Deportivo La Coruña on Sunday secured promotion to Primera División after just one year in the second tier. The Galician club came back from a goal down to beat Huesca 2-1 and equal Valladolid’s record of 88 points in a single season in Segunda.
The achievement is a triumph for coach José Luis Oltra and for a top-quality, big-budget squad led by Juan Carlos Valerón and a host of other veterans.
Lendoiro knew that Depor wouldn’t make it back to Primera without fans so he lowered the ticket price
It is also a triumph for club president Augusto César Lendoiro. A man with something of the gambler about him, he has overcome risk and gotten results by moving in the margins. A year ago, many thought they saw him turn pale when, looking tearful, he took in the reality of the first relegation of his quarter-century reign. The club was facing debts of 100 million euros and an alarming drop in the squad’s quality. People speculated that this was the beginning of the end for the great Blues and Whites.
Lendoiro, however, had a few aces up his sleeve. The first had to do with the insurance payment for the relegation. Lendoiro fought tooth and nail for a common club compensation fund in marathon meetings with half of the Spanish soccer world. It led to a split with Atlético Madrid, Sevilla and Villarreal, which all saw it as a capitulation to Real Madrid and Barcelona over the issue of TV rights. Now Villarreal is in Segunda without having signed up to the fund. Depor, meanwhile, received 10 million euros to compete at a level where the total budget of 19 of its rivals did not even reach that amount.
Money is no insignificant matter at a club where half of every euro earned goes to the taxman to cover debts. But Lendoiro put all his chips on the table and went for broke.
He also sensed that Depor wouldn’t make it back to Primera without fans. He lowered the price of season tickets and also offered reduced tickets to club members’ friends and relatives. When the season had only just started, Depor hosted Guadalajara on a Saturday afternoon in a stadium as full as those on the big Champions League nights of yesteryear. It was then Lendoiro knew Depor was on its way back.
That just left the soccer. Among the first decisions after the trauma of relegation was to hand the reins of the team over to Oltra, a young coach who had worked at two clubs that had also gone down, Tenerife and Almería. But before that he had taken the Canarian club up and narrowly missed out on getting promotion for Ciudad de Murcia. He carried with him an aura that Lendoiro saw as an intrinsic value to the environment.
“In A Coruña they like quality soccer,” he said at the presentation of the new coach. “It would be difficult to understand anything else when the strong man is Valerón.” The 36-year-old playmaker had had a residual role under previous coach Miguel Ángel Lotina in a team designed to fight to stay up. Under Oltra he has become a leading figure both on and off the field.
Valerón was an ace Lendoiro could count on. Other players seemed lost, but Lendoiro spurned a lukewarm transfer market and maintained the spine of the team: Daniel Aranzubia, Diego Colotto, Andrés Guardado and Riki. No tempting offers for them arrived, but neither did Lendoiro look likely to pay them any attention if they did because he was clear that he was going to keep going for another year spending like a Primera club.
And when the market closed he left Oltra with a Ferrari parked at his door: a team that in wages alone cost over 18 million euros and a club that had 45 million euros to compete against rivals such as Almería, with an 11-million budget; Valladolid, 10.5 million; and Celta, nine million. Depor paid its players four times the budget of Alcorcón, the opponent that gave it the most trouble during the campaign, scoring three goals in 15 minutes.
The correction came in a rather fortuitous way. Oltra has shown two characteristics: he finds it difficult to make changes, but if a player comes on and responds he earns a place. Aythami and Jesús Vázquez were substituted for Zé Castro and Juan Dominquez and, by coincidence or not, the team changed.