Part One: Finally over the line in La Liga
Deportivo’s gradual rise from mediocrity
Just as the 1980s were a bleak time for many in English society, in particular the city of Liverpool which suffered under the ‘managed decline’ enforced upon it by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, Deportivo La Coruña in Spain were going through some of their bleakest years. Most of that decade was spent in the Segunda Liga, with promotion to the top flight remaining elusive, although they were glad just to be in the second tier in 1988 when a stoppage time goal from Vicente in a tense clash against Racing Santander spared them from relegation.
If the Galicians thought that near-miss was the worst of their troubles, they would be sorely mistaken. Deportivo was a club in significant debt at the time, and the off-field focus was simply on trying to clear as much of that as possible rather than even thinking about investing in a squad that could get them into the Primera Liga. That year, Augusto Lendoiro was the man elected to the club presidency, and subsequently tasked with trying to steady a ship that was threatening to veer irrevocably off course.
Stability was achieved during the 1988/89 season and there was even a genuine shot at promotion in the following campaign, where they were eventually defeated in the play-offs. As Deportivo’s severe financial worries disappeared, attention could then turn to significant transfer spending, rather than piling money into trying to plug the holes that threatened to sink them.
The seeds of something special at Deportivo La Coruña were sown in the early 1990s, even if the rewards took some time to reap. They were promoted to the Primera Liga in 1991 after an 18-year absence, and, remarkably, Deportivo were challenging for the title within three seasons. Indeed, the final day of the 1993/94 season was a classic case of ‘so near and yet so far’ as, having been top for more than half the campaign and needing only to beat Valencia at home on the final day, Miroslav Djukić infamously missed a stoppage time penalty that would have given his team victory on the day and in the title race. Instead, Barcelona took the crown on goal average, with them and Deportivo level on points.
They did manage to go the distance and win the Copa Del Rey a year later and had a couple of seasons in the UEFA Cup, as well as attracting renowned Brazilian players such as Bebeto, Djalminha, Mauro Silva and Rivaldo to the Estadio Riazor. The 1997/98 season was an uncomfortable one, though, as toyed with a relegation battle before managing to finish 12th, which was still a disappointing return. The following summer, a new coach was brought into the club from Galician rivals Celta Vigo – a man by the name of Javier Irureta.
The beginning of Irureta’s Deportivo
A member of the Atlético Madrid team who reached the 1974 European Cup final and capped six times by Spain, the Basque native was a well-travelled coach by the time he was unveiled at the Riazor. He guided Real Oviedo to sixth in La Liga and into the UEFA Cup, while also managing the Basque ‘big two’ of Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad. He made a similarly courageous move by swapping Celta for Deportivo in 1998, but he arrived in La Coruña with his stock at a high, having led their Galician rivals into Europe in the season before his move to the Riazor.
The new man at the helm wasn’t an overnight success, though, as despite bringing in a raft of signings, Deportivo sat a lowly 12th at the midway point of the 1998/99 season. However, one of the summer newcomers came good to inspire a strong second half of the campaign for Irureta’s team. Turu Flores became their chief goal-getter, inspiring sensational results such as a 4-0 hammering of Real Madrid and a derby win over his former club Celta Vigo, who were then a strong side that had outclassed Liverpool in that season’s UEFA Cup.
That turnaround in form even had Deportivo pushing for the Champions League places, of which Spain had four, towards the end of the campaign, although a late stumble left them having to settle for sixth. Still, there were visible signs of progress under Irureta, who had guided the club back into Europe.
The manager went shopping for a new striker in the summer of 1999 and struck a deal for a Dutchman by the name of Roy Makaay, who laid down a marker for what was to come with a hat-trick in their opening day victory over Alavés. There was a brief stumble early in the season but Deportivo then rattled off seven successive league wins, with Barcelona and Celta Vigo among the vanquished opposition, to go top of La Liga and even open up a sizeable eight-point advantage. Some dared to dream; others may have been haunted by the final day bottle job of six years previously.
The pessimists may have been in ‘told you so’ mode after a slump which saw Deportivo pick up just one point from a possible 12 and exit the Copa Del Rey against second-tier Osasuna. They also exited the UEFA Cup against eventual finalists Arsenal, but a thumping 5-2 win over Real Madrid at the Riazor was a clear sign that Irureta’s side were not going to surrender top spot easily.
Deportivo continued to hold a narrow lead as Makaay finished the season strongly, ending his first season in La Liga with 22 goals. However, two draws and a defeat (away to Celta, of all teams) going into the final day hinted that they could choke again, with Barcelona breathing down their necks. Just as in 1994, the two clubs went into the final day vying for the title, with the team from La Coruña holding a three-point advantage and knowing that even a draw would get them over the line.
Deportivo La Coruña’s D-Day in La Liga
Their opponents on the showdown day of 19 May 2000? Espanyol, the city neighbours of…Barcelona. The script seemed written for the Catalan city’s lesser-celebrated top flight club to somehow wreck Deportivo’s title party and hand their neighbours the title. There was some neat symmetry, though, with Barca facing off against Deportivo’s local rivals Celta, both title contenders hoping for a favour from their respective neighbours. Could the leaders hold their nerve?
If some supporters at the Riazor that night may have gone to the game fearing the worst, their worries would have been nicely placated inside three minutes, with veteran midfielder Donato wasting no time in finding the net and sending a clear signal that this Deportivo team was primed to seize its moment.
The party atmosphere amplified even further half an hour later when Makaay bagged his 22nd league goal of the season to double the Galicians’ lead, and put them well on course to finally get over the line. At the same time, Celta astonishingly went 2-0 ahead at Camp Nou, with all of the pieces falling nicely into place for Irureta’s team.
Two early second half goals from Barcelona frayed the nerves a little but, so long as Deportivo did their job, it was immaterial what Louis van Gaal’s side could muster in Catalunya. As it transpired, the leaders had put themselves into a commanding position which, in reality, they were never going to relinquish. The ghosts of 1994 had been laid to rest and, for the first time in the club’s history, Deportivo La Coruña were champions of Spain, breaking up the Real Madrid-Barcelona duopoly, just as Atlético Madrid had done four years earlier.
The numbers would suggest that Irureta’s team ought to have been nowhere near being champions. They lost 11 of their 38 league games and conceded two goals for every three scored. They won just five times on the road in 19 attempts and were beaten nine times away from home, their triumph owing massively to making the Riazor a hotbed at which they won 16 times. Nonetheless, from the moment that they beat Sevilla 5-2 in November to go top of the table, they never relinquished top spot, so their success was no smash-and-grab, but rather a case of them making the most of their rivals’ shortcomings.
Their total of 69 points was the lowest for a La Liga champion in the three points for a win era – it mattered not a jot to the euphoric Galicians. An estimated 200,000 people took to the streets of La Coruña for a lengthy public celebration to mark their city’s greatest-ever footballing moment. The promise of the 1990s had been fulfilled. The dark days of mounting debts and last-gasp escapes from relegation to the third tier were very much a thing of the past. Irureta had made history in just his second season in charge…but he was by no means finished.
Check out Part Two of the series next week!