Medium sized clubs providing a proving ground for footballing talent is one of the most common features of modern football, and particularly the transfer market. Clubs with promising young players will be watched by the sharks of their domestic league, who will keep an eye on their target until the time is right to make a move.
One of the most valuable assets a developing club has is that it allows talent to grow within real surroundings, away from the staleness of lower leagues and the uncompetitive nature of youth football. Players quickly learn the harsh realities of top-flight professional football, and bigger clubs will assess from afar, studying how they respond to these challenges, in a sink-or-swim mentality towards their suitability to make it.
However, a club of this ilk can often grow out of its perceived remit, wanting to be more than a selling club that is known for developing players and not much more. In this scenario clubs are faced with a choice: stay as they are, selling players and surviving as an entity amongst the also-rans of the top flight, or take a chance to make it on their own, build their own success and blaze their own trail.
The results of these gambles are mixed across football. The rewards can be great but the fall can be steep, as RCD Mallorca have found out.
Mallorca are currently fighting for their lives in the Segunda División, mired in relegation trouble with just weeks of the 2016-17 season remaining. Relegation to the Segunda B would be a disaster for a club that beat Arsenal in the Champions League in 2001, and a catastrophe that they may never recover from.
Formed in 1916, RCD Mallorca – originally named Real Sociedad Alfonso XII FC – hold the auspicious title of being the oldest football club within the Balearic Islands. Despite forming as a club during World War One, they did not reach the Spanish First Division until 1960, before yoyoing between the Primera and the Segunda, including a 13 year stretch between 1970 and 1983 outside the top flight.
The club struggled for a number of reasons, not least their location, making travelling to away matches a significant expense for a team that was at times playing against part-time opposition. The club lasted the 1983-84 campaign before being relegated, and didn’t return again until 1986.
The 1986-87 season was to be Mallorca’s most successful in the Primera División, finishing in sixth place and qualifying for the Championship round of the competition. However, their performances were to be another false dawn, relegated again in 1988, and aside from a three year period between 1989 and 1992, they failed to appear in the top flight again until 1997.
Read | Mallorca’s legendary Copa del Rey win of 2003
Their promotion at the end of the 1996-97 season was to prove a turning point for the club, despite the sustained managerial upheaval. Mallorca had developed a reputation for disposing of managers quickly and ruthlessly, and their promotion season was no different.
Former Spain midfielder Víctor Muñoz had led the team for most of the season, only to be replaced by long-standing club servant Tomeu Llompart. Llompart was in charge for their playoff win over Rayo Vallecano, but he was only employed in a caretaker role and was replaced in the summer by Héctor Cúper.
Cúper quickly stamped his mark on the team, imposing a strong defensive unit marshalled by Iván Campo, who he brought in from Valencia. Mallorca performed admirably that season, finishing fifth and qualifying for the Cup Winners’ Cup.
European qualification was to provide a springboard for Mallorca’s best season yet, powering their way all the way to the final, beating Hearts, Genk and Chelsea en route. Defeat to Lazio in the final at Villa Park was a bitter blow for Cúper’s side, but they were more than compensated with a third-place finish in La Liga and Champions League qualification.
Again, their rise up the table was based on their defence, conceding the fewest goals in the division.
Mallorca’s performances had not gone unnoticed by the Spanish elite and Campo was snapped up by Real Madrid before the start of their 1998-99 campaign.
Interestingly Campo’s defensive partner Marcelino was to step up in prominence following his departure, playing a key role in their first European journey. Much like Campo the season before, an impressive season for Mallorca led to another exit from the Balearic club. Marcelino departed at the end of the season, despite the third placed finish, heading to Newcastle in a big money deal that was to prove disastrous for the defender.
Despite supporters’ frustration at the exit of another star player, the biggest departure of the summer of 1999 was Cúper, who was replaced initially by his assistant Mario Gómez and later by Fernando Vázquez.
Buoyed by their revenue increase from qualifying for the Champions League and the sale of Marcelino, Vázquez invested heavily in the transfer market. Former player Miguel Nadal returned from Barcelona to replace Marcelino, Samuel Eto’o was signed on loan from Real Madrid, and promising strikers Diego Tristán and Dani Güiza were promoted from the B team.
Read | Diego Tristán: the brilliant but tortured lizard of Galicia
The club’s owners also showed a real statement of intent by moving into the new Estadi di Son Moix, with a capacity of 23,000, as the club prepared themselves for an extended stay at the top. However the team were unable to sustain the heights of the previous two seasons, dropping down to 10th in La Liga, with summer departures to sting them again.
Top scorer Tristán went to Deportivo and key defender Lauren moved to Arsenal. A pattern had been created – a seemingly an irreversible one – and each season, Mallorca were being picked apart; even European football on the island could not keep their stars.
Keen to reignite the success under Cúper, the club replaced Vázquez with Luis Aragonés, who brought in Finidi George from Real Betis to fill the void of 22-goal Tristan. The trick worked brilliantly for the Atlético Madrid legend: he drove the team to third place, just as Cúper had, and turned the Son Moix into a fortress, losing just once at home in the league all season.
Unlike in previous seasons, the club managed to retain key players. Nadal continued as the defensive mainstay and Eto’o signed a permanent deal. There was, however, to be one huge departure, as Aragonés was lured back to coach Atleti for a fourth time and Mallorca were left leaderless.
His replacement, Bernd Krauss, endured a poor start to the 2001-02 season and was quickly replaced by Sergije Krešić, who made an even worse attempt at handling the struggling club, before Llompart returned to save the club from relegation at the end of the season. Llompart made clear he had no interest in the job on a permanent basis and was duly replaced by Gregorio Manzano.
Manzano had built a solid reputation at Rayo Vallecano but he was an uninspiring choice for the Mallorca fans, who had hoped for the return of Cúper or Aragonés. Although Manzano was far from the first choice for supporters, he stabilised the club and led them to their first ever major trophy.
He steered Los Bermellones to a ninth-place finish in the league, including convincing wins at both the Camp Nou and the Bernabéu, with the islanders proving to be a particular bogey team for Real Madrid that season.
The two sides met in the Copa del Rey quarter-final, and following a 1-1 draw in Madrid, Manzano’s team welcomed Vicente del Bosque’s Los Blancos across the Balearic Sea. The second leg was to be about one man – Samuel Eto’o.
Read | The rise and fall of Deportivo La Coruña
The Cameroonian had been deemed surplus to requirements as a youngster at Real, being loaned to Mallorca before later signing permanently with little opposition from the Spanish giants. Eto’o sent a clear message that night, scoring twice in an emphatic 4-0 win to send Mallorca into the semi-final and break Madrid hearts, a trick he was to repeat with Barcelona.
Wins over Deportivo in the semis and Huelva in the final saw Mallorca clinch the Copa title for the first time in their history, and the only club from outside mainland Spain to do so. The win secured UEFA Cup qualification for 2003-04, and they marched all the way through to last 16 before being dispatched by Sir Bobby Robson’s Newcastle.
More managerial upheaval was to follow as Manzano departed shortly before the start of the season, signalling another Llompart caretaker stint, before the return of Aragonés. Having been the coach that fans had wanted before Manzano had been appointed, it was very much too little too late; the club had hit a downward spiral, finishing 16th and only just staving off relegation to the Segunda.
The inevitable departure of Eto’o came in summer 2004, with Barcelona paying €24 million for him. The club descended into chaos, constantly trying to recapture their old formulas, with Cúper and Manzano both re-hired as the club tried desperately to save itself.
The trend of player sales continued, with Miguel Moyà, Jonás Gutiérrez, Pierre Webo and Aritz Aduriz just a few of the names that came and went from the club between 2004 and 2010. Financial difficulties crippled the club and sales became necessary with many going for below their market value. Despite a fifth place finish in 2009-10 under Manzano, the club were ineligible for European competition due to outstanding creditor’s debts.
Fed up with the situation, Manzano resigned and was replaced by Barcelona legend Michael Laudrup, but the club was doomed. They managed to remain in the first division until 2013, when their relegation was confirmed after a disastrous campaign. Remarkably it was Manzano who had his hands on the wheel as they sank, having been coaxed back for a third spell to help save them from the drop.
Their drop into the Segunda for the first time since 1997 has pushed the club to the brink of oblivion, surviving relegation to the third tier by just two points on two occasions. Sergi Barjuán was appointed as manager of the islanders in April as the club take perhaps their biggest gamble yet, bringing in a new boss at the eleventh hour to rescue them from almost certain relegation.
Sergi’s record does not bode well having overseen relegation at his two previous clubs, Almería and Huelva, but he is the last throw of the dice for a club that has been on its last life for some time now
By Feargal Brennan @FeargalBren