Football is a funny old game. At the end of the 2017/18 season, Granada CF were a mid-table club, plodding their way through the Segunda División. They had failed to bounce back from an embarrassing relegation and were void of any excitement. Yet that very same summer, an unlikely ascent to the top of LaLiga began.
This story begins at the turn of the millennium, when Granada were far, far behind the likes of Real Madrid, Sevilla and Atlético Madrid. Following their relegation from the top flight in 1976, the Andalusian club had spent the rest of the 20th century plying their trade in the second and third tiers. Memories of their greatest hour – their Copa del Rey final loss to Barcelona in 1959 – were long behind them.
And things were only getting worse. By 2002, Granada had dropped to the fourth tier and financial problems were starting to mount. They were only saved when Giampaolo Pozzo purchased the club in 2009. The Udinese owner pumped money and players into the failing outfit and, within a few years, they were back in LaLiga.
While Granada were a top-flight club once again, they failed to leave an impression, flirting with relegation year in, year out. And when Pozzo agreed to sell the club to businessman John Jiang at the beginning of the 2016/17 season, their fragile LaLiga status began to diminish at pace.
Under their new coach, former Rayo Vallecano boss Paco Jémez, they suffered their worst start to a season in more than 70 years, winning none of their opening six games. He was duly sacked and replaced by Lucas Alcaraz, a man who had coached the side twice before. Yet, he didn’t fare much better. He won just four league games before departing in April.
As Granada sat seven points from safety with seven games to go, their future looked bleak. And their prospects didn’t improve when Alcaraz was succeeded by former Arsenal defender Tony Adams. Before his appointment, Adams had suffered ill-fated stints at Wycombe Wanderers, Portsmouth and Azerbaijani side Gabala. It seemed a bizarre decision by Jiang.
Read | The bizarre coaching odyssey of Tony Adams
But he had his reasons. Adams had previously been the vice-president of one of Jiang’s companies and had been brought to the club earlier in the season to help the new president analyse their sticky situation. They had a squad made up of 20 different nationalities, and they had more loanees than permanent first-team players.
Jiang had purchased a club tied up in knots, and, with relegation looking probable, he needed a coach that would risk adding relegation to their CV for the cause. He didn’t need a long-term solution with the off-season just around the corner. Adams was the obvious choice, but he was also the sorriest.
His stint in the hot seat started in the worst possible fashion as Granada lost 3-0 at home to Celta. With five yellow cards, it was a display riddled with indiscipline and void of any optimism. A defeat against Sevilla followed before losses to Malaga and Real Sociedad confirmed their relegation. “We are all sad, the players, the fans, everybody,” said Adams after the match. “There’s been a lot of mistakes. We’re going to try to rectify it and rebound very quickly.”
But they didn’t. Three more defeats followed, including a 4-0 loss to Real Madrid. Though he was never expected to keep them up, Adams had lost all seven of his games in charge.
Despite suffering a nightmare first year as president, Jiang didn’t turn his back on Granada. He promised to create an Andalusian identity by hiring local players and coaches; a policy devised by Adams. “Together we have fallen, but together we will rise again,” proclaimed the defiant president, who dreamed of creating an established top-flight club.
The coach tasked with leading their rise was José Luis Oltra, who had previously achieved promotion to LaLiga with both Tenerife and Deportivo. For a while, it seemed as if Jiang had hired the right man. A 2-0 win against Alcorcón in February put them third in the table with 14 games to go. However, three consecutive defeats saw Oltra sacked the following month, despite Granada still sitting in the top six.
Jiang had gambled with the club’s season; a gamble that didn’t pay off. Oltra’s replacement, Pedro Morilla Pineda, managed just one win in six as their promotion bid completely disintegrated. For all the president’s promises, things just kept getting worse and worse.
Read | How the challenge of building a club’s identity in Madrid’s satellite towns could alter Spanish football forever
But everything began to change with the appointment of Diego Martínez in June 2018. Aged just 37, the new manager had reached the Segunda División the hard way. After retiring from playing at 20, Martínez became a coach at fourth-tier side Arenas and began to work his way up. He became the manager five years later, but he only remained in the position for a year before moving to Andalusian rivals Motril.
After two more seasons managing in the Tercera División, Martínez was given a golden opportunity at the biggest club in the region – Sevilla. Over the next nine years, he learnt his trade at Los Nervionenses. He coached the C team, the youth team and even became the assistant manager under Unai Emery, winning the Europa League in 2014.
His final three years at Sevilla saw him manage the B team, leading them to the Segunda División in 2016 before keeping them up. After nearly a decade at the club, Martínez decided he was ready to take the next step in his career. He became Osasuna manager, though he left a season later as they failed to gain promotion to LaLiga.
While some may have seen Martinez’s year in Navarre as a stain on his CV, Jiang saw it as a learning curve. He believed in him and his fearless, attacking brand of football. Not only that, but the young coach personified Jiang’s Andalusian project. Martínez was from the north, but he had learnt his trade in the south. He ticked all the boxes.
With the right man in charge, Granada began constructing their dream team. Winger Fede Vico came in from Leganes, Defender Jose Martínez was signed from Eibar, and ex-Borussia Dortmund forward Adrián Ramos – who had previously enjoyed two loan spells at the club – finally joined on a permanent deal. But of all the signings, it was Álvaro Vadillo who had the biggest impact.
The winger had endured a tough start to his professional career. After coming through Real Betis’ youth system, he tore his cruciate ligament in a match against Real Madrid. In what should have been a dream come true – sharing the pitch with Kaká and Cristiano Ronaldo – Vadillo suffered every footballer’s worst nightmare. He recovered, only to suffer the same fate three years later.
By the time he had completed his next comeback, Betis had given up on him. With two major knee injuries under his belt before his 22nd birthday, Vadillo’s career was on its last leg when he was given a one-year contract by Huesca. If he failed at the Segunda outfit – or suffered another injury setback – his career would have been over.
But Vadillo rallied. After earning a contract extension in his first year, the talented youngster scored seven goals in 34 games to inspire Huesca to LaLiga for the first time in over 40 years. It was a fitting way to finish his time in Aragon as Vadillo chose to return to Andalusia by signing a two-year contract with Granada. Although he missed out on playing in LaLiga, the winger’s decision to return home proved to be the best of his career. Thanks to his 11 assists, Granada beat the likes of Málaga, Mallorca and Deportivo to secure promotion. Two years on from their humbling relegation, they were back in the big time.
However, Martínez knew if they were going to compete, they needed more depth. Promising Venezuelan midfielder Yangel Herrera was signed on loan from Manchester City, defender Domingos Duarte was snapped up for a small fee from Sporting, and veteran forward Roberto Soldado joined on a free. With a combined investment of just £6m though, many thought Granada were out of their depth. Several media outlets predicted relegation for the newbies. And who could blame them? After all, their summer spend was a far, far less than Barcelona’s £229m outlay.
But against all odds, Granada have negotiated the first quarter of the 2019/20 season with ease. Remarkably, they sit top of LaLiga with six wins from their first ten games. Of all their results, it is undoubtedly their 2-0 win against Barcelona which has been the most impressive, a victory which proved they belong in the top tier.
While Granada will probably fall away from the summit as the season progresses, there is much to suggest this is going to be famous season for the newly-promoted side. They’ve already proven they can beat the best and, with at least six European places up for grabs, it might not be too long until the club starts dreaming of a place among the continent’s elite.
But even if Granada don’t maintain their tremendous start, they still have completed a remarkable turnaround. Within the space of 18 months, they have been transformed from a mid-table Segunda outfit into a competitive LaLiga force – thanks in most to their brilliant young manager. Not only has Martínez brought Jiang’s dream to life, he may just turn Granada into Spain’s answer to Atalanta or Wolves by qualifying for Europe. After all, stranger things have happened in recent years – just ask any Leicester fan.
By Tom Blow @Blowsive