Home » Clubs » The Fall, Rise and Fall of Deportivo de La Coruña

The Fall, Rise and Fall of Deportivo de La Coruña

In a sport as unpredictable as football, change is always a certainty. Some may call it luck, others would label change as dependent on the higher ups decisions, but sometimes, success needs just a simple catalyst, the right man to set it off. As the typical football interview response goes “you make your own luck”.

Now, this is usually a reference to what goes on in a match, but to get the right team, the right manager and the right owners, at the right time is like winning a scratch card.

And, if getting the right scenario like that over time is a winning scratch card, getting it right all at once is a footballing lottery. The obvious example being Leicester city’s status defying run to champions in 2015-16; it’s hard to think of a transformation that has better captured the hearts of football fans.

Whilst Leicester have remained relatively competitive, their story is missing a real dramatic twist alongside their stay at the top of the game, though, they should be thankful their success has not come to be the root of their demise.

It may be hard for many English fans to imagine, but there is one story across footballing history even more in defiance of the odds. A story that spans across decades. A story with a far more ultimately tragic ending. This is the story of the rise and fall of Deportivo de La Coruña.

In the late 80’s  Deportivo de La Coruña were in a consistent spell of disappointment, languishing in Spanish football’s second tier, and even dropping to the third tier on 2 separate occasions between 1973 and 1982. This was a dark chapter for a once established first division side, yet it would take  a moment in which the direst of consequences seemed imminent, to catalyse their rise to heights never previously seen at the club.

Despite being relegated in the 73 season, they had shown almost no sign of recovering for the next decade. They had been through a period of yo-yoing between the 1st and second division in the 60’s, earning the reputation of an ‘Elevator club’.  They had always managed to recover, and upon their relegation in 73, many would have expected a swift return.

Before I can talk about the rise, I need to describe the calamitous season which saw them face their darkest, lowest point. A season that would set the standard for the next decade.

A Catastrophic Start

It was the start of the 73/74 season with Deportivo preparing for a situation that had become all too familiar for them. Another relegation from the top flight, it was a familiar position, with the players confident in bouncing back.

With Fernando Riera at the helm, a world renowned coach who had led Chile to third place in the 1962 World Cup, dominance and promotion was very much expected. This confidence would quickly turn sour.

An opening day 2-0 defeat to Cordoba would set fans and players on edge, with the following 1-1 draw to Osasuna doing little to quell any start of the season panic. It was surely no more than relegation jitters, overconfidence or under confidence, the players and manager would sort themselves out.

The following 3 games would see the side fail to score a single goal, conceding 5 and losing all 3 games. Despite finally earning a first win against Levante on the 6th game of the season, Fernando Riera would be dismissed after just his 8th game in charge, in which a 1-1 draw with Hercules cemented his fate.

Knee Jerk Decisions

Carlos Torres as a Player for Celta Vigo

Former Deportivo striker Carlos Torres would take charge, immediately turning around the club’s poor form. With 4 wins on the bounce, scoring 9 and conceding 2, fans everywhere breathed a collective sigh of relief , with many optimistic given their newfound form as they prepared to face Burgos, the only team Deportivo had finished above the prior season. 

The optimism would swiftly dissipate as Burgos would score 4 without reply, a sucker punch to a team finding its feet again. They would do well to recover the following week, with a 4-2 victory over UD Salamanca, a team that would achieve promotion the same season, and finish 7th in La Liga the following one. Deportivo were still a quality team, a team to be feared that should have the ability to beat any team in the 2nd tier. 

As often stated in football, Hindsight is 20/20. It’s easy to call out poor decisions, but with Deportivo showing glimpses of their best, with Carlos Torres winning 5 out of 6, even if the loss was a poor performance; absolutely no one could have predicted that 4 games later, he’d find himself without a job.

Despite Torres’ promising work, Deportivo would lose the next 4 games following the 4-2 win that for many would be the high point of the season. It was of course a poor choice, a knee-jerk response to finding themselves back in the relegation zone and wanting an instant return to glory.

Fragrant naivety on the owners part, an inability to see Deportivo as a club in a relegation battle, a lack of understanding of their improvement under Torres. Deportivo’s peril could have been spared had the former Forward been judged on his immediate impact rather than his poor run. Despite his sacking, his spell would come with a 50% win rate over 10 games.

It’s still an understandable reaction, and perhaps dwindling fan bases, frustration amongst loyal remaining supporters, and an impatience to return to the top flight all heavily influenced the sacking. But sadly, it was a decision that in my opinion, would conceal their fate.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

The next appointment would be sensible, a man who’d done in before. Enrique Orizaola Velázquez, had guided Deportivo to promotion back to the 1st tier in 1966. Surely an appointment that can stabilise the ship, and at the very least get them to safety?

As I’m sure you already know, it was a disaster, though still slightly better than Fernando Riera’s start. Orizaola would manage 13 points from a total available of 45, lasting 15 matches, he would manage 2 less points than his predecessor despite having 5 extra games.

At this point in the season, the gravity of the situation had well and truly set in. They sit 2nd from bottom, with 22 points and 5 games to go, 3 points away from Linares and Burgos above them in 17th and 18th. They can stay up, but they need things to go their way, and most importantly, they need to win. Recently retired defender Ireluguiis appointed, with the hope a younger manager can instil some motivation and confidence ahead of the crucial final 5 games.

Irelugui starts his managerial career in a position where every game is a must win. His first game? League leaders Real Betis. In keeping with this season’s Deportivo being incapable of performing under pressure, they are trounced 4-0 away from home, the team being utterly outclassed, sending the remaining fanbase into frustration, anger and for many apathy, the worst case scenario for football fans. Many are dreading their next few games.

In true underdog style, Deportivo bounced back with a thrilling 3-2 win against Sant Andres lifting the team’s spirits up, as hope was somewhat restored. There’s still life in this former La Liga runner-up. But, unless results go their way, they have to win every game. They face a mid-table Mallorca, with little to play for.

The match is tense, close and pragmatic, but Mallorca end up 2-1 winners. Thanks to Burgos winning the week before, the players, the fans, the manager, would already know their fate, with 2 more matches to play, they would be playing their next season in the third tier. Just a year ago they’d been playing vs Real Madrid and Barcelona, now they would face small regional towns with stadiums barely holding 1000 people.

They’d hit rock bottom. Their lowest point in their history, a side challenging for the 1st division title 23 years ago had slid, miserably, slowly into obscurity. 

Signs of recovery

Deportivo would gain promotion from the third tier the next season, where they would battle closely with Ensidesa for 1st, in a league where only the champions go up automatically. They would have to wait till the second to last game to confirm their promotion but they would go up as champions. It would be bitter sweet however, the damage had already been done.

What may have been a short stay in Spain’s 3rd tier, had irrevocably damaged their financial security. No longer able to comfortably entice players like they used to, and finding it harder to keep hold of high potential youth academy graduates; Deportivo’s slump into mediocrity would span almost two decades. 

They almost recovered. Finishing 5th in the next campaign, missing out on promotion by 5 points. But as is often the case with fallen giants, this would be their only chance to make a quick return. Following this glimpse of life, they would finish 11th, then 8th, then 15th before once again falling to the 3rd tier. The next season would historically be their worst, finishing second in the third tier, but still achieving promotion. 

There would be signs of life following their 2nd season in the 3rd tier, with multiple finishes in the top half, 4th place the season they returned, 6th and 5th in 85/86 and 86/87 yet once again, in 88, they’d find themselves in a relegation battle. 

A Troubled Season for a Team in Sorrow

Deportivo lie 2 points off safety going into the final day

The season would begin in tragedy, as new signing Javier Sagarzazu would fall ill on the team bus as they travelled to a friendly. It became quickly apparent that Javier was having a stroke as he fell unresponsive and passed away. At just 29, the death was sudden and unexpected, placing a previously hopeful team in mourning. 

With such a drastic reminder of perhaps the bigger picture, and the loss of a new player taken before the team had properly gotten to know them, Deportivo struggled through the season, their tragedy clearly affecting them. They would win 3 and lose 5 of their first 8 games, looking competitive in all 7, before getting hammered by Granada 5-0.

Following that result they would go on to score 11 points in 15 games, 11 out of a possible 45 points, placing them firmly in the relegation zone. Even more astonishingly, they would go 17 matches without a win, the new manager Arsenio Iglesias breaking the streak on his 4th match in charge.

Deportivo, through some tough fixtures, managed just 11 points out of their past 8 games. As the final matchday loomed, they were well, aware they had to win. Deportivo’s very future hung on the outcome of this match, with many speculating another season in the third tier would be financially unsustainable.

Their very existence would come down to just a single moment. A moment that is deeply rooted in football folklore, a moment that would fundamentally change not just Deportivo, but Spanish football entirely.

Find out about the start of Deportivo’s meteoric rise in the next part, featuring tales of cult heroes, an underdog defying Spanish Footballs two team hegemony, and find out how Deportivo turn their fortunes around despite staring into the abyss that is Spanish Football’s regional and local leagues.

Check out Part two

Written by Oscar Bowerman

About The Author