‘Insult us at your own peril’.
What you can deduce from that statement, inscribed into the walls of Deportivo La Coruña’s wind blasted Riazor, is that Depor fans take their team seriously, very seriously. This after all, is the club that had a group of its own fans tear seats out the aforementioned stadium, in protest at the removal of terracing and increase in VIP boxes. Their club bowing down to the nature of footballs modernisation didn’t, no pun intended, sit well.
It was a surprise then, that they didn’t tear the city of A Coruña apart on Sunday, May 21st 2011. The years of over expenditure, dire squad planning, and stagnation, finally reached the worst conclusion. Relegation.
Maybe it was because they had expected what was to come, if they hadn’t, the hardened Gallego faces on that night, eerily ghost-like and flush with tears, really drove home the realisation. More so, was the sight of Juan Carlos Valerón, holding his hands in prayer asking for forgiveness, before El Mago himself could no longer hold back the lump in his throat. He, whom only years previous had tore apart in slow-motion teams the length and breadth of Europe, was now reduced to but a shell of a man in front of his adoring public. Born in Gran Canaria maybe, to them he is as Galician as the mountains that leer over the region. It was apt then he found solace in their voices, as “DEPOOOOR, DEPOOOOOOR, DEPOOOOR” swirled around Riazor.
Relegation was viewed with ambivalence. One the one hand, it was a disaster from which the club wouldn’t recover. On the other, it was a blessing from which Depor would analyse their failings, and find a new model which would allow them to emerge revitalised from this dark period. They decided to pursue the latter course, and the appointment of José Luis Oltra, replacing the departed Miguel Angel Lotina, was the first significant step in the recovery process. Lotina’s strategy had made Depor a running joke, backs to the wall home or away, and 31 goals scored in an entire season.
Oltra knew what he was taking on at Depor, and at first, the signs weren’t promising. Life in Segunda following relegation is a difficult one. Acclimatising yourself with the surroundings, with things such as trips to sunken Spanish towns – the list goes on. All the while however, Oltra preached patience for the mould to set. A defeat to Hércules at Riazor left the home support disappointed, and brought home how complex the new era would be. The Alicante-based side had been relegated with Depor too, but had previous experience of Segunda life and knew all the tricks. Oltra irked many with his toggling of formations (4-4-2, 4-2-3-1 and 3-5-2 were all used in one game) and claims he was mishandling players in terms of fitness came to light. A crushing 4-0 defeat to Alcorcon looked to have the Valencian on the brink at one point.
“Nos vivmos 24 horas polo Depor, vos nin 90 minutos” (We live 24 hours for Depor, you not even 90 minutes) – Riazor Blues banner.
The message was significant in that, incredibly, since it was held aloft, Depor have lost only two games. You could say the players quite literally got the message. They then ended the year strong, solidifying themselves in the top two positions, but as importantly, a morale boosting victory over Celta de Vigo in the first Galician Derby since 2007. Lassad’s late winner saw Riazor explode, and you felt those darkened mountains were ready to crumble.
By the turn of the year, Oltra’s ideas were taken really beginning to take root. The club embarked on a nine-game winning streak, triumphing in comfortable fashion at times, but also grinding out results – something they had previously struggled to do. The components were all clicking into place. The defence, commanded by Diego Colotto and veteran Manuel Pablo, looked watertight, while in midfield they had balance and were able to out-think and combat opponents. Most of all, their attacking arsenal has been formidable and especially so in wide areas. The Portuguese duo, Diego Solamo and Bruno Gama, have been sparking at different periods throughout. The former, is direct, skilful and has an abundance of flair Riazor hasn’t seen in some time. Gama meanwhile, is a powerhouse from the wide areas, at times seemingly having the ball glued to his boot. Andrés Guardado too, the Mexican, previously besieged by injury has been turned from explosive winger into tenacious playmaker. He may have lost some of that pace, but under this new lease of life he can carve defences open in a different manner.
The whole club are pulling in the same direction, and it has been awhile since you could claim such a thing. Although critical, the fans’ support never wavered. 25,000 strong socios are now with the club, and they boast better attendance averages than half the Primera. Not bad, taking into account the glory years are gone, the money too (debt recently stood at under €100m for first time in under a decade), and A Coruña has just under 250,000 inhabitants. Most incredibly of all, average attendance since relegation has increased by over 3,000. Not just at home either are their colours shown; a recent trip to Guadalajara (ESP) saw 2,000 blues travel – strong figures for notoriously travel shy Spanish fans.
‘Depor es Primera’ (Depor is Primera) is now the song of choice in the stands, and they’re deadly serious.
By David Cartlidge
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona