Espanyol get lost on their way to ‘The Promised Land’

“We reiterate our full confidence in [Mauricio] Pochettino and his coaching staff. We are confident they are able to overcome this situation. All the directors have agreed”. Rafael Train, spokesman for RCD Espanyol’s Board of Directors stated on Tuesday morning.

That they’ve come to ‘another’ decision means little for the supporters, after all these are the people for whom they’ve lost faith in ever so gradually in the last two years, the people who have made too many decisions, the people who have made too many of them wrongly. At least it was a formal meeting, after all it was just a few weeks ago Ultra group ‘La Curva’ turned up at training and got a private meeting with Pochettino and the four club captains. There was no tea and biscuits or PowerPoint presentations, just a lot of raised voices and cold hard facts.

During Espanyol’s game on Sunday evening against Atlético Madrid at Cornellà-El Prat – a ground that was supposed to represent the future and ambition but instead has become a symbol of failure – the supporters once again voiced their concerns. Anyone, and everyone, was targeted. A banner unfurled demanded that Vice-President Germán De la Cruz to leave, while chants rang out asking for the heads of other members who it’s believed are contributing to the downfall of the club.

A crisis situation often pulls on supporters’ emotions and inevitably they cry out for a former idol. Newcastle United fans chanted for their famous #9 Alan Shearer, while cries of [Kenny] Daglish bellowed from Liverpool’s Kop End. Cornellà’s La Curva called out for former idols in the form Iván de la Peña, and Raúl Tamudo. The latter was on the first to become embroiled in a dispute with the club over a new contract and many have since followed. Tamudo considered the club as part of his heart, the board didn’t consider him at all.

At full-time the whistles didn’t grow louder, but instead an eerie silence fell around the stadium. It was a realisation perhaps that this wasn’t just a run of the mill poor start to the season but in fact a bad season all together. This time last year they were two places off Europe, and had just won at Sporting Gión 1-2 – ironically the last time they won away fixture. Currently they still await their first victory of the season, six games in – their worst record since 2003/2004. In 2012, statistics show they’ve been one of the worst teams in Europe. This season already, they’ve let in late goals against Real Zaragoza, Real Mallorca, Levante and Athletic Bilbao; in two of those games they had two goal cushions but are so mentally fractured they couldn’t maintain them. Pochettino’s fury on the touchline against Athletic was tinged with trepidation.

Pochettino must accept some of the liability. He has to be taken into account for his ostracising of certain players and tactical mishaps. He fell out with several senior players including Javi Márquez, one of the finest midfielders in La Liga, when Espanyol needed him most and though he was fully fit he was not even considered. A legend at the club, Carlos Kameni was another, shoved out all together. The Argentinean then managed to deface all his early values of attacking, high pressing football to turn into just another lumbering, predictable 4-2-3-1 badge wearer. At one time he worked well with the tools he had, becoming something of a young Joaquín Caparrós, but his lack of ideas have become all too apparent. He turned down a move to various clubs, one of which was Fiorentina, in the summer citing his “faith in the project [at Espanyol] and the work that still needs to be completed”. He was correct when he said there was much still to be done, because he had to start all over again. The ‘project’ he spoke of, ceased to exist a long time ago.

Most of the blame though lies with those were the target of Cornellà’s wrath. Those toeing the company line with drivel and business-speak that they believe is bringing clarity but only further drives a wedge between them and those who they must give belief to. Pochettino too, often so forthright, now sounds like he’s been wound-up and is reading from a teleprompt. There is a lack of admission from all parties to acknowledge the situation the club is now in, which only increases anger and disillusion.

Cornellà, as mentioned before, has become something of a beacon of failure. It’s not quite Castellón Airport, but it sure goes someway to explaining and symbolising Espanyol’s current predicament. They had to move from Montjuïc, but when they did the costs of the new stadium were constantly driven up much greater than was estimated or budgeted for – a club already with their sort of debts couldn’t handle more financial drain. Therefore, the loans gradually became higher and more unfeasible. Currently they’re navigating their way through a single €65m lump sum that’s intertwining itself around the structure of what is indeed, a beautiful stadium. Despite the budget of the club being decreased for four years straight, still we see Espanyol operating with losses and more concerning, the debt is increasing. In 2010, on production of their latest accounts the club declared the debt would be reduce significantly in three years – two years later we have only seen an increase. It’s now to the tune of nearly €200m and rising; an amount difficult to task for a prosperous club let alone one experiencing a swift downturn. Contributing to that is the fans turning away in their droves, as the cost of a match day no longer align with the team on the playing field. Espanyol now incredibly has less socios than they did at Montjuïc, barely over 29,000 at last count on September 1st 2012. Former Coach Paco Flores said recently he “knew it was a mistake” moving stadium, and although that’s perhaps a touch emphatic, the sentiment is understandable.

Joan Collet, CEO at the club, has been one of the most outspoken characters in the situation regarding TV rights outside of Barcelona and Real Madrid. It’s a convenient line for him to spit out as his club suffers financially, but he’ll know others with a smaller budget have managed to make themselves competitive. This falls then to Ramón Planes , Sporting Director, who has seemingly lost his way when it comes to progressing the club both in terms of incomings and sales – frankly, he was never on the way.

Once a club with a focus on youth, desire and ambition they’ve disregarded an identity that had achieved so much success and admiration. 23 players from the youth team have been promoted during Pochettino’s time at the club, and the best of them have all but gone. Javi Márquez, Alvaro Vazquez and several others fell into contract disputes before leaving for clubs that, with no disrespect, are hardly head and shoulders above Espanyol. Joan Verdú, perhaps one of their last remaining starts, has a year left on his deal and remains in public limbo with the club. The case of Vazquez was most intriguing; held up as a future leader of the team, he lodged a complaint against the club while he still pulled on the shirt as he’d been unpaid – as had several others before Planes insisted the debt had been settled. It’s recently came to light Kameni, who somehow joined Málaga for free despite at one point being valued at north of €5m, is still owed money too, and talk is there are still others. Thievy, a youngster who burst onto the scene and gained massive approval from Pochettino for his physical prowess, has been shipped to Las Palmas as the club now favours an older influence. Jordi Amat’s gone to Rayo Vallecano on loan despite his early promise and Paul Quaye, a midfielder from the Juvenil squad who previously turned down a move to Barcelona, is apparently now looking for an exit too along with other youngsters that have already appeared for Spain at youth level. The list goes on, and on.

It’s strange that the aforementioned contracts were not actioned, but also that the cash was found to pay ageing former starts like Simão and Joan Capdevila, both have their better days well behind them from their previous spells in Spain. Whereas the likes of Valencia squeeze every last euro out of a potential buyer for one of their stars, Espanyol managed to deflate their value and what money they did get was poorly reinvested. It’s no wonder they’re now left with a squad of scraps, and no-one of true resale value. In just over a year, the club has managed to undo every single bit competent work it had done.

The faith in youth has dwindled as the club look to play it safe, expect they’re now in more danger than ever before – there is no pattern, no plan, nor hope for the future.

Upon leaving Montjuïc the tagline Espanyol went with was the ‘The Promised Land’. Who knew at the time the meaning behind that was mediocrity.