Enrique Martín Monreal was in Madrid when his club called, the phone ringing as he headed back to the hotel from an awards ceremony held by Marca in early November.
He hadn’t won – the award for the second division’s best manager in 2015-16 went to Leganés’s Asier Garitano – but he had been a candidate, having unexpectedly brought Osasuna back up to primera, and that was quite something. Besides, he was there representing the club and in the absence of the president, Luis Sabalza, who had a cold, there could be no one better. Represent the club? For many, especially in the stands at El Sadar, Enrique Martín was the club.
Gravelly-voiced and potty-mouthed, attitudes and hair from a different era, emotional and earthy, famous for tackling a player as he went up the touchline, there’s something about Martín they identify with, and he identifies with them. “I was born an Osasuna fan and I’ll be an Osasuna fan the day I snuff it,” he once said. Born in Pamplona, he came through the youth system to the first team. Five years later, Real Madrid came for him but Osasuna refused to sell, not least because fans wouldn’t let them, and he stayed for 11 years, later becoming technical secretary, youth team coach, B team coach, and first team coach. Twice. In 1996-97, he saved them from relegation from the second division and in 2015-15, he did the same.
More than just saving them from relegation, in fact. In 2015, with the country’s economic collapse that hit Navarre around 2010, and with political change, too, the days of effectively ignoring their tax obligations were over. Patxi Izco, president of 10 years, left; Miguel Archanco followed him and departed after two years; and, run for six months by an interim board, with few keen to take responsibility for the club’s finances and assume the risk that comes with offering the necessary legal guarantees, Luis Sabalza took over. Crisis gripped, and institutional issues took precedence, but everything depends on football, too. Racked by debt, match-fixing investigation in the background, relegation to the theoretically amateur third tier with its four divisions would probably have meant going out of business.
Behind the scenes, contingency plans had been drawn up; plans for a parallel structure that might allow them to keep the name and refound the club, while the actual Osasuna disappeared. But there was little optimism, on or off the pitch. When Martín became the team’s third manager of the season with six games left in the 2014-15 season, they were in the bottom four. Three wins later, they had survived by a solitary point. A year after that, somehow, no one really knew how, they won promotion to the first division, moving into sixth place on the final day with victory over Oviedo and then winning four play-off games, securing their return in Girona on 18 June.
Emotion had played a huge part. Conscious of their limitations, Martín had sought communion with the stands, even getting the club to hand a free scarf to every fan. Osasuna had always been this, he said; “down in the mud”, fighting against the odds. The day they returned, down in the tiny press room, drenched in sweat, he repeated a phrase that he said he had seen scrawled on the wall of the stadium by a fan: “Osasuna: many saw you born, no one will see you die.” He added: “We rescued a club from ruin and then got them into the first division.” It was a miracle that could have cost him his life, he claimed. He needed two stents inserted.
But when they phoned five months later, deciding that they couldn’t wait until he got back to Pamplona, it wasn’t to say congratulations or thank you. They hadn’t just called to say they loved him, either; they called to tell him he’d been sacked.
The next day, he returned, took the team to dinner and was gone. The fans were furious. A banner appeared at Tajonar, the training ground, depicting him in black and white, propaganda-style. “In these days of football as business, you brought back feeling. Thank you,” it ran. Deep down, he knew it was coming, but it still “hurt”, not least because of how it was done. “My heart’s not made of wood, you know,” he said. In an interview with El País a few months later, he insisted: “People always say: ‘football’s like that’ but I don’t think football is like that: we make it like that.”
In the end, it’s all about results, he knows. And 11 weeks into the season, Osasuna had only seven points and were 19th. They had lost six, drawn four and won only one. “We saw the need to turn things around,” the club’s statement read.
Fifteen games later, Osasuna have won only one and are bottom. They have had three times as many managers as wins, and the only one of them to have got a single victory is the first one out the door, sacked over the phone. Of Osasuna’s 10 points this season, seven came with Monreal. They have lost 13 of their 15 games without him. Joaquín Caparrós came in and didn’t win. Petar Vasiljevic came in and hasn’t won either, that brief hint of a reaction when they scored three against Valencia and Sevilla, gone. Vasilejvic isn’t just the coach: he’s the sporting director, too. The man who sacked Martín (although the suggestion is he didn’t want to) and sacked Caparrós may need to sack himself – the sporting director and the coach who will surely now oversee relegation.
On Sunday night Osasuna lost at Las Palmas, meaning they have now gone an entire vuelta without a win – every team played, not one of them beaten – and meaning they are on course for a new first division record for the lowest points total, held by Sporting. With 12 games left, Osasuna are 13 points from safety – three more than they have picked up all season. And the team they’re chasing, Deportivo, have a game in hand. Even if Osasuna start picking up points, the chances of getting out of there are virtually non-existent and frankly no one expects them to do that. Osasuna have lost their last six games. Goals conceded: 3, 3, 3, 3, 4, 5.
It’s over. Yes, so soon. It was always likely to be. Osasuna actually took the lead against Las Palmas, finding themselves 2-1 up at half-time. For a moment, there was hope. But then it started to go wrong: a dreadful miss that could have made it 3-1, an absurd own goal, another one scored from an offside position, a player taken to hospital 10 minutes after coming on, the collapse that followed. The words the Osasuna players used were telling: “fragile”, “low self-esteem”, “vulnerable”. “When anything goes against us, it does a lot of damage,” admitted Oier Sanjurjo. “We’re in that kind of rut where things just keep happening to us,” Vasilejvic said. Diario de Navarra called it a “metaphor” for their season.
Maybe it was, but not really because they’d been especially unlucky because as the phrase has it, “all a skinny dog gets is fleas”, or even because they tried yet another system and yet another lineup, but because the truth is they were not good enough. Are not good enough.
It didn’t go wrong, it is wrong. They were 2-1 up, sure, but no one knew how. Las Palmas had 84% of the ball, dominating entirely. Writing in Marca, Sergio Fernández described Jonathan Viera and Roque Mesa as “playing with Osasuna like an orca plays with a seal”. It wasn’t that Osasuna losing was surprising; it was that them even being in the position where they might not lose was surprising. It took a while for them to arrive, and the own goal was certainly silly, but Las Palmas’ five goals were entirely consistent with the game. Roberto Torres talked about “bad luck”, Juan Fuentes, too. Yet if that was understandable, ultimately luck was not the explanation – logic was. Just as it is an explanation for the season.
In the summer, Osasuna won promotion to the first division. That was their first ‘mistake’. Well, not the first and not a mistake, exactly, but somewhere in that promotion, and in their salvation the year before, lies part of the explanation for what is happening now – not least because it was unexpected and late. Osasuna, the sixth-best team in the second division, had agreed to sell their best player to Borussia Dortmund and, promoted in mid-June, had neither the time nor the resources to compete, nor the expectation that they would have to. “We went up without wanting to. Well, not without wanting to, but we hadn’t foreseen it,” Martín admitted. “We did what we could, although I think we could have done more.”
He wanted more but he was responsible for the way the squad was built, too. Above all, they all were. The context is, and the context is complex; by extension, the outcome is simple. Osasuna’s budget is comfortably the smallest in primera, the increased TV revenue destined to reduce debt. They signed, sure, but always at a disadvantage. Eleven players arrived and only Sergio León, for €1.8m from Elche, cost anything. There were already doubts about Martín, just as there had been even before the start of last season, but the miracle meant sticking with him. Until results didn’t follow, as was always likely to be the case, when they changed. But nothing changed; things got worse. Caparrós discovered a squad he thought was not good enough and he told them so, hoping the players would react; instead, they were sunk.
Few doubted Osasuna would struggle all season. In fact, they hoped they might. Now, with 12 games still to go, that struggle seems over. The coach, who says his future was in the hands of board members who said nothing, was talking mathematics – and that’s never a good sign. The headlines were talking about The End. “Head first into the second division,” ran one. “If there’s one thing Osasuna have, it’s that they fight to the end,” insisted goalscorer Kenan Kodro but the end is not just nigh, it is now. Osasuna need a miracle, everyone agreed. But they’ve had two of them already and miracles, well, they’re Enrique’s thing.
• For the first time since the autumn, it looked like it might not be the same three teams in the relegation zone but then the old order rose up and defeated the rebellion – when they weren’t busy defeating themselves. Deportivo beat Sporting 1-0 at Molinón (that’s two games unbeaten under Pepe Mel), while Granada went to Leganés and tried not to lose. Which probably contributed to the fact that they did lose – although their coach, Lucas Alcaraz, was adamant that the limited time they had been given to prepare the game conditioned everything. Leganés’s four-game, four-final run at Butarque is going rather well: they lost to Sporting, but then beat Deportivo and now Granada. Next up, Málaga.
• Lions versus Sardines at San Mamés, with the Cat and the Ant on the bench. And the Ant won, Athletic defeating Málaga 1-0 with a penalty. Mr Cat, as Málaga’s owner (unironically) called his manager, is using up those lives.
• No Bale, no Ronaldo, no problem. And, erm, sorry about that Eibar fans.
• “Yes we can!” chanted the Barcelona fans. And while the truth is that no, they probably can’t, they were entitled to a little belief after this. They produced their best performance of late – with Sergio Busquets being Sergio Busquets again – in a 5-0 win over Celta. Neymar’s goal in particular was tasty.
• Before Friday night’s game against Real Sociedad, Real Betis were presented with a bust of Patrick O’Connell – the manager who led them to the only league title in their history, way back in 1935. O’Connell’s grandson and his wife, the author of a biography of Patrick, were in attendance, as were the members of the Patrick O’Connell fund, who have done so much to recover his historic memory, including attending to his previously forgotten grave in north-west London. On the pitch, it was fun, too. And Xabi Prieto was class, as he tends to be. He got two in a 3-2 win for la Real.
• Fernando Torres was at the Calderón, and given a standing ovation in the ninth minute after his head injury against Deportivo. About the same time, Antoine Griezmann got the opening goal on a day when everything went wrong for Valencia. By the time they got to Atocha, their train had gone, forcing them to head home by bus. That kind of thing is usually the delegate’s job. It wouldn’t have happened with Voro.
Results Betis 2–3 Real Sociedad, Leganés 1–0 Granada, Eibar 1–4 Real Madrid, Villarreal 2–0 Espanyol, Barcelona 5–0 Celta, Sporting 1–0 Deportivo, Atlético 3–0 Valencia, Las Palmas 5–2 Osasuna, Athletic 1–0 Málaga. Monday: Alavés v Sevilla.
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