‘Super Depor’ to derby defeats in Segunda B: The rise & fall of Deportivo
Twenty years on from their glorious La Liga triumph, Deportivo La Coruna have hit rock bottom.
If the fixture in itself was a sign of how far they have fallen, then the result, for fans of Deportivo, was unthinkable.
It was, if you looked through squinted eyes, a game against their biggest rivals, Celta de Vigo. The badge was there, as was the kit.
But then it wasn’t them. Not really. A “decaf” derby, some Depor fans called it beforehand. Having been relegated to the third tier last season, Depor’s first team were to play against their rivals’ kids, Celta B.
It was already embarrassing enough before kick-off. Then two goals from Celta’s 21-year-old striker Alfonso Gonzalez handed Celta B the win.
To make matters worse, the loss to the enemy’s second team came in the Riazor stadium that has been the stage for so many moments of Deportivo glory.
Twenty years and seven months on from winning La Liga for the only time, Sunday, December 13, 2020 can go down as Deportivo La Coruna’s lowest ebb.
For a club that not so long ago boasted a team of stars known as ‘Super Depor’, lifting two Copas del Rey and reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League as well as winning that title, the fall has been a heavy one.
Up until the early 1990s, Deportivo had been a middling club in Spain. Bar a golden era in the 1950s, the team from a city of just 250,000 on Spain’s north-western Atlantic coast had spent more time in the second division than the first and, in the 80s, had suffered their fair share of financial plight.
Suddenly and dramatically, though, that all changed. In 1991, under the presidency of the Augusto Lendoiro, Depor came up into La Liga after a long spell away. And this time, they meant business.
Lendoiro invested heavily and a second golden age began. With young stars like Mauro Silva, Bebeto and Fran and experienced heads like Paco Liano and Donato playing under the guidance of club legend Arsenio Iglesias, Depor finished third in 1992-93.
The next season, they went one better, only letting the title slip from their grasp with a missed spot-kick in the last minute of the last game of the season. And in 1995, they won the first major silverware in the club’s history, a Copa del Rey triumph over Valencia.
A lull followed, albeit one brightened up by Rivaldo’s brief brilliance at the Riazor in 1996-97, but in the first half of the next decade, the club’s most glorious moments arrived.
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The team was reinforced with the magisterial talent of Djalminha, the goal threat of Roy Makaay and the solidity of Enrique Romero, Manuel Pablo and Noureddine Naybet.
A new manager was brought in in the shape of Javier Irureta. And at the start of the new millennium, Depor made up for that near-miss in ’94, taking La Liga by five points from Barcelona.
Asked about that title by ESPN earlier this year, Donato said: “That was the highest peak for me. The league was like a thorn in my side, removed that day. And to score too. That was the culmination of my work in Spain, the crowning moment.”
It was not the end for Super Depor, though – not yet. They reached European quarter-finals in 2001 and 2002, beating Arsenal and Manchester United at the Riazor, won the Copa del Rey again in 2002, and, in 2004, stunned reigning champions AC Milan to reach the Champions League’s last four.
That game against the mighty Milan, perhaps, was the true zenith – or at least it was the last hurrah. Having lost 4-1 at San Siro, Depor conjured a miracle in the return leg at the Riazor. First-half strikes from Walter Pandiani, Juan Carlos Valeron and Albert Luque set it all up before the long-serving Fran smashed in a fourth to seal the tie.
But after the peak comes the descent. The Champions League semi-final was lost to Jose Mourinho’s Porto, the two teams split over 180 minutes by a solitary Derlei penalty. And then down they went, on a descent ridden with bumps and fraught with danger.
Down, up, down, up, down, down
The success had come at a price and, with €160million of debt to be paid off, cuts were made. The following seasons were average but not terrible, a couple of mid-table finishes interspersed with games in the rather less glamorous Intertoto Cup.
Lendoiro, who remained president until 2013, said as early as 2006: “The biggest mistake of this board of directors was not selling some players sooner.” Little did he know then how big a mistake it would prove.
In 2011, after further cuts were made, disguised as a new ‘focus on youth’, Deportivo were relegated and would play in the Segunda Division for the first time in two decades.
They bounced back at the first time of asking, but another relegation followed in 2013. Again, though, they rallied, returning to the top flight in 2014.
Yet since a third relegation in 2018, there has been no way back. In fact, things have deteriorated further.
A promotion play-off was narrowly lost in 2019, meaning a second year in the Segunda. Then, in the season that ended in global pandemic and empty grounds, Deportivo went down again, to play in Subgroup A of Group 1 of the regionalised, semi-pro Segunda B.
On the last day of the season, they were condemned to the third tier without even playing. Their opponents Fuenlabrada suffered an outbreak of Covid before the game, but results elsewhere were enough to send Deportivo down.
Finally, in mid-December, the nadir was reached against Celta B in the Riazor stadium that bore witness to such magical moments of triumph. Now instead of 38,000 cheering Galicians, it played host to 3,800 socially distanced, mask-sporting, extremely irate ones.
For Depor fans and sympathisers searching for signs that better days might be on the horizon, they can at least look to the fact that the loss to Celta B was their first of the season in the league.
Depor are second in their group and, if they can stay there, will progress to the promotion play-offs in the convoluted structure of the Spanish third tier. From there, if successful, they can progress into the promotion play-offs, through which four teams of the 102 that started the competition will book a place in the second tier.
“I hope the 2020-21 season is taken seriously,” club legend Mauro Silva wrote on Instagram recently, “as a moment for reconstruction. It is a moment of reflection for the directors, manager and players.”
If it is to prove a new beginning, they still have a lengthy journey ahead; and there will be a lot of sides out to get them along the way.
Yet if Depor’s current crop are ever in any need of inspiration, then a look at the club’s history – and greats like Silva – might not be a bad place to start.
By Joshua Law