PEP GUARDIOLA made his mark on the football world at Barcelona, first as a player and then as a manager, and now find himself heading Manchester City’s attempts to establish themselves as a world power under his auspices. But his journey to Manchester came via another club, Girona FC, who’ve secured promotion to La Liga next season, and that is where his future may lie. Barcelona and Espanyol beware, there’s a new Catalan club at the top table, and they mean business.
There is romanticism in the idea of a club making the top tier of domestic football for the first time in their existence. And it is certainly captivating to see a side with a stadium capacity of under 10,000 playing host to some of the world’s best players. In Girona FC, we will get both next season; a club that has never set foot in the promised land, but will do so with a maximum capacity of 9,286. After knocking on the door for several seasons, they’ve finally burst through.
That it is just reward cannot be argued against. Since their promotion to the Segunda División in 2008, they floated about in mid-table for their first four seasons, but flew into contention in 2012, when they finished in the promotion playoffs spots. They were unlucky to be there in the first place, given that they were second with four games to go, but losses to Villarreal and Almería coupled with a draw to Real Madrid Castilla sent them tumbling into the playoffs.
They made it to the finals after a 4-2 win over Alcorcón on aggregate but fell to Almería in the final, a 4-0 two-legged loss failing to convey how close it was in reality. But experience always comes at a price, and as it turns out, the luck that deserted them in the final came to their rescue in the following season.
The 2013-14 season could either be viewed as a blip or the club reverting to type in the lower ranks of the Segunda. Three managerial changes did nothing to help, and they faced the prospect of relegation in the final game. But they managed to stay out of the relegation spots, finishing two points ahead of Real Madrid Castilla in 20th.
The stars aligned themselves, given that fourth-placed Murcia were sent down instead of 19th-placed Mirandés due to their failure to obtain a professional license. Girona had finished just two points ahead of Castilla and one ahead of Mirandés, albeit with a goal difference of +2. From playoff failure to near-relegation, fans had experienced it all, but this was just the beginning of better days.
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The following season was as close as it could get. Girona were second in the table going into the final week, but they somehow found themselves tied on 82 points with Sporting Gijón after conceding a 93rd-minute equaliser to Lugo. With their head-to-head tied, it was down to goal difference: Sporting’s was +30 and Girona’s was +28, meaning that they had to go through the playoffs yet again.
If that conveyed bad luck, the playoffs conveyed utter capitulation. After a 3-0 win away to Zaragoza, Girona were confident of La Liga football going into the home leg three days later. From a position of power came an unlikely downfall as three first-half away goals from Zaragoza negated Girona’s advantage. José Fernandez, late in the game, couldn’t have timed the only goal of his professional career better, making it 4-3 to the away side. Girona found an equaliser but not a winner, and they found themselves missing out on promotion yet again.
That continued into the following season where Girona again found themselves in the playoffs after a good run of form in the final few games. After coming back from 3-1 down in the second leg of the semi-final against Córdoba to take it to extra time, and then win it with a 117th-minute winner from Cristian Herrera, they may have hoped that their stars were finally aligning. The last frontier evaded them again, though, with a 3-1 aggregate loss to Osasuna in the final.
No promotion after making the playoffs in three of their previous four seasons was a damning indictment of the intangibles failing to help a consistently successful side.
But help they did in the 2016-17 season, and they now find themselves in La Liga. No playoffs, no stress, no pressure; just celebration in the Estadi Montilivi and a massive sigh of relief. They held onto second spot from Gameweek 15 with complete determination. They would not be denied their destiny, which is why a 0-0 draw against Zaragoza, beneficial to both sides, was always on the cards in their second-last game.
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A 3-1 loss to relegation-threatened Gimnàstic ironically quashed any hopes of another collapse. Given their three previous playoff failures, Girona wanted direct promotion at any cost. The loss left a deep impression on the players, that of reflection and a fear of failure. As Girona’s Eloi Amagat said, the playoffs were no longer a prize for them. They had their eyes set on only one thing – direct promotion.
It is no surprise that unheralded Girona are managed by an unheralded manager in Pablo Machin. With a playing career cut short at Numancia due to a knee injury, he moved into management, learning from Juan Carlos Unzué. In a touch of fate, both Machin and Unzué, now manager at Celta, will face off against each other in their first stints in La Liga, getting a chance to pit their wares against one another.
Unzué will have greater quality in his ranks, but will hardly underestimate the skill and guile of his former assistant. Machin bases his tactical philosophy on his time at Numancia, favouring a three centre-back formation with wing-backs that allow for counter-attacking. With 65 goals scored in 42 league games, they were the Segunda’s highest scorers, evidence of Machin’s success.
This is a modest side, filled with local heroes who have reached the promised land. Alex Granell was released by the Girona academy at 16 but returned in 2014 to become an integral part of the side. Pere Pons has been there since 2002 and will finally take his talents to the top tier and a wider audience. Filled with La Liga outcasts – Athletic’s Jonás Ramalho and Atlético Madrid’s Bono to name just two – and loanees – in particular Inter Milan’s Samuele Longo, who has shone after a nomadic early career – Girona have flown the coop.
One group of loanees leads to hope of a bright future and stability in the top tier. The City Football Group has a stable of clubs across the world, with Manchester City supporting their sister clubs Melbourne City, New York City, Yokohama Marinos and C.A. Torque, and have partnerships with Atlético Venezuela and the Ghanian Right to Dream Academy. But the clubs that benefit from Manchester City’s collection of mercurial talents are the ones with loanee partnerships, like Girona and NAC Breda, and it is clear that the Spaniards will be the ones to benefit in the following seasons.
Pablo Maffeo was one of City’s loanees to do well for himself at Girona last season, and is likely to stay there in the short-term, while Chidiebere Nwakali spent time there in 2016. City may entrust the development of Aleix García and Brahim Díaz to them next season, and it is no wonder why – there may be no better place for young Spaniards to gain experience in the top flight.
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Rubén Sobrino was purchased from Ponferradina by Manchester City in August 2015 and immediately sent to Girona for the season. Pablo Marí moved from Gimnàstic to Girona via Manchester last summer, while Florian Lejeune made a big move to Eibar via Girona’s beneficiaries. They cover for Girona’s lack of finances by helping them recruit talent.
Despite the help from City, there is no such thing as a free lunch, after all. The heavyweights in England are taking more of an interest in Girona than Breda, and that is no coincidence as they have a certain Pep Guardiola in charge.
City planned to court Pep Guardiola and entice him to usher in an era of dominance, and spared no turn to lure him. Txiki Begiristain was their sporting director, while Ferran Soriano was their chief executive, figures who had appointed Guardiola at Barcelona in 2008. Their arrival at City meant they sought to appoint him again. They aimed to build a relationship with Pere Guardiola, Pep’s brother and agent, through which they would have a clear shot at landing the world’s most coveted manager.
The Media Base Sports agency, headed by Pere and his partner, agent Jaume Roures, bought a majority controlling stake in Girona in 2015. At the time, the club was in the mire, with a debt of £3 million, which explains the Lejeune deal. Girona benefitted immediately, as did Manchester City, whose project convinced Pep to sign on the dotted line. With Guardiolas in charge at each club, and with a loan agreement already in place, Girona may eventually become a part of the City Football Group.
Barcelona and Espanyol have carried the Catalan flag in La Liga ever since the relegation of Gimnàstic in 2007, but not for much longer. There is a sense of destiny in the way Girona have finally secured promotion. For a club that prides itself on local spirit, there’ll surely be nothing better than seeing children supporting Blanquivermell ahead of Barcelona.
Kids will inevitably now follow their local side and wear their colours, just like local hero Pere Pons. From humble roots arises ambition and success. There is a new Catalan club in the house, and it promises to be a great ride.
By Rahul Warrier @rahulw_