It’s late and a match is soon to begin. It’s the 31 August and Osasuna are preparing for their third game of the season. The opposite manager, Marcelino García Toral, is pondering his team selection. More than 12,000 spectators have gathered to Reyno de Navarra in Pamplona, north-east of Spain, to watch Los Rojillos play against the esteemed El Submarino Amarillo. Villarreal, earning promotion back to La Liga after the plight of the season before last, were looking to return to familiar surroundings. Marcelino – for short – had taken over from Julio Velázquez in January of this year tasked with ensuring that they didn’t sink any further than they had. A long way from the season before last.
The previous manager had lasted just six months. Frustration grew inside El Madrigal and attendances dwindled. An encouraging start turned sour quickly, when victory over Córdoba at home 2-0 mustered a meagre three wins in 13 games in the run-up to Christmas. It all came to a head when Villarreal’s 1-1 draw away to Almería pushed them out of the top six at the expense of Barcelona B’s ascendency into their spot. They had beaten them 3-1 at El Madrigal in the match previous.
That was enough to convince the Villarreal board to sack the former coach of the club’s B and C squads boss and hire Marcelino, who had been out of work since February the year before following an ill-fated spell with Sevilla. His reign promptly began with a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Real Madrid’s Castilla side, AS hailing him the “manita del Castilla”. But a remarkable unbeaten run and eventual finishing of second place safeguarded the club not having to live through another season in the Segunda División, the first time that they had been relegated since 1998.
Looking back, it’s now a far cry from the horrendous season the club suffered through in 2011/12. Manuel Preciado’s death from a cardiac arrest, the day after he had been appointed as their new manager, remained a significant event amidst the all the agony. Atlético Madrid’s 88th minute goal against them on the last day of the season with Rayo Vallecano’s injury-time winner was tantamount. An inconceivable way to go down after such a gut-wrenching season.
“I can’t believe it,” said Villarreal’s vice-president José Manuel Llaneza, speaking to Spanish television after the game. “I can’t believe [that] there can be so much heartache in five minutes.” “There is the president [Fernando Roig] getting a standing ovation from the fans. I can’t believe it. There is nothing left for us to do but to carry on.” he added.
Fast forward 12 months later to May this year and a banner inside El Madrigal read “From heaven helped us out of hell”, the same day Preciado died. Celebrations of their return to La Liga were given tribute to the former Sporting Gijón boss. His untimely passing tore the club apart and, rightfully, the fans acknowledged him with a subtle remembrance. Marcelino headed the gratitude shared in the stadium, however the banner summed it up well.
The day before Villarreal would meet Osasuna, Marcelino called on his relatively young squad to “find strength”. He stated that whilst other teams can “win without being 100 per cent”, they needed resolve in order to achieve their third successive win of the season. They had already dispensed of Almería and Real Valladolid.
“We have to play at the highest level if we want to win every game. [The] rate requires you to always give the maximum level, the best when it comes to the first division. Maybe other teams can win without being 100 per cent, but not us. We need that intensity for it to add up.” he said.
The 48-year-old didn’t just demand it from his players, but they did from themselves as well. Villarreal were dogged and resolute on the counter-attack, winning 3-0. Jérémy Perbet, Daniel Aquino and Ikechukwu Uche the scorers. Since then they have gone on collect 15 points from ten games and acquire a fourth place spot pre-international break. Seven points adrift from third-placed Real Madrid. It’s a highly positive start to the campaign that has delighted Los Amarillos supporters.
Cani, one of Villarreal’s senior players, and part of the club’s heydays of making the Champions League semi-finals back in 2006, says the camp is keeping its feet firmly on the ground. Speaking in October, he said: “We now have games against teams who are just behind us. They are attractive ones in which everyone should be motivated to play.”
“However, if we manage to get good results in those there will still be a lot of games left, so despite us doing well it’s not the time to alter our ambitions [of avoiding relegation].” he added. Preciado continues to be remembered, particularly by Gijón fans that visit the statue of him erected a year after departing from them. A scarf of red and white colours may establish him as part of them, but Villarreal feel the same way.