On 20th July 2020, twenty years after winning the La Liga title, Deportivo La Coruña were relegated to the third tier of Spanish football, forced to watch their fate play out on TV screens as their own final game didn’t take place, due to a number of players from opponents Fuenlabrada testing positive for Covid-19.
When I started supporting Depor after my move to Galicia in 2013, I never saw this happening.
Although they were in the Segunda that first season, I still had memories of the days when Valeron, Diego Tristan, Djalminha, Mauro Silva et al were the toast of Europe – indeed the exterior of the ground was decorated with their images – and I felt that once promotion was achieved they would at least go back to being a decent La Liga team, pushing for Europe most seasons.
Needless to say, I was slightly deluded in that way of thinking.
Every season turned into a grim struggle against relegation – even the one where Depor started pretty well and were right in the middle of the race for Europe at the halfway point of the season – until the inevitable finally arrived in 2018.
Then last season, with a 2-0 lead over Mallorca in the play-off final, they somehow conspired to lose the second leg 3-0, missing out on a promotion which would have covered up a lot of cracks in an inconsistent season.
Although I left Galicia in December 2015 to take a job elsewhere, Depor remained my team in Spain – you can’t just turn that kind of thing on and off like a tap – and I always tried to go to their away games when I could – away at Sevilla and Betis when I was living in Huelva, then latterly at Rayo Majadahonda and Alcorcón in Madrid.
The Season From Hell
Honestly, I thought Depor were goners by Christmas.
The first round of the season brought only two wins, numerous embarrassing collapses and two utterly ineffective managers.
Appointing Fernando Vazquez in December for a second spell in charge looked like the last roll of the dice. But initially, it worked brilliantly. A run of six successive league wins under his tutelage helped pull Depor out of the mire and put safety within reach before the pandemic shut everything down.
I was at one of those games, against Alcorcón in February, where the combination of a ground half-filled by Depor fans and a last-minute winner created one of my best experiences of the season.
Hope is good, but it can also be dangerous.
Amid all the anger at how the season finished, the most frustrating thing is that Depor had survival in their own hands a fortnight ago – and completely blew it.
They were unbeaten after the resumption of competition and had shown plenty of resilience, coming from behind to claim a point or more in five of their first seven games. But then things imploded…
They just never got going in the six-pointer at Málaga, self-destructed against an already-relegated Extremadura and limped to defeat against a Mirandés side with nothing to play for. Win any of those games – even get a draw in one of them – and Depor still went into the final day with their fate in their own hands.
There were no guarantees Depor would have got the result they needed against Fuenlabrada – their opponents were in great form and needed the win to ensure a play-off spot – and the fact that all the other results went against Depor anyway suggests it might not have mattered. The phrase ‘sporting integrity’ has been thrown around a lot in the last few months when discussing ways of concluding seasons in these difficult days – unfortunately it was not present in the final matchday of the Segunda season.
The fact La Liga allowed the other 11 games to go ahead when there was so much at stake ranks as a pretty scandalous decision. Would they have done the same if it had happened in La Liga and the title had been on the line?
Looking To The Future
Segunda B is going to be brutal next season.
The Covid-19 pandemic led to it being suspended in March with no relegation, but teams will still be promoted from the Tercera, creating an unwieldy 100 team division for 2020/21 – still with only four promotion spots.
It will be streamlined the following year, with 40 teams going into what is tentatively called “Segunda B Pro” – two groups which will feed into the Segunda.
The last thing that Depor want is to end up stuck in Segunda B for a long time. Not for nothing is the division known as el pozo (the well) – it’s easy to fall into it, quite a lot more difficult to climb out again.
When Depor were relegated from La Liga in 2018, I hoped it would be a wake-up call to the powers that be at the club and act as a stimulus for a hard reset. It didn’t happen then, but it really should now.
Here are a few things that I would do if I was in charge of the club going forward…
1. No more journeyman managers
Pick someone who “gets” the club and has a long-term vision for getting Depor back to where they belong – and stick with him.
Don’t sack a manager in February/March with no plan beyond giving the players a kick up the backside for the run-in like has happened so many times in the past.
Since I started supporting Depor in 2013, they have had twelve managers (including Fernando Vazquez twice) and of them, only Vazquez and Victor Sanchez del Amo have managed to see out a full season at the helm. That highlights a real issue when it comes to recruiting managers, the absolute nadir being when Clarence Seedorf was brought in to try and mastermind an escape from relegation in 2018 based solely on him being Clarence Seedorf.
2. Build a local core
In the current Depor squad, the only local player who regularly features is skipper Alex Bergantiños. Indeed, the only other gallego in the squad is goalkeeper Dani Giménez, who is from Vigo.
Depor should make constructing a Galician core part of their identity moving forward.
There’s not much more to say than that.
3. Get players who are in it for the long haul
The last two seasons have seen Depor be overly dependent on loan players which is not good for continuity.
If they do well, their parent clubs will happily take them back or try to sell them on to someone with a bit more money as happened with the likes of Domingos Duarte, Pablo Marí and Carlos Fernández after Depor missed out on promotion last season.
If things don’t go well, there’s always the fear that their hearts aren’t really in it – that they can’t wait to get back to their parent club or get a different loan move. If the team does badly, it isn’t going to affect them as much.
You need players who believe in the club and want it to be successful. Not ones who are playing with one eye on a big move next season.
To my mind, the idea of helping restore a famous club like Depor to their rightful place is the kind of project which would be attractive to a certain kind of player. When Mallorca went down to Segunda B in 2017, they recruited players who they believed could not only help them straight back up, but also make them competitive the following season. This is the kind of model that Depor should be trying to follow.
The key thing should be breaking from the mistakes of the last few seasons – the ones which have been made over and over again.
Going down is terrible – but it doesn’t have to be a disaster. It can be the rebirth of a better Depor.
I know the club plans to issue a legal challenge over the Fuenlabrada game and push for the Segunda to be expanded to 24 teams next season – I’m not really going to comment on that, just say that even if there is some kind of reprieve, the club needs change of the type I’ve mentioned above!