There have been many instances through out European football where a former championship winning side has seen themselves in the embarrassing position of being relegated. Think of teams like Blackburn Rovers in England, Nantes and AS Monaco in France or even Juventus in Italy (although the club was thrown into Serie B rather then being relegated). Spanish side Deportivo La Coruna are another name to add to the list. Winners of La Liga 2001 and then relegated in 2012. The Galician club is now is a good position for an instant return to La Liga.
Deportivo‘s relegation was a dramatic fall from grace for a side that had performed so well through out the early part of the 2000’s. They had managed to finish in the top three of the league for five consecutive seasons (from 1999/00 to 2003/04). In that time they won the title in 1999/00, the first championship in the clubs history. In 2002 they also won the Copa del Rey. The club had a wealth of talented players: Naybet, Djalminha, Carlos Valeron, Roy Maakay, Diego Tristan, Fran, Mauro Silva and Capdevilla to name just a few. This was a group of players where none would fall into the super star category of footballers. But all were all highly respected, talented international players.
The club was also a regular participant in the Champions League. They made the semi-final in 2004, losing to Jose Mourinho’s Porto. They were also involved in some impressive matches throughout their participation. Defeating Manchester United at Old Trafford 3-2 in the group stage of the 2001/02 season and also in 2004 overcoming Milan 4-0 at home in the quarter finals after losing the first leg 4-1 in the San Siro. They also defeated Bayern Munich home and away in the group stage of the 2002/03 season. Roy Maakay (who would go on to play for Bayern Munich) scoring a hat-rick in Munich.
The decline of the club started when they finished eighth in La Liga in 2004/05. After that, long time manager Javier Irureta left to take charge of Real Betis. The manager had been in charge of the club since 1998 and had transformed the club into a title contender after just one season. However after six seasons the cycle of success had come to an end and Irueta knew it was time for a change. The club itself is the smallest (population wise) to have ever won La Liga. And in what is a common theme of great sides from smaller cities, the sides best players moved on and the club was not able to find suitable replacements. When Maakay left for Bayern his replacement Walter Pandiani was unable to replicate the Dutchman’s goals.
Over the next six seasons the club would only ever finish as high as seventh. The club turned to coach Joaquin Caparros in 2005 but was sacked after two seasons after the club finished 13th in the 2006/07 season. Miguel Angel Lotina was the next coach to take over Deportivo. Lotina had previously over seen Celta Vigo, Espanyol and Real Sociedad all of whom were relegated under his guidance (interestingly Lotina is the current manager of Villarreal who have just been relegated)
The downward spiral of the club continued under Lotina’s management. Despite finishing 10th in 2009/10, the next season would see the club relegated when they finished in 18th spot. They were relegated on the last day of the season when they lost 2-0 to Valencia. The final whistle saw players fall to the ground in despair, they were in disbelief that they somehow found themselves in this situation.
Goals whould prove to be a major problem for the club. Which is quite strange or maybe ironic considering the club seemed to always score goals. Their past sides had two previous ‘Pichichi’ winners- Diego Tristan in ’02 with 21 goals and Roy Maakay in ’03 with 29 goals. Last season the entire side was only able to score a total of 31 goals in 38 games. Five less then the second less prolific scores, Hercules and Almeria (who were also relegated). In fact Messi scored 31 goals by himself for Barcelona that season, while Cristiano Ronaldo scored even more, 40 goals. Any side that fails to score in 21 games can’t have to many complaints about going down.
Yet like Newcastle United or Juventus, big clubs in their own leagues who have recently been relegated, Deportivo are not destined to stay in the second division for too long. The club turned to 43 year old Jose Luis Oltra as their new coach. After a somewhat inconsistent start to the season, the club went on a 11 match unbeaten run, winning nine games in a row. Oltra led the club to the top of the table in round 20 and they have not relinquished top spot since.
Now after 39 rounds with three games to go, Deportivo are still top of the table. They may only have a one point gap ahead of second placed Valladolid but do have a game in head. Their home form has been vital in their quest to return to the top flight. Winning 17 of their 20 homes games so far, losing only once at the Estadio Riazor. Whilst automatic promotion has not been secured the club may be quietly confident of planning for a new season in La Liga. For a club that had a achieved so much on limited resources a place back among the big boys is where many will feel the club truly belongs. They may not be ‘Super Depor’ anymore as some in the media had branded them but they are on their way back to the level that they deserve.