Alavés – Back from the brink & dreaming of a return to the glory years

Anyone born much later than 1990 and not from the Basque Country would be forgiven for not knowing much about Deportivo Alavés. Around the turn of the millennium though they were causing quite a storm in Spanish football. Surprise title challengers in 2000 and European finalists the following year in their debut continental campaign, football fans in Vitoria-Gasteiz had never known such heady days. Fast forward to 2016 and the good times seem to be returning with the club flying high in the Segunda Division and looking on course for a return to the top flight but only after a troubled decade which has seen them drop down the divisions and teeter on the brink of extinction.

Vitoria-Gasteiz is a historic city and capital of the Basque community. With a population of just over 200,000 and average crowds at Alavés games currently around 10,000, the club’s natural standing in the Spanish football pyramid is perhaps as either a big fish in the Segunda Division or at the bottom end of the top flight. The town’s basketball team is arguably more famous these days boasting 3 Spanish titles already in the 21st century and they are the most successful team in the history of the Liga ACB behind Barcelona and Real Madrid.

On the football pitch though, Alavés for most of its history has lived in the shadows of Basque giants Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad. Their promotion to the top flight in 1998 saw them grace La Liga for the first time in over 40 years and they’d been in the 4th tier as recently as 1990.

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The architect of their rise and subsequent miraculous success in Spain’s top flight and further afield was José Manuel Esnal Pardo, more commonly known as simply Mané. Born and bred in the Basque Country, he’d started coaching in his late 20’s and did the rounds at lower division clubs in the region. His first spell at Alavés came in the 1984-85 campaign when he led the club to 3rd place in the Segunda B but left at the end of the year having failed to secure promotion. He wouldn’t return until the summer of 1997, by which time Alavés had just about established themselves as a Segunda Division club.

What was to follow, must rank as one of the most remarkable ‘small club done good’ stories that Spanish football seems so good at throwing up. In his first season in charge Alavés stormed to the Segunda Division title as well as sending the mighty Real Madrid and a talented Deportivo La Coruna side packing from the Copa del Rey as the club reached the Semi-Finals for the first time in their history.

Their first season back in the top flight since 1956 was always likely to be a struggle but Alavés survived by the skin of their teeth in no small part down to raucous backing at the atmospheric Estadio Mendizorrotza, where the club picked up 34 of their 40 points. Mané recruited wisely the following summer bolstering his side’s defensive prowess with the additions of goalkeeper Martin Herrera and centre-backs Óscar Téllez and Cosmin Contra. Martín Astudillo meanwhile arrived to strengthen the midfield and would go on to spend a decade at the club, appearing over 300 times in the blue and white stripes of Alaves.

In the space of a few months Mané had transformed his side from having one of La Liga’s leakiest defences into an incredibly tough side to play against. Alavés also learnt how to play on the road. Famous 1-0 wins at the Santiago Bernabeu and Camp Nou gave a generation of Alavés fans days they will never forget as the club defied Spanish football’s rigid natural pecking order and flourished at the top end of the Primera Division for the entire 1999-2000 season.

With 10 games to go they were in 2nd place behind eventual champions Deportivo La Coruna and even after week 36 of the 38 game season, they still retained a mathematical chance of winning the title. An eventual 6th place finish, just 1 point behind Real Madrid and 3 behind 2nd placed Barcelona, meant European football for the first time and a record of just 37 goals conceded, the best in La Liga, landed Herrera the Zamora Trophy.

The addition of Jordi Cruyff in the summer of 2000 gave Alavés a big name but it was their miraculous run in the following season’s UEFA Cup that would really propel Alavés into the spotlight across Europe. Mane was now playing a bolder more attacking style of football and although they struggled to emulate their previous season’s success in the league, there were plenty of fine European nights for the Mendizorrotza to enjoy.

A dramatic 4-3 win away to Gaziantepspor in the 1st Round set the tone for a dramatic campaign. Two wins over Norwegian opposition followed and set up a glamour 4th Round tie with Inter Milan. Alavés fought back from 3-1 down at home to draw the 1st leg 3-3 before enjoying another of those unforgettable nights when late goals from Cruyff and Ivan Tomic guided them to a shock 2-0 win at the San Siro and 5-3 aggregate

From that moment on it seemed Alavés were destined to go all the way. They cruised past Rayo Vallecano in the Quarter Finals before a thumping 9-2 aggregate victory over Kaiserslautern in the Semi-Finals, one of the most convincing Semi-Final wins in the history of European club

That set up a UEFA Cup final against Liverpool and set the stage for perhaps the most dramatic final in the history of European club competition. Alavés perhaps overawed by the magnitude of the occasion conceded twice inside the first 20 minutes but fought back bravely from 2-0, 3-1 and 4-3 deficits to score in the 88th minute through Cruyff and take the game to Extra-Time. The golden goal rule added to the tension and if anyone outside of Liverpool wasn’t supporting Alavés before the game, they certainly were now. However there would be no fairytale finish for the underdogs as Delfi Geli’s cruel own goal in the 116th minute ended the game and gave Liverpool a 5-4 win. The trophy may have headed off from Dortmund on a plane to Merseyside but it’s impossible to contemplate the 2000-2001 UEFA Cup without thinking of Alavés, the small club who lit up European football.

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For every great rise though, there is so very often a great fall. While Alavés would qualify for Europe again the following season, they couldn’t repeat their heroics and a disappointing 2002-03 campaign saw Mané somewhat harshly sacked in April and the club was relegated the following month. They would make a brief return to the top flight for the 2005-06 season but another relegation and mounting problems off the pitch, mostly connected with controversial new owner Dmitry Piterman meant the club was heading for dark times.

The Ukrainian, who had bought the club after their great period of success and initially helped fire them back up into the Primera Division club, sold the club soon after their 2006 relegation and left it in grave financial danger. For most of the next 9 years, football almost became a sideshow as the club had to fight off the very real threat of bankruptcy and there were several moments when it seemed the club could fold. Alavés dropped into the 80-team regional wilderness of the Segunda B in 2009 and were left to battle it out with B teams and small clubs across Northern Spain in front of crowds that could often be counted in the hundreds rather than thousands.

It was all a far cry from glory nights at the San Siro and European finals at the Westfalenstadion but with a loyal core group of fans still supporting the side, things would gradually improve. José Antonio Querejeta, president of the city’s successful basketball team took control of the club in 2011 as it continued to attempt to write off still sizable debts.

By this time though Spain’s severe financial crisis was in full swing and the club were refused a loan by local bank Caja Vital, soon after Querejeta’s takeover to once again put the future of the club in jeopardy. By the 2012-13 season, the club were into their 4th year in the Segunda B and desperate for a promotion and Segunda Division football that would help to bring fresh revenue into the club.

They cruised to 1st place in Segunda B Group II, finishing 9 points clear of 2nd place Eibar, who were busy plotting their own sensational rise to prominence. However that in itself is not enough to secure promotion and Alavés fans had to endure a nail-biting play-off to secure a return to the Segunda Division. Two penalties from Borja Viguera, coming late on in each leg, secured a 2-1 aggregate win over Jaen and sent Alavés up.

Despite promotion, they were still fighting a battle to fend off insolvency and the resumption of professional football is no easy challenge for a club that owes money. They battled relegation in their first year back in the Segunda and stabilised in the second and last summer came the news that Alavés supporters had spent the best part of a decade waiting to hear.

The club was finally debt-free and at last in a position to kick on again and attempt to get somewhere close to the miraculous heights they achieved in the first years of the 21st Century.

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One of the first things the club did following that significant turning point was to appoint José Bordalás as the new head coach. His background isn’t remarkably different from that of Mané, having retired from football early and having spent two decades coaching in the lower leagues already despite being only 51. A large squad overhaul soon followed with 17 players arriving including 3 from Bordalás’ former club Alcorcon.

Sergio Mora, Kiko Femenia and to a slightly lesser extent Facundo Guichón, who all joined from the Madrid club, have played a big part in their rise up the Segunda Division from a 13th place finish last year to their current 2nd place as we head into the final few months of the season.

Solid defence has formed the foundation of their success with only leaders Leganes boasting a better defensive record than the Basques. They took some time to get going which was inevitable given the dramatic transformation that had been undertaken but 8 wins from 10 matches between November and January fired Alavés from mid-table to the very summit of the league.

Just 1 win in 5 since then has halted their progress slightly and a 2-0 defeat to Leganes last weekend saw them slip to 2nd place behind their opponents in a league that is lacking an outstanding side. The fact that Alavés are in 2nd despite having only scored 32 goals in 27 games and are without a single player in double figures speaks volumes for the relative mediocrity of the division this year.

Their top scorer and talisman is Gaizka Toquero, who returned to his hometown and first club in the summer after 7 years at Athletic Bilbao. Toquero has helped transform Alavés into one of the league’s most consistent teams and unlike most other clubs in the division they can rely on the Mendizorrotza crowd to roar them on. Attendances are up slightly to just over the 10,000 mark this season and could well swell to closer to its 20,000 capacity in the final weeks of the season with Alaves involved in a close fight for a return to the Primera Division after a decade away.

Whether they make it or not is not an irrelevance but given the struggles the club have been through over the past 10 years, failure to see the job out and achieve promotion would be no disaster. There are smiles on the faces of Alavés fans once again and with their financial misery behind them, they should be well equipped to compete at the very least at the top end of the Segunda Division for the foreseeable future.

A return to the glory years under Mané may still be some way off and they would most likely have to once again be very active in the transfer market should they achieve promotion to stand a chance of staying in the top flight. They only have to look up the road to Basque rivals Eibar, who are in contention for a place in Europe, to see that miracles are still possible in La Liga and after everything they’ve been through since that amazing night in Dortmund, who’s to say that Alavés can’t get back to somewhere near the level they reached at the beginning of the century.

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