Real Mallorca's fans thought he must be jokin' until they realised that was the previous bloke. Still, they couldn't quite believe it and didn't much like it: this is a wind-up, right? Right?! A camera crew from one Mallorca TV channel was out on the street asking fans what they thought. Some of them, told the news for the first time, really did think it was a joke. And not a very good one. They weren't laughing, that's for sure. On Tuesday, Joaquín Caparrós, Jokin to his mates in Bilbao, was finally sacked as manager of struggling Real Mallorca. His replacement – and here comes the punchline – is Gregorio Manzano. Yes, Gregorio Manzano.
Nothing funny about that, you might think as the tumbleweed whistles past, and Mallorca's fans would agree. Well, they'd half agree anyway: because if it certainly wasn't funny ha ha, it certainly was funny strange.
Caparrós's success was a thing of the past. Mallorca had started the season unbeaten in five, winning three times. They beat Valencia on 23 September but have not won at home since, almost five months on. They had won once in 17, picking up six points from a possible 51, and sat second bottom, four points from safety. Only Deportivo de La Coruña had conceded more goals. Out of the Cup, hammered 5-0 at home by Sevilla, dark days lay ahead. The defensive solidity Caparrós talked of, the intensity and competitiveness, was gone. Those who complained about his sacking mostly complained that it hadn't come soon enough.
As for Manzano, he was coming in for his third spell at the club. He has sat on the Balearic bench more times than anyone else ever and some consider him the best coach the club has had. He led them to the only trophy in their history – the 2003 Copa del Rey – during his first spell in charge and ended his second spell with his team missing out on a miraculous Champions League place in the cruellest possible way: watching from the pitch as, up on the scoreboard, Sevilla scored an impossible goal in the last minute of the last day, having first taken charge of the team in the relegation zone. He even described Mallorca as his "home."
And yet this still looked like some sort of bad joke. On Manzano's first day back in charge, there were fans at the training ground, whistling and booing him and cheering Caparrós. The last time he had turned up at Son Moix, as manager of Sevilla, they had cooked up a paella in protest, banners abused him and he was booed throughout. The former president of the Federation of Supporters' Clubs was insisting that doing it again this weekend wouldn't be a bad idea. A poll on one website asked whether his return to the club was a good idea: 64% said no. One journalist, a Mallorca fan, described his third coming as the "penultimate step towards our self-destruction."
Confused? So is Mallorca. A storm circles round the club, blowing through it. A swirl of hidden agendas and boardroom battles and board meeting no-shows, where no one is allowed to be innocent or independent and everyone is under suspicion, dragged into a war not of their making, puppet or vulture. Where power is challenged and blame is thrown, where journalists have been accused of writing to order and some supporters have even been accused of cheering to order, where investors come and go and presidents do too. Where the bitterness, the pettiness, can be genuinely shocking and where it can seem like everyone's paranoid but that certainly doesn't mean they're not out to get you. The stability they appeared to have achieved at last has largely vanished; the battles have returned, familiar trenches occupied by new names. Old wounds reopened.
With Manzano's return, all the more so. Or so it seemed. For some fans, what most hurt about his return was how much it hurt. Here was salt in the wound. During his last spell as manager, Manzano went unpaid. He made a formal, legal complaint to demand over €2m in wages. His annual salary of €1.87m, by first division standards, was huge. It was also leaked, the finger pointed at him as if he was somehow guilty of the club's financial crisis. Worse, Manzano's claim for the money owed effectively carried with it a request that the club be dissolved and when the administrators came into the club, he was amongst those creditors who first refused to sign the agreement. Eventually, he had to accept: 50% of his outstanding debt will be paid to him over the next five years.
This week Manzano insisted, quite rightly, that he was one of a number of creditors who formally denounced Mateu Alemany – who is no longer the majority shareholder. That role is held by the former player and manager Lorenç Serra Ferrer (attacked by the former coach Michael Laudrup's assistant as a "bad man"). Jaume Cladera, the president who attacked what he called the crippling costs of Manzano's previous spell in charge, walked away in December citing differences with Serra Ferrer. As for Serra Ferrer, the majority shareholder and basically the man who does everything at the club now, he described Manzano as part of Mallorca's "history". He was right too. Between them, Serra Ferrer and Manzano have been involved in over 60% of the club's league games.
Yet from an emotional fans' point of view, Manzano had still called for the club to be dissolved. The bottom line was this: they accused him of trying to put them out of business. His behaviour, some said, was unethical. He didn't care. And as if that were not bad enough, he had attacked them. In their minds, the contrast with Caparrós, signing off with a classy letter of thanks to the supporters, was stark.
At every Mallorca game, there are huge swathes of empty seats. As a percentage of its capacity, Son Moix typically has the division's worst average attendance. Put simply, there aren't many of them. "Mallorca fans," Manzano told El País, "are negative when it comes to football. "If the game is at five, 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." That day, 15,000 came. Outside the ground, a huge ironic paella.
No wonder his return felt like some sort of sick joke: had he come, some asked, to close down the club for good? Others talked about losing all feeling, all sense of decency. For Serra Ferrer, already under pressure, it was a huge gamble: all or nothing.
Yet if they whistled then, if some whistled him during that first session, they mostly didn't whistle now, however much some encouraged it. Instead, on Saturday afternoon, there was a kind of indifference. Not so much resignation as realism, an awareness of just how much was riding on this. The task now is gigantic: Mallorca probably need to win at least 23 points to survive. Pretty much eight wins in their last 16 games, in other words. Abuse Manzano now and they might as well hack off their own noses and wave them in their faces.
"The fans now are wise: they know what the stakes are," Manzano said. Deep down, some could see that he had been entitled to demand his money – a debt that some now personalise in the previous president, not the club. Others agreed with Serra Ferrer when he insisted: "this is not the time to talk about that." There were, after all, few other options: Utz Claassen, the German shareholder battling for control of the club and Serra Ferrer's fiercest rival, wanted Lothar Matthäus. Serra Ferrer withstood the pressure to sack Caparrós for as long as he could and then tried to bring in Bernd Schuster, before turning to Manzano.
Some might think Manzano a "son of a bitch" but for now, at least, he is their "son of a bitch". They have no one else. Presented with a fait accompli, they might as well support him. Or at least tolerate his return. Survival matters more than anything else. It is all that matters. And who knows, he might even prove good for them. As one supporter put it: "for now, he is the best coach in the world."
Manzano has been here before: when he last joined the club and they were in trouble, the team were on 19 points with 15 weeks to go; this weekend, he went into Mallorca's game against Osasuna on 17 points with 16 weeks to go. His side survived then. He knows the club, he has proven adept at getting through to his players here before, cocooning them from the pressure – psychology plays a huge part in his approach – the club's senior players wanted him back.
When Manzano walked out for the first game of his third spell, there was little noise and, for all the disbelief, the pessimism and the anger, little in the way of protest. Manzano now is Mallorca's only hope, the burning nail to which they cling.
As the clock ticked towards the 92nd minute, they could be forgiven for thinking there was no hope. Up against a direct rival in the fight against relegation, they were losing 1-0; survival was slipping seven points away. Manzano had called on his team to have the ball more than previously but there was little real shift in personnel or approach. Osasuna had a first goal disallowed on those familiar grounds that a goalkeeper can do what he likes to an attacker but woe betide the attacker that stands anywhere near the goalkeeper. Mallorca had done next to nothing. At half-time, Manzano took off Alan Hutton and sent on the striker Hemed, seeing his side created a half chance or two, but then Osasuna went 1-0 up with a header from a corner. Heads drooped. Time ticked away, fans walked away.
Until the 92nd minute. A long ball from the goalkeeper Dudu Aouate bounced over the defence and Geromel headed it past Andrés Fernández to make it 1-1. There was even time for Mallorca to get a winner, but Gio dos Santos was ruled offside. Mallorca could not get a first home win since September but they had picked up their first point in over a month. "The table was getting away from us," Manzano said. "But Geromel's goal allows us to keep the faith."
Mallorca's fans don't have much of that but right now it's all they've got.
Results and talking points
• For Ronaldo it was the perfect preparation. Taken off after an hour, injury-free and with a hat-trick under his belt and the stadium bowing down before him. A wave, a thumbs up and ready for Wednesday. It was another brilliant hat-trick from him: he's now on 24 league goals this season. And all without really breaking sweat. "I got the feeling they were not even at 100%," said Sevilla's manager, Unai Emery. "And they still beat us 4-1." He was right too.
• Messi, meanwhile, only scored one. Pah! Rubbish. Barcelona still won 6-1 mind you, at midday on Sunday. For all the wailing, it was their third biggest attendance of the season, after Atlético and Real Madrid – and it is safe to assume that it wasn't because of the huge travelling contingent Getafe brought with them. Iniesta was ludicrously good.
• Speaking of timetables. Madrid-Barcelona will be on Saturday 2 March at 4pm, Spanish time. Which means that it will not be shown live on UK TV.
• Don't worry, Real Sociedad fans, this column is keeping its big mouth shut. (Or does saying that count? Gah! Sorry.)
• Cheap joke alert. Deportivo's manager is Domingos Paciência. Translation: Sundays Patience. Erm … patience? He's walked away as Deportivo manager after just six weeks and a solitary win.
• Bielsa out at Athletic? Aguirre very definitely in at Espanyol. His side battered Athletic 4-0 at San Mamés on Sunday night, taking them eight points clear of the relegation zone (that's only one defeat since he took over) and two points ahead of Athletic.
• Rayo: if ever there was a team worth going to see it is them. Fun.
Results: Mallorca 1-1 Osasuna, Celta 0-1 Valencia, Levante 1-2 Málaga, Real Madrid 4-1 Sevilla, Deportivo 0-3 Granada, Barcelona 6-1 Getafe, Zaragoza 1-2 Real Sociedad, Athletic 0-4 Espanyol, Rayo 2-1 Atlético, Tonight: Betis-Valladolid.