In October 2013, I moved to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia to start a new job teaching English.
Once all the formalities of finding somewhere to live and settling into a new job and routine were out of the way, I could finally focus on the important things – going to as much football as possible.
After making my Galician football bow at Compostela in late October, I had to wait until 17th November to finally board the train up to A Coruña, with the main attraction being Deportivo vs Real Mallorca, two big clubs who had found themselves in the Segunda, rather than where they felt they belonged in La Liga.
This would be the first time I made what would become a familiar journey for me, Santiago to A Coruña by train.
As train journeys go, it’s a short and relatively pleasant one with only a couple of stops before you arrive in A Coruña and as I left the station for the first time, I could taste the sea air. I immediately felt at home.
The stadium itself isn’t exactly close to the station, so there was quite a bit of walking ahead of me (thankfully all downhill) as I made my way to the sea, following the Ronda de Outeiro onto Avenida de Arteixo, through Parque de Santa Margarida and down Avenida de Finisterre until I could see the sea.
The stadium is perched on the western end of the beach which stretches around the rugged Galician coastline, stopping just short of the iconic Torre de Hércules, which looms large above the city centre.
As someone who grew up used to being beside the sea, and had recently had to get used to being landlocked, I did feel a bit homesick as I strolled around the Paseo Maritimo before taking a quick walk along the sand itself. A windy November morning in A Coruña is not all that different from one in Ballycastle, Portrush or Portstewart.
There surely aren’t many stadiums in the world with such a naturally stunning location.
Soon it was time to head over for my first look at the stadium itself.
All around the stadium facade were pictures reminding everyone of better times. The La Liga title of 2000, the 2002 Copa del Rey, when Depor defeated Real Madrid in their own backyard on the date of their centenary, epic Champions League battles with Manchester United and AC Milan. In the 1990’s and first half of the 2000’s, the Estadio Riazor had been one of the most intimidating venues in Europe but the previous few years hadn’t been kind.
As I mentioned before, this was a Segunda División fixture, with Depor having just been relegated for the second time in three years and in the midst of a huge financial crisis. They came into the game second, three points behind leaders Recreativo de Huelva, having just beaten them 1-0 at the Estadio Nuevo Colombino the week before. Despite their league position, they had only actually won two games at home so far.
On the opposite side of the ground is the Depor Tienda, your one-stop shop for everything Depor. In years to come, I would discover that this (and the other stores which opened later in the city) are pretty much the only places you can buy the kits. Officially anyway – I never really trusted the tourist shops in Santiago with their slightly questionable replicas stuffed into plastic boxes.
The decoration of the shop deliberately recalled past glories. The doors to the fitting rooms displayed the names of two of the greatest players to ever wear the club’s colours, Bebeto and Juan Carlos Valerón, while many of the great European results are displayed in various places around the building. Next to the replica shirts, there was a more recent image, depicting the celebrations from Depor’s last promotion from the Segunda.
There are also three trophies on display. One was the Segunda trophy won two years previously, next to it, the gigantic Trofeo Teresa Herrera, modelled on the Torre de Hércules, which Depor compete for every year in pre-season and lastly, the Copa del Rey, won twice by the club in 1995 and most famously in 2002. By pure coincidence I ran into a couple of English people who were also making their first visit to the stadium that day and we agreed to take each other’s photos with the Copa del Rey.
I picked up a scarf outside the ground, as the majority of the options inside the shop were plain blue and I wanted something striped, meaning I didn’t actually purchase anything inside the shop – and indeed wouldn’t for another year until I picked up a cheap t-shirt celebrating (spoiler) Depor’s eventual promotion.
After this, I went to pick up my ticket from the ticket office on the other side of the ground from the shop. There was a short queue but thankfully no danger of the game selling out. I’d not been to many Spanish games at this point (this was only my fourth) but I knew that €18 was a decent price for a match in the Segunda.
After exploring the street on the other side of the stadium, Rua de Manuel Murguia, which is lined with bars, I decided to settle in the one on the corner, the extremely generically named Cafeteria Estadio, and have a traditional Spanish almuerzo of chocolate con churros.
In future, I would usually go into the city centre and have a tapas lunch somewhere – O Sampaio on Rúa da Galera was a particular favourite – followed by coffee at Cafe Vecchio before heading back over to the stadium, but this time I just wanted to soak up the pre-game atmosphere next to the ground.
Inside the Ground
Typically, I was one of the first people inside the ground, which gave me plenty of time to take photos of the rows of empty blue and white seats before they filled up later on as well as getting the classic ‘new signing’ photo with my recently-purchased scarf in front of the stand opposite.
I had plenty of time to familiarise myself with my surroundings, watch the warm-ups and enjoy the pre-match music which with its collection of mid-1990’s rock hits seemed to be deliberately recalling an era when the team was good.
As kick off approached, I was treated to my first experience of the club himno. For those of you who don’t know, pretty much every club in Spain has an official anthem, which usually accompanies the team onto the pitch. These are entirely original compositions dedicated to the club in question and cover the whole spectrum of musical genres. Depor’s sounds like it was recorded by the Galician version of Status Quo.
Much better was the video played in the minutes before kick off featuring iconic moments from the club’s history soundtracked by Ennio Morricone’s The Ecstasy of Gold from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Ironic given the chronic financial problems the club was suffering at the time, but boy does it make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.
The Depor team that day was as follows: Lux, Marchena, Manuel Pablo, Insua, Seoane, Luisinho, Culio, Juan Domínguez, Álex Bergantiños, Arizmendi, Luis Fernández.
Super Depor this wasn’t. In fact, the only survivor of the days when the Riazor hosted the cream of European football was full back Manuel Pablo, by this time aged 37 and entering the twilight years of his career. Sadly I missed out on the chance to see Juan Carlos Valerón, one of my favourite players from the glory days, by a matter of months, the legendary playmaker having returned home to play for Las Palmas during the summer.
The biggest name among the starting XI was undoubtedly Carlos Marchena. winner of both Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup with Spain and also the holder of a world record for the most consecutive victories in international football. However his club career had taken a bit of a dip with a shock relegation with Villarreal in 2012 being followed by another when he moved to A Coruña the next season.
And of that starting team, only one remains at the club today. Now club captain, Aléx Bergantiños has seen it all. Promotion, a winning goal against Barcelona, bizarrely being loaned out to Sporting Gijon in the year Depor were relegated from La Liga and last (and sadly least) relegation to Segunda B last summer.
On the bench the most notable name was Antonio Núñez, largely known in the UK for being the player that Liverpool received as part of the deal which took Michael Owen to the Bernabéu but for me, he would eventually become a cult hero in my time watching Recreativo de Huelva between 2016 and 2018.
The Mallorca squad actually contained a few players who would go on to achieve bigger things. A young, on-loan Atlético Madrid midfielder called Thomas Partey, a pre-Real Madrid Marco Asensio and Gerard Moreno, currently one of the top centre forwards in La Liga with Villarreal all participated.
Coaching Mallorca that day was José Luis Oltra, who a year previously had been in charge of Depor, having guided them to the Segunda title and automatic promotion in 2011/12. Life in La Liga proved a bit more complicated for him though and he was fired on 30th December with Depor sitting bottom of the table. No doubt he would have been keen to get one over on his old employers.
There’s a nice full highlights video of the game on YouTube which helped refresh my memory when writing this. One thing I didn’t need to be reminded of was how loud it was inside the ground. I was sitting along the side closer to the fondo Marathon where the Riazor Blues, Depor’s loudest and most vociferous supporters reside, mostly in the lower deck right behind the net.
Depor opened the scoring with a well worked goal, a cut-back for Luisinho, arriving on the penalty spot, to claim the honour of scoring my first goal at the Riazor.
Mallorca were reduced to ten men in slightly farcical circumstances, Geromel being issued with a second yellow card for deliberate handball. He could consider himself extremely unfortunate that the referee on this day was so particular – watching the video back, it looks like he traps the ball with his thigh and it bounces up and hits the lower part of his arm.
The man advantage definitely helped Depor with their second goal. Mallorca goalkeeper Miño made a good save from Marchena’s header but could only push it away into the path of Luis Fernández who, totally unmarked, blasted the ball in from close range.
The home side had looked well in control for most of the first half, but a sluggish start to the second period allowed Mallorca to get a goal back. There were a couple of nervous moments, notably when Lux made a bizarre mess of a shot letting it squirm under him before kicking it away into the path of Alfaro who put the ball in the net. Fortunately he had been offside when the initial shot came in and the goal was ruled out.
The win was eventually made safe when the ball was adjudged to have crossed the line from Marchena’s towering header on 56 minutes. From my position I hadn’t a clue if it had gone in or not, but I happily celebrated the decision to award it regardless.
This would be the first of many times that I would go and see Depor play here in Spain. Stay tuned for a follow-up post in the next few weeks where I go through the rest of my adventures in A Coruña and on the road!