While the attention of the European football public has been focused on events in France at Euro 2016, some very important domestic business has been ongoing in Spain with the conclusion of the Segunda Division play-offs this weekend. Ultimately Osasuna got the better of Girona to secure a return to the top flight and claim the final place in the Primera Division for the 2016-17 campaign.
The Pamplona side hit form at the perfect time to end their two year stay in the Segunda Division following a 14 year stint in the top flight. Although they were unquestionably one of the bigger clubs in the second tier, their promotion still came as something of a surprise given their struggles over the past couple of years.
Numerous coaches have been hired and fired by Osasuna since they were relegated in 2014 under Javi Gracia, who subsequently departed for Malaga. The 2014-15 campaign was a disastrous affair where Osasuna flirted dangerously with a second successive relegation. Gracia’s replacement Jan Urban was sacked midway through the campaign and his successor José Manuel Mateo was also axed in a matter of months leaving club legend Enrique Martín Monreal to guide the club to safety on a dramatic final day of the season, where Osasuna scored 2 late goals at Sabadell to stay up.
He was at the time viewed as a safe pair of hands capable of guiding the club through very choppy waters but ultimately has done so much more than that.
Martín turned 60 this year and has been involved at his hometown club in some capacity for the majority of his life. As a player he was a one club man having come through the youth ranks at Osasuna. He was reportedly courted by Real Madrid at one point and won 2 caps for Spain whilst being an integral part of an Osasuna side that remained in the top flight for all of the 1980s.
He twice managed the club in the 90s, overseeing part of a disappointing 1993-94 campaign where Osasuna finished bottom of La Liga and he returned to the role between 1997 and 1999 in the Segunda Division however his overall record as a coach wasn’t a great one and when he left Numancia in 2005 it appeared that his days coaching at the top level were over.
Since then he’s overseen Osasuna’s B team during a couple of separate spells and it was only the team’s desperate decline towards the brink of the third tier, for what would have been the first time since 1977, that granted him the unexpected opportunity to revive his coaching career a little over 12 months ago.
It is an opportunity he has taken with open arms and in guiding the club back to the top flight he has assured his immortal status as one of the club’s most iconic figures. After beating the drop, Martín improved the team and improved the mood in the camp, which helped contribute to a bright start to the season where Osasuna won 5 of their opening 6 games and topped the table for a spell in the Autumn.
However inconsistency and a lack of goals saw them fall away slightly from the battle for automatic promotion and defeats at Gimnastic Tarragona and at home to Huesca in late May saw them slip out of the top six altogether going into the final day of the season.
Martín’s men had one last trick up their sleeve though and put in a clinical display to win 5-0 away at Real Oviedo to take the final play-off spot by the skin of their teeth courtesy of a superior head-to-head record against Alcorcon and Zaragoza, who finished in 7th and 8th respectively.
It meant they went into the frantic play-off fortnight with real momentum and they’ve looked almost like a different team since. They only netted 42 goals in their opening 41 league games but including the final day win in Asturias and the play-offs they’ve fired in 14 goals in 5 games since.
19 year old Mikel Merino was the hero in the Semi-Final against Nastic, netting a brace in the 1st Leg and again in the return as Osasuna clinched a convincing 6-3 aggregate victory to set up a final against Catalan opposition again, this time in the shape of perennial ‘nearly men’ Girona.
The final was a tighter affair with Osasuna winning the 1st Leg 2-1 in Pamplona before a nail-biting finale on Saturday when Girona again failed to deliver the goods when on the cusp of a first ever promotion to the top flight. Forward Kenan Kodro, a peripheral figure for most of the season, netted the only goal of the game for Osasuna and his third of the play-offs to seal promotion for the visitors and a day that neither Martín nor anyone connected with Osasuna are likely to forget in the hurry.
They won’t have much time to enjoy their success though given preparations for life in the Primera Division must now start in earnest and with their young starlet Merino leaving his hometown club for Borussia Dortmund this summer, there is already one hole in the team that needs addressing.
History is on their side though. Since the play-offs were introduced in 2011, four of the five Segunda Division play-off winners have stayed up the following season and Las Palmas finished in a very creditable 11th place this term having secured promotion via that method 12 months ago.
Osasuna are by no means a yo-yo club and their last two promotions to the Primera Division both resulted in 14 year stays in the top flight so there is certainly room for optimism that the Basque club will be competitive back amongst the elite next season and beyond.