Pitchside Europe

Shoots of recovery seen at Espanyol

Four ladies sat perched on high chairs behind glass, smiling patiently, but without a customer between them. Prices were posted clearly on the window in front, the cheapest being 35 euros for 90 minutes up in the corner.

If anyone wandered close to the windows, they were immediately approached by shady figures from the darkness offering tickets at half the advertised price. Or even less. Two fans bagged VIP seats in a prime position, with food and drink thrown in for just 20 euros. Another only wanted to be with the hardcore action behind the goal.

Espanyol’s fine 40,500 capacity stadium on the edge of Barcelona’s urban sprawl wasn’t built for such pitiful demand, to be less than half full as it was on Friday against Mallorca.

Crowds had been good since they moved there after their wilderness years in the Olympic Stadium: 34,000 season tickets were sold in their first season, 2009-10, as they finished 11th under 37-year-old Argentinian coach Mauricio Pochettino. They did so while coming to terms with the death of their captain, number 21 Dani Jarque. To this day the whole stadium spends the 21st minute applauding.

Espanyol had a first-rate side. Goalkeeper Carlos Kameni is now starring in the Champions League with Malaga, while they also had players of the quality of talisman Luis Garcia, the Little Buddha Ivan de la Pena and Jose Callejon (now at Real Madrid). They had homegrown players like Victor Ruiz (Valencia), Javi Marquez (Mallorca), Didac (Milan), Amat (Rayo) and Raul Baena, who had been developed in their excellent youth system. Catalonia produces an excess of top-class footballers and it’s not only Barca who benefit.

New Southampton boss Pochettino brought in compatriots like star striker Pablo Osvaldo, one of several Argentines including Datalo, Forlin and Alvarez. Few now survive at a club where the churn of players is especially high. Nine left in 2011, 10 in 2012.

Fans understood that he headed up a selling club (like most in Spain), that Pochettino was doing well, but it drove them crazy sometimes. In January 2011, with their side comfortable in fifth, they had to sell two of their best youngsters: internationals Victor Ruiz and Didac - to Napoli and Milan respectively - to raise 10m euros to stave off administration.

They finished eighth, just outside of a European finish. That’s normal for Espanyol fans, who see themselves as proper supporters following their team through thick and thin, rather than the thick and thicker across the city.

Pochettino was broadly popular. Yes, there was discord that he operated a clique, that he’d got rid of good football people at the club in favour of his mates, that he used agents he knew, but there were bigger concerns about warring shareholders than problems with the coach.

He’d built up credit among fans for his 275 appearances as a tough defender, more than any other foreign player. That he survived almost four years at a club who’d had 12 coaches in the previous 11 years was an achievement, but he did so because his sides played attacking football, bought well and loaned promising players like Manchester City’s Vladimir Weiss and Liverpool target Philippe Coutinho. And because he brought young players through Espanyol’s superb youth system. And 35,000 fans bought season tickets each year, though only 25,000 of them used their tickets on a regular basis. Pochettino’s Espanyol finished 11th, 8th, 8th and then 14th last season.

Last year was their annus horribilis. Espanyol were fourth 12 months ago and hoped for another European run after reaching the UEFA Cup final in 2006, losing an absorbing all-Spanish tie against Sevilla at Hampden. It didn’t come close to happening as they won just three of their remaining 18 league games. They were also knocked out of the cup by third division Mirandes, and their attacking football became aggressive rather than attractive, consigning them to 18th in the fair play table.

Fans had had enough. They tired of Pochettino and his excuses began to grate, especially after just one point from their first seven league games this term. Despite having players like World Cup winner Joan Capdevila and Simao, attendances slumped to just 15,500 for one league game; season ticket sales were down as well, to 21,000 for this term. Just 7,463 watched their November cup game against Sevilla. They lost 3-0.

Despite the earlier miracle-working, many fans were not sad to see Pochettino go in November. His side were bottom of the league, having won just seven of their previous 35 games and facing a first relegation since 1993. Espanyol have come close to going down several times, but always survived.

Former Mexico boss Javier Aguirre replaced him and his impact was immediate. Espanyol have improved, losing just once in seven – and that was at Barca, a side they’ve upset many times in their history. In 2007 for example, two Raul Tamudo goals at Camp Nou, including an equaliser in the last minute, stopped Barca winning the league.

Espanyol have moved out of the relegation zone, but Friday’s sparsely attended game against a Mallorca side who’ve won just once since a run of three victories at the start of the season, was vital. The Blanquiazules (blue and whites) went ahead in front of just 17,169 and then fell behind, before Baena got an 83rd minute winner to move them up to 15th. Or 11th in the Liga de la Moviola, a published league which takes into account correct decisions which are not given. Not that it achieves much other than to give rise to conspiracy theories.

New players have begun to arrive, like Martin Petrov, and while there’s no queue at the ticket office windows yet, the shoots of recovery are beginning to sprout. Until the next crisis…

Andy Mitten will be blogging for us throughout the season. He contributes to FourFourTwo, the Manchester Evening News and GQ magazine amongst other publications.

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