Part Three: The peak, the plummet, the end
When the 21st century started, Deportivo La Coruña had never played in the Champions League. By the summer of 2003, they were preparing for a fourth successive season in the competition, having twice reached the quarter-finals and made it to the last 16 on the other occasion. Javier Irureta had taken the Galician club from goggle-eyed upstarts to regular occupants of a prime seat at Europe’s top table.
However, one of the key components from the early days of Irureta’s reign, prolific striker Roy Makaay, had jumped ship to Bayern Munich in that summer, depriving the team of one of their most potent assets. Veteran midfielder Donato, a stalwart of many years for the club, was also gone as he announced his retirement. They had glossed over previous high-profile departures with plenty of astute purchases, but could they draw water from that particular well once more?
The early signs were that Makaay wasn’t being missed as vastly as some had feared. Walter Pandiani filled the goalscoring void left by the Dutchman, the Uruguay striker buoyed by a refreshing loan spell at Real Mallorca, and Deportivo scored some significant wins in the opening months of 2003/04, thumping Atlético Madrid 5-1 and beating a fine Valencia side as well as winning at Barcelona. They topped the table at Halloween but October ended on a sombre note with the death of supporter Manuel Ríos Suárez at a Copa Del Rey fixture.
Deportivo’s disaster in Monaco
The team’s on-pitch form also hit a dip in November, yet perhaps the nadir of Irureta’s reign came on 5th November 2003 in the principality of Monaco. On a sorry night at the Stade Louis II, the home side slapped eight goals past Deportivo, whose haul of three would be enough to win many games but in this instance was akin to putting a Band-Aid on a foot-long gash. Dado Pršo helped himself to four against the Spaniards, for whom the enforced half-time substitution of goalkeeper José Molina for Gustavo Munúa had calamitous consequences.
That humiliation threatened to derail their Champions League campaign at the first hurdle but ultimately they did just enough to sneak through the group stage on goal difference – had they lost by one more goal in the final-day 3-2 defeat to PSV Eindhoven, they would have been beaten into second by the Dutch outfit.
That near-escape seemed to spur them on domestically, as Deportivo’s winter form was magnificent, including an immensely satisfying 5-0 away thrashing of local rivals Celta Vigo, who were also competing in the last 16 of the Champions League. Unfortunately, defeats in quick succession to title rivals Barcelona and Valencia left them with a lot of ground to make up if they were to claim their second La Liga crown, and it didn’t bode well for their European tie against Juventus.
The Serie A side was enduring a poor season, though, and an early Pandiani goal at the Stadio delle Alpi gave them a 1-0 victory to take back to Spain, leaving them firmly in the driving seat to advance to the last eight. A repeat of that scoreline at the Riazor took Deportivo cruising into a third Champions League quarter-final in four years – a sure sign that they belonged at that level.
Deportivo’s miracle against Milan
Having eliminated one of the previous year’s finalists, Irureta’s side would be tasked with doing the same to the other, given a daunting quarter-final draw against reigning European champions AC Milan, who were flying at the top of Serie A under Carlo Ancelotti. This was a Rossoneri side with quality all over the park – Cafu, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, Andrea Pirlo, Rivaldo, Gennaro Gattuso, Filippo Inzaghi, Andriy Shevchenko – and yet none of those would be the main topic of conversation after the first leg.
Just as in Turin, Pandiani struck early and Deportivo had what seemed a precious away goal. In a short spell either side of half-time, though, a certain Kaká turned the San Siro into his personal playground. The Brazilian equalised just before the interval and then inspired a coruscating opening seven minutes in the second half, scoring in between quickfire goals from Shevchenko and Pirlo to leave the Spaniards reeling. From 1-0 up to 4-1 down in the blink of an eye, Deportivo were being taught a footballing lesson by a team who looked every bit like the Champions League holders that they were.
The return leg at the Riazor two weeks later looked like little more than a fixture to fulfil and a chance to restore pride. Pandiani maintained his happy habit of striking early, scoring inside five minutes to inspire genuine hope that the Galicians could pull off a remarkable comeback. Ten minutes before half-time, a horrendous misjudgement from Milan goalkeeper Dida enabled Juan Carlos Valerón to head home from Albert Luque’s cross. Deportivo now needed only one more goal and had nearly an hour to get it.
They required just a further eight minutes. With half-time approaching, Luque brushed off an unusually feeble challenge from Nesta to duly fire to the net, level the tie on aggregate and put Deportivo ahead on away goals. The mountain had been scaled before the interval, but they still had to repel a likely backlash from a wounded Milan in the second half.
There were 15 minutes remaining when Fran added a fourth goal to give the home side breathing space, although one Milan goal would take the match into extra time. They almost got it on the verge of stoppage time through Rui Costa, only for a stunning Molina save to preserve his clean sheet as Deportivo saw out the game, completing one of the most improbable rescue acts in Champions League history.
It was a night to rival that of their title triumph of four years earlier in terms of the scale of celebration, and with Porto, Chelsea and Monaco as the other three semi-finalists, Deportivo’s chances of going the distance seemed more than realistic in a very open field. The Portuguese side, led by an up-and-coming manager with a cocky stride in José Mourinho, stood between them and the final.
Champions League heartbreak in La Coruña
The semi-final was everything that the quarter-final wasn’t. Free-flowing attacking brilliance was replaced by conservative, spiteful gamesmanship. The abiding memory of a dreadful, goalless first leg in Porto was a needless red card for Jorge Andrade against his former club, depriving Irureta of one of his key defenders for the return leg at the Riazor. The tie was in the balance but the lack of an away goal left Deportivo vulnerable.
An equally unwatchable second leg was settled on the hour mark by Derlei’s penalty for the visitors, with a late red card for Noureddine Naybet adding insult to injury for the home side. Certainly not for the last time, a Mourinho team produced a provocative defensive masterclass and they then went on to hammer Monaco in a largely forgettable final in Gelsenkirchen.
This was perhaps Deportivo’s greatest chance to become champions of Europe and they couldn’t take it, outfoxed by a manager of whom we would hear so much more in the forthcoming years. They at least managed to preserve third place in La Liga, although they were one point short of Barcelona in second, meaning that they again had to negotiate a play-off to ensure that they got back into the Champions League group stage.
Deportivo’s Champions League decline
A number of long-serving players left in the summer of 2004, such as Naybet, Djalminha, Jacques Songo’o and José Manuel, which hinted at a potential ‘end of an era’ feel at the Riazor, particularly as incomings were thin on the ground. At least they were given a kind draw in the Champions League play-offs against Shelbourne from Ireland.
There was a sense of frustration brewing at the club over missing out on numerous transfer targets and it threatened to come to a head in Dublin, where Deportivo were not only held to a 0-0 draw by their unfancied opponents but couldn’t even cling to the excuse of throwing the kitchen sink at a heroic Alamo-esque defence – the final score was a fair reflection of the game. Barely three months on from being 90 minutes away from the Champions League final, Irureta’s side were facing the potential humiliation of being dumped out by a team who were professional but earning working-class wages.
There was still no breakthrough after an hour in the return leg at the Riazor but then Víctor Sánchez finally broke Shelbourne’s resistance and Deportivo added two more goals, yet it wasn’t a display to inspire confidence ahead of a group stage in which they would play Liverpool and the previous season’s runners-up Monaco.
From the moment that they failed to beat Olympiakos at home in what looked their most winnable game, Deportivo’s Champions League campaign seemed to be in trouble. Defeat at Monaco preceded a fortunate 0-0 draw at Anfield when Liverpool spurned numerous chances, with the Reds getting their revenge by winning at the Riazor. Another loss in Piraeus meant that the Spaniards were out before they even played their final group game against Monaco, who romped to a 5-0 win in La Coruña. Bottom of their group with only two points and not a single goal scored in six games, Deportivo looked a pale shadow of the team who had lit up the competition throughout the previous four years.
Domestically things were no better; in fact, they were arguably even worse. At the midway point of the season, Irureta’s side were a dismal 13th, a full 20 points off the lead. Pandiani criticised his manager and the club in public and was farmed out on loan to Birmingham, from where he continued to aim unsubtle digs at Irureta.
The end of April 2005 brought with it the final nail in the coffin. With virtually no hope of any European football for the following season by that stage, it was announced that Irureta’s time in charge would conclude at the end of the campaign. His glorious seven-year spell in charge would end in meek circumstances with a draw against relegated Numancia, although an eighth-placed finish earned a crack at Europe through the much-maligned Intertoto Cup.
The glory days at Deportivo were over. They haven’t been back in the Champions League since and lost their top-flight status twice in three years in the early 2010s. This summer, they even plummeted into the third tier of Spanish football. Twenty years on from their solitary La Liga triumph, it served as a painful reminder of how far they had fallen. Deportivo have rarely plunged to such depths, yet for a five-year period in the early 2000s, Irureta and his exhilarating team gave the Riazor and its devotees the greatest of highs in the club’s 114-year history.