The revolution ended in tears. “This is hard,” Abelardo Fernández said, voice breaking, fingers rubbing at his eyes and kneading at his temples while the president gently laid a hand on his neck. “I’m not crying because I’m no longer the coach of Sporting Gijón,” he insisted, “I’m crying because of the affection I have for everyone here.” Wednesday morning at Mareo in the green, rolling hills south of Gijón where cowbells ring, and the man who declared “Sporting are revolutionary, like Asturias” , who rescued and represented the club, who often seemed to be the club, was leaving.
A handful of people waited outside, applauding when he appeared. There were hugs, thanks, more tears, and then he climbed into his car. “See you later,” he said. He will too. Abelardo’s son plays in Sporting’s U15s, so he’ll be back. Just not as coach any more. Born in Gijón, a fan, former player, youth team manager, and season ticket holder, he’ll probably see them at the Molinón too, but not from the bench. After two and half years as coach, a period which felt longer to everyone else and like a lifetime to him, whose legacy will last longer still, he did so with Sporting in the relegation zone, possibly returning to where they were when he took over, only they shouldn’t return to there exactly, not now – and that’s thanks largely to him.
“Football knows no past, no feeling either, but he performed miracles,” Barcelona’s manager Luis Enrique said. “In a few years, maybe people will recognise that.” Luis Enrique would say that: he and Abelardo have known each other since they were six, they were raised on the same Gijón street, went to the same school, were members of the same five-a-side team and played in the same professional team. Three times, in fact: for Sporting, Barcelona and Spain. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong – except when it comes to knowing no past and no feeling. If Abelardo’s departure proved anything, it proved that people do remember, do recognise, do care, do forgive. Rarely have supporters felt so identified with a team as they did with his team. Until, eventually, even he no longer felt identified with it. “I don’t see myself reflected any more,” he admitted. So it was time to go.
Abelardo leaves with Sporting in trouble, but not as much trouble as when he arrived. The club was, he once said, “in ruins” the day he took over. It is not just that he secured their footballing survival, it was that he secured their actual survival. “Sporting would not be the same without these last two years; we should never forget him,” the president Javier Fernández said. “We should be eternally grateful.”
Having taken over in May 2014, at the start of his first full season in charge the realistic target was simply avoiding relegation to the regionalised, theoretically amateur Second Division B, with its 80 teams spread across four divisions. Instead, they were promoted to the first division on the final day, celebrating wildly when they heard the news that a late goal in Lugo had sent them up. Almost €40m in debt, with players unpaid, promotion meant survival. Even if they had avoided relegation on the pitch, without the injection of first division TV money, they might have faced administrative relegation to the Second Division B – and that would probably have been the end. But here they were, somehow: in the top flight, for the fourth time in seventeen years.
Sporting are one of the country’s historic sides but they had gone 10 years without a first division place until their return in 2008, and although they had lasted four seasons then, few expected them to return when relegation came in 2012. When they did come back in 2015, fewer still expected them to be there for long. Banned from making signings having missed a repayment deadline with the tax authorities, only three new players joined them for the start of last season – all of them on loan. According to Luis Enrique they were “the worst team in the division”, so no one was surprised when they slipped into the relegation zone. But on the final day, they defeated Villarreal to stay up , sending fans streaming onto the pitch. That final match will be forever shrouded in suspicion.
Villarreal’s locally born Sporting-supporting manager Marcelino García Toral stood accused of throwing the game – an accusation that contributed to him eventually getting the sack – after he had given his team four days off and his wife wrote, post-game, mid-celebration: “we leave here, job done.”
Sporting had needed to win and, just like when they came up from the second division, needed other results go to their way, having been in the bottom three for 12 consecutive weeks. But their fans didn’t care much about all that; they cared about survival. And that Sporting had made it even that far was impressive. As he had done in the second division, Abelardo built a team with the players he had at the club.
Guajes, they called them – kids in Asturian Spanish. And although there was a touch of exaggeration about it, a smidgen of mythology, some of them neither so young nor so homegrown as was assumed, 16 of his players had been in the club’s B team at some point, and their first division experience was non-existent. In March, it seemed all over, but the reaction came against Atlético Madrid, who they beat 2-1, a glimmer of hope that began a run of just one defat in the last nine games. Again, relegation might have meant the end; survival meant survival. The chance to start again.
As they celebrated, Abelardo admitted: “I’m destroyed, exhausted mentally; these have been two extremely hard years but I’m up in the clouds now. I could not be happier right now. We love this club, and I am mad about these fans”. Then he added: “Now let’s see if we can build a bit, to ensure we don’t suffer like this again.”
That was the theory. But that was part of the problem, too. When they were allowed finally to sign, Sporting failed. They lost their identity and introduced confusion. All that talk of kids from Mareo, of local players, of identity, of the Guajes jarred a little. Their Sporting B quota dropped to seven. Jony and Luis Hernández left on frees, because the club hadn’t renewed their contracts. Bernardo Espinosa, too.
Thirteen new players came in – only four of them have played more than a dozen league games, and perhaps only two could be considered an unqualified success. Their profile wasn’t really their manager’s profile, either, in terms of style. As if the sporting director had signed footballers for another manager. And that’s before even engaging with the basic limitations: money. Duje Cop is their most expensive player, at €1m. The debt has been reduced thanks to first division money and the obligations imposed on them by the LFP, survival secured in the short term, but it remains around €15, the league’s financial controls do not allow further spending, and serious questions have been asked about the way the club has been run by the Fernández family, in charge for the last 23 years.
Abelardo had signed a contract until 2020, but walked away without a pay-off. Otherwise, they would not have had the money to get a new manager in. “He was a gentleman until the last,” the president said. “He waived [his right to that money] for reasons of budgetary need.” It was an extraordinary – and telling Fernández remark. Abelardo has always been fighting against that reality, it was part of his identity, one he embraced publicly and loudly, regularly playing the fight- against-the-odds card, hamming it up at times, but it wore him down. The pressure was intense, all more so because he cared, because he took it all on.
Melodramatic press conferences offered hints. Every so often, Abelardo lost it and the rants – against referees, against the media, and occasionally absurd –revealed more than just the surface complaints. As tensions rose against the board, supporters protesting and calling for them to go, the manager ended up being more than just the manager, facing questions that went beyond the pitch. His resources were reduced, but his remit expanded, or so he felt. Institutional issues were left to him to justify, when he could not; when, on the contrary, he fought against them. The pressure, he admitted, was “terrible.”
The board supported him, not least because fans did, but some strain was inevitable. The relationship with the sporting director was difficult too, as it was with some players. Intense, passionate, emotional, demanding, Abelardo had got the best out of them at key moments but rarely demonstrated what the Spanish call “left hand” – the ability to put an arm round a player’s shoulders. The cumulative effect was significant; the man who led the “revolution” was defeated in Las Palmas – by El Zhar, no less – and left out Duje Cop, his top scorer. Some fans chanted for him to go. They were few, sure, and they did so with a heavy heart, but they did. That hurt but he agreed.
Sporting picked up seven points in their first three games and Abelardo said he was “sleeping better this year”, but it didn’t last. They won just one in the following fifteen. Abelardo’s own sense of impotence and unease has grown ever more apparent. The team didn’t even look like an Abelardo team any more: the things that were supposed to define it – aggression, intensity, competitiveness – had disappeared. “I can’t find the right key,” he admitted. His control had gone. Similar comments were common, the finger pointing his way. His finger. At times, it felt like he was asking to be sacked in press conferences. He had offered to go in December, it was revealed this week. He might not have been the problem – or not the only one – but nor was he the solution, he thought. He was right too: his departure became inevitable; it also became right.
“It was the best thing for the club,” Abelardo said. “We produced two admirable seasons despite being faced by enormous disadvantages,” he claimed. Admirable is one word. Revolutionary, another. Everyone recognised what he had done, and there was gratitude rather than recriminations, but he had to go.
“Maybe this went on too long, and we apologise for that,” the president said. “It’s all my fault,” Abelardo said. It was not; the club’s culpability was greater than his. But, in truth, the time had come. “I love this club so much,” Abelardo said. It is his club, and his club needed someone else. That, at least, was the conclusion to which he came.
On the same day that he walked away, Rubi (Joan Francesc Ferrer) was named as the new coach. Among the first to message him was Abelardo, offering help that he may well need. Sporting have spent ten of the last 12 weeks in the relegation zone and are five points from safety but Rubi insisted: “there is time and talent to survive.”
Although he was relegated with Levante, where the dressing room was deeply problematic, his style – high, intense pressure, possession – may suit the squad more, while the hope is that the shift in personality, the reduction in tension, will bring a reaction, even if only temporarily. This weekend on Rubi’s debut, after four straight defeats, seven in the last eight, Sporting draw 0-0 at Real Betis, who are unbeaten at home since Víctor took over from Gus Poyet – one of the few teams to benefit from a change in manager.
Betis had more chances, more of the ball too, and Sporting’s outstanding player was the goalkeeper, Pichu Cuéllar, but the visitors did have the best opportunity when Cop hit the post and the new manager declared himself satisfied that the team “knew what it was playing at”. It may be too early to appreciate what exactly that is, too early to seek differences, although one paper helpfully noted a few of them – “a young, modern, look: brown spots shoes, blue jeans, light brown jacket, a puffer jacket and scarf in the second half – but it was a start.
“A point to allow the dream,” one headline said, the tiniest hint of hope; something to hold onto. Over the last few weeks, the relegation of the current bottom three, Osasuna, Granada and Sporting, has started to look inevitable, but Rubi warned: “Human beings have a habit of getting ahead of themselves . and getting it wrong.” “We’ve shown that this team is still alive,” he said. “And if we follow this path, we’ll go to war.”
• There’s no trophy handed out – how could there be when they don’t even manage to hand out a trophy for the actual league winners until the following season? – but Zinedine Zidane has another title to go with the European Cup, European Super Cup and Club World Cup. Real Madrid are winter champions. Which doesn’t mean much, but does mean something. Sort of. There’s no cup, no bus to throw it off and no parade and it doesn’t go into the record books either (although it does go onto some front covers, for whatever that’s worth), but the “winter champions” matters a bit. It’s an honorary title “handed” to the team that’s top at the half way stage of the season, when everyone has played everyone else – and that’s Real Madrid. Despite them having a match still to play – the postponed trip to Valencia, now scheduled for 22 February – they’re top by one point. Not that Zidane is happy. He described his “mood” as “pissed off” after a largely forgettable 2-1 win over Málaga, secured with two goals from one man story-generating machine Sergio Ramos, after both Luka Modric and Marcelo were taken off injured. Madrid’s injury list this year just keeps on growing. Carry on like this and Zidane might have to play international man of mystery Fábio Coentrão at this rate.
• Leo Messi produced five assists last night but didn’t get any. Not according to the stats, anyway. Because each time he handed a goal on a plate to a team mate - Arda Turan, Neymar, Luis Suárez, Ivan Rakitic - they managed to miss it. Messi’s miles ahead of anyone at the moment, even his own team- mates. Barcelona won 4-0 and it could have been more, much more, but if that makes it sound easy, it really wasn’t. Not until the last 20 minutes, anyway. “They wear you out psychologically,” Eibar’s Pedro Leon said.
• There’s trouble on the island. The Las Palmas manager, Quique Setién, admitted that he regrets letting players get away with too much for too long in the week in which Sergio Araujo – who, to judge by his manager’s words, may genuinely have a problem - failed another breathalyser test and he put Jonathan Vieira on the naughty step. Or: sent him to the corner to think about things, as the Spanish version has it.
• Mr Wolf (aka Voro) does it again. Valencia beat Villarreal, who still haven’t won this year (the force is strong in this one , to make it two wins in a row, having previously not won in eight. It was also Valencia’s first clean sheet since April – 23 league games ago. And here’s the thing: they were actually pretty good too. They’re now six points and three places above the relegation zone. You’d say they were safe and start celebrating, only Mr Wolf would probably have a bit of advice there too.
• Vicente Iborra was everywhere in Sevilla’s 4-3 win at Osasuna. He scored twice for them. He also scored once for Osasuna, and stood up for them too. Osasuna led twice but were twice pulled back, 1-1, and 2-2, and ended the game furious at an offside call that went against them – the linesman didn’t give it but, bafflingly, the referee did – and at Sevilla’s third goal, where Franco Vázquez pushed Oriol Riera before heading in. “I don’t want to show a lack of respect to anyone, but given that everyone talks about referees, players from big clubs talk, it seems like we’re a case apart,” Riera said. “They robbed us last week. I don’t want to lack respect, but I do want to tell people that Osasuna are a first division team and we’re going to fight. We’re not from the capital or from Barcelona, or from some other place with a voice, but know this: we’re here, in the first division.”
Results: Las Palmas 1-1 Deportivo; Espanyol 3-1 Granada; Real Madrid 2-1 Málaga; Alavés 2-2 Leganés; Villarreal 0-2 Valencia; Osasuna 3-4 Sevilla; Athletic 2-2 Atlético; Betis 0-0 Sporting; Real Sociedad 1-0 Celta, Eibar 0-4 Barcelona.