They were so excited about his homecoming that they prepared his favourite meal specially, cooking up a colossal paella in his honour. On Saturday night Gregorio Manzano returned to Son Moix for the first time since the last, desperately cruel day of last season. That night, his Real Mallorca team, the final whistle having gone on their final game, sat on the pitch and watched the giant screen as, a few hundred kilometres away, a kid no one had heard of performed an improbable acrobatic flip to score a 94th minute goal that sent Sevilla to the Champions League. When the ball hit the net, Mallorca's players crumpled into the turf, unopened champagne bottles at their feet, tears on their cheeks. Even cuddly mascot Dimoni, all acrylic grin and foam pitchfork, looked devastated. Sevilla's success came at Mallorca's expense.
Through the tears most could see that coming within seconds of the Champions League was a massive achievement. It would have been only the second time that Mallorca had reached the competition and Mallorca had enjoyed their best campaign since 2000-01, their second highest finish in history – with a team many expected to go down, that had lost their most important players. Son Moix had never had it so good: Manzano, the coach who had returned to the club to rescue them from relegation, had just led Mallorca to their best ever season at home. Just as he led them to their only major trophy – the Copa del Rey in 2003.
And then he departed. Initially unemployed – much to the annoyance of the conspiracy theorists who already had him sitting pretty in the Premier League – he joined Sevilla in October. Now on Saturday he was back: the man who had managed Mallorca for more First Division games than anyone else. This was a special night. "Furbo y paella pa' cenar," ran the slogan, organised by the Federation of Supporters' Clubs and announced in the papers and on the telly. Football and paella for supper. Outside the ground, stalls were dishing it out by the plastic plate-full, feeding two thousand.
But this was no homage. This was a protest – and a pointed one, with banners attacking him and chants against him. One hastily scrawled message declared: "Like it or not, you're the best manager we've had," but most didn't like it. And most certainly don't like him.
Many fans thought that the (second) best manager Mallorca had enjoyed (after Luis Aragonés) was the worst man they had endured, responsible for the bad more than the good. He stood in the middle of an extremely bitter civil war at a club racked by division and in economic crisis that had devoured countless owners and pseudo-owners and where the degree of hatred, mistrust and mutual backstabbing was genuinely shocking; where it often appeared that they were competing to see how much they could screw each other – and Mallorca. He was a manager who found a powerful, manipulative media rallied against him, fed by hidden interests. One who, they said, committed the cardinal sin: he didn't really care. Worse, he criticised them.
With some already suspicious about his sympathies and his signings, by the power he was accused of amassing, Manzano was not helped by the strategic leak of players' and staff salaries. At €1.87m, he was earning more than every first division manager bar two and more than Mallorca could afford. People questioned his transfers too and, even as Mallorca were racking up the wins, they attacked him; there was an uneasy relationship with the media, a mutual mistrust, deliberately provoked and maintained. Behind the scenes strings were pulled. Manzano, though, isolated the dressing room from the politics and the fighting, building his team and then having to build it all over again. And somehow finding results. Brilliant ones.
But still Son Moix wasn't filling. As a percentage of its capacity, it had the division's worst average attendance. A Copa del Rey semi-final against Barcelona drew only 10,000 and home games rarely climbed above 14,000. Some blamed Manzano's style; Manzano blamed them. It had, he said, ever been thus: when Mallorca played Arsenal in the Champions League in 2001, only 11,000 turned up; earlier rounds of the Cup drew less than 3,000; Mallorca-Almería was watched by 5,000. In an interview in El País, Manzano declared that mallorquines were "negative, football-wise". "If the game is at five," he said, "they're still eating their paella. If it's at 10, it's too cold and they prefer to watch it at home. And if it's at seven, it's wet. They need to look at themselves and ask why only 12,000 come."
He'd done it now: he wants paella, let him have paella. That'll show him. "We know that [the attendances are low]," said the president of the supporters' federation, "but we don't like someone coming from outside and saying so. I will be whistling him this weekend, yes."
That was not all they didn't like. When Manzano departed, his relationship with the club had broken down entirely. The man who'd been his ally, former owner and president Mateu Alemany, had become his enemy; promises were broken, hurt accusations flew. Manzano was still owed money. Mallorca refused to pay, just as they failed to pay others. In fact, they tried to reclaim a bonus they had paid him. Never mind his correct insistence that a coach "doesn't run the financial side of the club", current president Jaume Claudera this week accused Manzano of being responsible for their economic plight: "If you open a caviar restaurant and only charge €10," he said, "you'll fill it every week but you'll have to close down eventually."
Speaking of closing down, in all Manzano was owed €2.2m and when the lawyers' letter demanding the money contemplated the winding up of the club if the debt was not honoured, he had really done it. Now there was no question. It didn't matter that he had been successful in impossible circumstances, that Mallorca had been torn asunder by a series of owners, and preyed upon by pretenders to the presidency, encircled by cheats and charlatans, that those who opened cheap caviar restaurants were others, that their best players departed season after season, he was the bad guy and they were waiting for him. When Manzano emerged from the tunnel before the game on Saturday night, the Son Moix supporters, bellies full of paella, appetites satiated, whistled long and loud. Just as they promised.
They were determined to show him a thing or two. Not least that they could live without him; that last season's success was not about him. They would not be sunk. They wanted one last dig – and ironically almost 15,000 turned out to do so - and the chance to get on with their lives. They nearly did too. Mallorca dominated Sevilla, Ienaga Akihiro and Jonathan de Guzman scoring great goals to give them the lead at 1-0 and 2-1, only for Dudu Aouate to drop one at the feet of Ivan Rakitic to equalise late in the second half. And even then, to use de Guzman's own words, he had a glorious chance in the last minute "and I blew it big time. F**k".
It would have been a huge win. Victory over Sevilla would not only have defeated Manzano, it would have put Mallorca on 41 points – safe for another season and maybe even in with a chance of a European place.
With seven games to go, that would have been quite an achievement. After all, not only did Manzano, the architect of their success, depart in the summer, Mallorca did what they always do: they sold their best players. Borja Valero, Artiz Aduriz and Mario Suárez went. In other words, both central midfielders, their top assist provider and their top scorer. On top of that, their financial problems saw them barred from a place in the Europa League and they went into administration. Meanwhile, president Josep Pons, ambassador in Austria, was reported to have been accused of sexual harassment and removed from his post.
Players briefly went unpaid; Pereira had to borrow to pay his rent. There was no money for signings: De Guzman joined from Feyenoord, where he had spent the last two seasons struggling with a knee injury; Kevin García was promoted from the youth team on €1,000 a month, Joao Victor was an unknown from Uzbekistan, and Akihiro had been denied a work permit in England after a trial at Plymouth.
If that does not sound promising, under Michael Laudrup it has worked brilliantly. De Guzman has been superb. So too Pereira and Emilio Nsué, back from loans. Nunes and Ramis are as solid as ever. Pierre Webó has started scoring goals. Sergio Tejera has impressed. Nothing new you might think: Mallorca are the team that just refuses to die; that loses its best players at the start of every season and somehow always performs. Only this time is different: this is about more than just the football. This is about the future.
Administration, which comes with no footballing penalty in Spain, is providing the stability Mallorca so desperately need, a legally binding business plan through which to balance the books and ride out the storm. And now there are new owners; the uncertainty appears ended at last. In the summer, Mallorca were taken over by a consortium headed by Lorenzo Serra Ferrer. The tennis player Rafa Nadal is amongst the investors and so is his uncle, Miguel-Ángel Nadal. Serra Ferrer is a former player and coach; Nadal played more Mallorca games than anyone else. They are people who care. Really care. People who know, too. Serra Ferrer has taken over the sporting directorate – it was he who spotted De Guzman and Akihiro, he who will probably sell the former for a vital, life-saving profit in the summer. Nadal, meanwhile, works hands on with coach Michael Laudrup.
They are safe hands. Earlier this season, Laudrup said that he would not sleep easy until Mallorca reached 41 points. On Saturday night, the biggest night of the season at Son Moix, they were a single one-on-one from their target. They haven't got there yet, but they will. Very soon, Laudrup will sleep easy. And so, at last, will Mallorca.
• And so Valencia win the league. Not the league of course – that's impossible – but the other league. The one for everyone who is not Real Madrid or Barcelona. It was third versus fourth on Sunday night, Valencia versus Villarreal, and it was real four-pointer: the chance not only to pick up a massive win but also to secure a head-to-head advantage. It was also a brilliant game and Valencia did both: 5-0 was a massive, massive win – the biggest scoreline in a Valencia regional derby for 33 years and the joint biggest defeat Villarreal had ever suffered. It left Valencia six points clear in third and still Unai Emery might not have a job next season. Villarreal have dropped alarmingly of late, sapped by the competition that, forget the Champions League, does most to damage you domestically. But still Valencia were superb. Roberto Soldado got two (meaning he has now scored as many in the last two games, with six, as he had in the previous 25), Éver Banega got one and there were two more for Juan Mata. Who learned everything he knows at Real Oviedo, obviously.
• As for the other league, the actual one: Barcelona beat Almería to maintain their eight-point lead at the top of the table, but they were given a real shock, going behind and needing three un-Barcelona-like goals to win: a penalty, a header from a corner and a neat finish from a long, aimless hoof. They look extremely vulnerable without Carles Puyol and Eric Abidal. They also lost Bojan for the rest of the season and Javier Mascherano for next week's clásico.
• Cristiano Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso, Mesut Ozil, Emmanuel Adebayor, Ricardo Carvalho, Marcelo … all of them started on the bench as Real Madrid travelled to San Mamés to face Athletic Bilbao. It didn't make any difference: Ángel Di María, the man who has won more penalties than anyone else this season, won two more and Kaká finished them both. Ronaldo got another late on, with a lovely finish.
• Atlético in starting to get quite good shock. Atlético in starting to get quite good when it is almost certainly too late not at all a shock. José Antonio Reyes was the star, bizarrely described as "an urban dreakdancer of a footballer" by AS, while Mario Suarez and Felipe Luis got two of the three goals (Agüero got the other). That means that only one outfield player has not scored for them this season: Luis Perea. Do own goals count? Perhaps the most noticeable thing, though, was the supporters' protest against owners Miguel-Ángel Gil Marín and Enrique Cerezo, complete with United-inspired yellow and green scarves. ¡Gil, cabrón, fuera del Calderón!
• Tonight's Zaragoza-Getafe match-up looks pretty tasty. Not only are they fighting it out to avoid relegation, they could soon be fighting it out in court too. Getafe sold Ikechuwku Uche to Zaragoza and Zaragoza thought it was fine not to pay – perhaps because, let's face it, everyone else does it. They reckoned without Getafe president Ángel Torres deciding that actually no, it's bloody well not OK not to pay. Not least because some of his players have not been paid now and he could kind of do with the cash. He has demanded the money, demanded that Uche doesn't play and demanded that Zaragoza get relegated. It could get messy. Or, as usual, it could be that nothing at all happens.
Results: Athletic 0–3 Madrid, Barcelona 3–1 Almería, Mallorca 2–2 Sevilla, Sporting 1–0 Osasuna, Hércules 0–0 Espanyol, Racing 1–1 Levante, Malaga 0–0 Deportivo, Atlético 3–0 Real Sociedad, Valencia 5–0 Villarreal. Tonight: Zaragoza-Getafe.