one day walked into the nearby Dell to watch the professionals train, the then Saints manager, Tom Parker, threw them a ball. He soon noted both possessed no little footballing ability and invited them to join the clubs newly introduced ‘B’ side, under the managership of Toby Keleher.
Perez, an agile and lithe goalkeeper did well during his first season, playing in 18 league and cup games, while the slim and tall Barinaga in the same number of games, but playing upfront and double-footed, excelled, notching up an incredible 62 goals, an average in excess of a hat-trick per game. What was even more impressive was the fact he had never kicked a football before coming to England.
With the outbreak of war in September 1939 and the suspension of regular competitions, the club, tightening its belt, fielded just two teams, one participating in War competitions, while the reserves or A team, including Barinaga and Perez, competed in the Hampshire League. They progressed well against adult competition, particularly Barinaga, who posted 22 goals in just 14 appearances, including four hat-tricks, before his return to Spain in March 1940.
Perez, though, would remain to see out the season, which ran into June. A run of 11 Hampshire League and Cup games culminated in him winning a Hampshire Senior Cup medal after a 2-1 victory over Salisbury Corinthians, but now, as the Football League also had fixtures that extended into June, Perez was given his first-team debut at Arsenal.
Five days later, he retained his position and, strangely, five of the Arsenal side became teammates, as they guested for Saints in a 2-1 victory at Fulham.
His final appearance was to come at The Dell, with the visitors, Charlton, winning 3-1. Although the club attempted to retain him, the authorities refused permission and so, soon after, he too returned to Spain.
Now back in his homeland, Perez signed for Arenas Club de Getxo before joining Basque giants Athletico Bilbao in 1941 and was a member of their Spanish Championship sides of 1942-43 and 1955-56.
In 1947, he was awarded the Zamora Trophy for the best goalkeeper in La Liga, having conceded 29 goals in 23 games and soon after gained his only Spanish International cap, on 26th January 1947, against Portugal (1-4).
In this game it was later recalled by English referee Jim Wiltshire that he had occasion to warn the Spanish goalkeeper for swinging on the crossbar and, after attempting to explain to him in both French and German, got the reply “no savvy”. In exasperation, Wiltshire exploded "I don’t want you swinging on that bar, see?" Perez replied “Well, why didn’t you say so, I speak English. I played for Southampton for two seasons!"
His career at Bilbao would last until 1957 before dropping into the lower leagues. Barinaga, though, while offered a contract with Athletic Bilbao, opted to join Real Madrid and made his La Liga debut just a month after leaving Southampton against Bilbao (1-3).
After spending two seasons on loan at Real Valladolid (38 goals in 48 games), he returned to Madrid to net the first ever goal at the newly built Bernabeu Stadium, in an inaugural fixture against Portuguese side Belenenses.
After a successful career at Madrid he left in 1950 to join Real Sociedad and then Betis before retiring in October 1953. He started his coaching/managerial career at Betis in 1954 and subsequently took charge of 11 different clubs and had a stint as coach of the Morocco national side before finally retiring from football in 1978.