Inside Deportivo La Coruna’s play-off failure that means the former champions of Spain remain in the regional leagues. With insight from speaking to head coach Ruben de la Barrera, we examine the plight of what was once one of Europe’s most famous clubs…
For Deportivo La Coruna, the agony goes on. A fourth season in the regional ranks of Spain’s third tier now looms for the former champions of La Liga following their play-off defeat to Castellon. The fall was spectacular. They still wait for the rise.
The detail of this latest disappointment could not have been more dramatic. Leading by one goal from the first leg at the Riazor, they conceded twice early on, only to claw two back to lead again, before conceding an equaliser in the final minute.
Deportivo had their goalkeeper sent off. Castellon missed the subsequent penalty. Depor led again in extra-time. But the final equaliser, in the 108th minute, did for them. Level after two hours of football, Castellon progressed due to their higher league finish.
“It is a sad day,” said Lucas Perez, the former Arsenal and West Ham forward, a crowd favourite who had returned to the club in the hope of taking them back to the top division where he had served Deportivo with distinction as recently as 2018.
“My sincere apologies. Nothing hurts me more. You do not know what to say. You feel frustration and disappointment for all those people, for the whole city. This is sport and we have to keep fighting. No one should be blamed. Head up and keep going.”
Not everyone is in the mood to move on just yet. Not the thousands who could not make the 750-mile trip and had filled the streets of the city, watching the drama unfold on a giant screen. Not when there are so many recriminations.
“If the goal was to be first and we finished fourth,” said Deportivo captain Alex Bergantino, “we did a lot of things wrong.”
This is the club that conquered Spain with Djalminha and Roy Makaay. The club that lit up Europe with Juan Carlos Valeron, famously overturning a three-goal deficit in beating AC Milan 4-0 in the quarter-final of the Champions League 19 years ago.
They are just memories now. As Eugenio Cobas, journalist with Coruna-based newspaper La Opinion, puts it, this is the fate of Deportivo. They rise, they fall, they rise again and are apparently resurrected, only to finish up collapsing and dying on the shore.
That this vivid picture of failure should be painted on June 11 – one year on from their previous play-off failure to clamber clear of the third tier – is an unfortunate coincidence. But the identity of the coach involved on both occasions feels more instructive.
A year ago, Ruben de la Barrera was in charge of the Albacete team that ended Deportivo’s hopes of promotion. He had been in charge of Deportivo the previous season. “I could not celebrate that promotion as a coach the way I wanted to,” he told Sky Sports.
“It was difficult to face that situation. Imagine if Sir Alex Ferguson coached Tottenham and could win the league at Old Trafford. It is not the same scale but it is similar in terms of what Manchester United represents to him and what Deportivo represents to me.”
Just days after that conversation with De la Barrera last month, his return to Deportivo was confirmed. He was drafted in with just two games of the regular season remaining after a run of one win in five games had ended the club’s hope of automatic promotion.
It was an emotional return for the 38-year-old De La Barrera. “I am from La Coruna. Deportivo is my club.” But it also hinted at the muddles and missteps that have characterised the club’s recent history. Ten changes in five years. Their third coach this season.
“They won La Liga. They won the Copa del Rey. They reached a Champions League semi-final. But with the passing of the years you have to accept what you are nowadays. You cannot live in 2000. You have to live in 2023 and accept your reality.
“When I arrived in 2021, we had to fight with a lot of elements. The demand is there to win promotion but you also have to create other things. You need a process. I am really proud that we started to put the first building blocks in place. But it takes time.”
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That time was not used well in his absence. Sticking with Borja Jimenez at the start of this season only to replace him in October, the subsequent appointment of Oscar Cano did not work. Five signings arrived in January but only one of them has played.
The finances remain a concern with decisions in the hands of the Galician bank Abanca that now owns 80 per cent of the shares. Further overhauls are expected with the two men who are the de facto sporting directors having already offered their resignation.
“The present is a consequence of the past,” said De la Barrera.
And yet, this is still Deportivo La Coruna.
First time around, De la Barrera did not witness the full power of that due to the pandemic. “It is what I missed about that experience.” He saw it this time. A 4-0 win in his first game in charge before the backdrop that greeted the team for the first leg against Castellon.
There were 29,000 inside the Riazor that day, the majority of them season-ticket holders. “Deportivo have an amazing advantage. But at the same time, when you play for these kind of teams, you do feel the pressure. Not everybody can wear that shirt.”
Lucas Perez still wants to wear it. “My commitment to the club is until the day I retire or they do not want to count on me. For whatever they want, here I am.” There will be support from what, incongruously, remains one of the country’s strongest academies.
Keeping De la Barrera would help too. He is a bright young coach who can drive the long-term rebuild. Allowing him to leave first time around already feels like a mistake but he has used the intervening period constructively to become a better coach.
“I travelled a lot through Spain and abroad. I had the chance to visit Barcelona, to visit Girona, to visit Xabi Alonso in Leverkusen. It was a productive year. I did what I did because I want to grow, to develop my skills and to become better than yesterday.”
It is the sort of thinking required to carry this club forward and when the square is cleared, the fans who made the long trip to Castellon are safely home, and the debriefs are done, maybe the right decisions will finally be made. Until then, one truth remains.
For Deportivo La Coruna, the agony goes on.