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What Has Happened To Celta Vigo?

Written by Alex Brotherton

On 11th May 2017, in the Europa League semi-final second leg, Celta Vigo found themselves the protagonist of a sliding doors moment.

As the ball bounced agonisingly away from Swedish striker John Guidetti, just eight yards out from Manchester United’s empty goal, Celta’s hopes of reaching their first-ever European final vanished. A 96th-minute goal would’ve sent the Galician side through on away goals, yet instead Los Celestes returned home deflated, a feeling that still lingers in the air around their Balaídos home.

In the three-and-a-half years since that night in Manchester, Celta have not achieved a league finish higher than 13th, with the last two seasons ending in final-day skin-of-their-teeth survival (they’ve got club legend Iago Aspas to thank for that). During that time five coaches have been fired and, in former player Eduardo Coudet, a sixth has recently been appointed. The football has been turgid, yet nothing seems to be changing. Reaching the final could have acted as a springboard to further success and financial security, but upon unravelling the story, it becomes clear that decline was inevitable, rather than a symptom of semi-final heartbreak.

The promise of a saviour

When local businessman Carlos Mouriño assumed the presidency of Celta Vigo in 2006, he could see that trouble was on the horizon. While the club had just achieved a sixth-placed finish in its first season back in LaLiga, financially it was teetering on the edge. The previous ownership had overspent massively on transfers and wages during the Euro-Celta years of the late 1990s and early 2000s, an attempt to propel the club into Europe’s elite and compete with Galician rivals Deportivo La Coruña. They did enjoy some success; Los Celestes, with only one previous European campaign under their belt, qualified for the UEFA Cup five years in a row between 1998 and 2003, reaching the last eight in ’99, ’00 and ’01. In 2003/04, Celta qualified from a Champions League group containing AC Milan, Ajax and Club Brugge, only to be knocked out by soon-to-be invincibles Arsenal.

When assets were sold in an attempt to try and balance the books, on-the-pitch struggles inevitably followed. Celta were soon relegated to Segunda, and by 2008/09 it wasn’t just fighting relegation to the third tier, but bankruptcy too. Yet with shrewd financial management and planning, not to mention the heroism of the aforementioned Aspas (who at the age of 21 scored the goals that saved the club from relegation and dissolution in 2009), Celta returned to LaLiga in 2012. After near relegation in 2013 the club cemented itself in the top flight, and by 2016 was in the Copa del Rey semi-finals and heading into Europe.

In the space of seven years Celta rose from near-certain insolvency to Europa League qualification, a remarkable achievement. Miguel Torrecilla, the sporting director appointed in 2009 during a time of crisis, played a pivotal role. “He did an incredible job with signings”, explains Vigo-based journalist Alex Jonson. “The club was really bad economically, so he had to resort a lot to the youth academy and make smart signings. The 2017 Europa League success was built on this. Celta would attract players despite not having a lot of money, by having a plan and an attractive project. They signed great players for peanuts and sold them for a lot. Torrecilla did great business but also created a really good team, where every signing made sense”.

A costly departure

It’s perhaps not surprising then that Celta Vigo’s slump coincided with Torrecilla’s exit in 2016. He was lured south by a lucrative offer from Real Betis, with Mouriño appointing Felipe Miñambres as his successor. But while the club’s economic plan remained the same, as Alex explains, consideration of sporting goals seemingly evaporated. “When Torrecilla left, [recruitment] went from very smart to clueless. Sure, there’s been some great signings, but there is no plan, no idea of what they [Mouriño and Miñambres] want to do. They sign players because of the individual instead of looking at what function that player is going to fill”.

According to Ian Morris, founder of the @CeltaUSA fan page, the current recruitment policy focuses solely on turning a profit on young players, “without building a balanced roster or the coach’s wants in mind. That’s good for the pocket book, but not for success on the field”. But now, even this approach seems to be stalling. The likes of Denis Suárez, Emre Mor, Santi Mina and Mathias Jensen have all struggled to impress in sky blue, damaging not just Celta’s fortunes on the pitch but also their sell-on value. What’s been lacking is “a mix of veteran players with experience in LaLiga, with other more unproven talents”, says Ian. At a glance Celta’s transfer dealings seem to contradict this, but in reality, experienced heads like Rafinha, Fedor Smolov and Jeison Murillo have all been loan signings, and underwhelming ones at that. It’s an attempted quick fix to a significant problem.

The lack of player investment ultimately led to the departure of coach Eduardo Berizzo in 2017, who having spent three seasons in Vigo is still the club’s longest serving manager under Mouriño’s presidency. Without the financial backing to kick on from the Europa League success and take the team to the next level, Berizzo felt he could do no more, and left for Sevilla. The issue, Alex insists, harks back to ‘EuroCelta’. “Celta were and are still scared of ending up where they were in 2009, which was a result of spending too much on players in the early 2000s. So instead of spending too much they started spending too little, too afraid to take that next necessary step”.

Coaching instability

If a haphazard approach to recruitment has illustrated a lack of planning and direction upstairs, then so has the constant chopping and changing in the dugout. Since the departure of Berizzo in 2017, president Mouriño has dismissed five different coaches. Juan Carlos Unzué, Antonio Mohamed, Miguel Cardoso, Fran Escribá and Óscar García have all tried their hand, but to no avail. It’s perhaps telling, of both boardroom indecision and the quality of headhunting, that none lasted longer than Unzué’s 42-game spell. “The club has been a rotating door through which unproven coaches have been cycled through like a bad washing machine”, admits Ian.

But for Alex, what’s more alarming than the number of coaches is the lack of a consistent style. “They’ve all been so different to each other. Even when Celta look for a coach, the four or five rumoured candidates are nothing alike. It shows there is no plan. It’s a constant identity crisis for the team,” she explains. Berizzo was the last of a succession of coaches to be hired that all employed a similar style, building on each other’s work to create an identity for the club. The teams of Eusebio Sacristán, Paco Herrera, Luis Enrique and Berizzo attacked with flair, extracting the most from a golden generation of talent that included Aspas, Nolito and Fabián Orellana, amongst others. “Celta played some of the most enjoyable football in Spain”, remembers Alex. “The priority was good football, then getting the results from that”.

Now, with a scattergun approach to hiring managers, Celta seem to have lost all sense of a playing identity. Some have fared worse than others, but none have appeared remotely qualified enough to dig Celta out of its ever-deepening pit. Some have even exacerbated the situation. “Antonio Mohamed wore on his players and on the fan base with his eccentricity”, says Ian, “while Miguel Cardoso was completely in over his head”.

“They destroyed the team, I mean completely destroyed”, reveals Alex. “Both mentally drained the players in a way I’ve never seen in any team ever. By the time they’d been and gone, confidence was below rock-bottom. Even when things started to work under Óscar, it took just one mistake or one decision going against them for them to fall all the way back down. That’s one of the battles they’ve been going through the past year – just believing in themselves”.

After guiding Celta to final-day safety last season, there was optimism that Óscar García could be the man to turn things around. But, like Berizzo three years before, he was promised signings that didn’t arrive, seven to be exact. Forced to adopt a conservative style of play due to the pieces at his disposal, an approach at odds with his Cruyffian education, Óscar was dismissed in early November, with Celta one point above the relegation zone after opening the season with one win in nine matches.

The world on Iago’s shoulders

The inspiring yet tragic result of Celta’s decline has been the all-too-often one-man rescue mission led by club legend and leading LaLiga goalscorer, Aspas. Born in Moaña, a town across the river from Vigo, the striker has dedicated near enough his entire career to the club. From the way he plays, heart on his sleeve and fighting until the end, to his professionalism and emotional interviews, it’s obvious what Celta means to him. But with such an intense relationship comes great responsibility. “Celta expecting Aspas to solve everything has been the case since he made his debut and saved them from going bust in 2009”, says Alex. From the get-go, the local lad has been the antidote to Celta’s poisons.

The reliance has never been so obvious than in the past two seasons. In 2018/19 he returned from a three-month injury lay-off to fire Celta from 18th to safety, before scoring 14 goals last season as his side scraped 17th. “I think the team’s reliance on him is a symptom of other struggles and not a reason for their decline”, says Ian. So far this season, nothing has changed; Aspas has scored five of Celta’s eight league goals, over 60%. “Without him, Celta wouldn’t be in the first division right now,” Ian admits.

What does the future hold?

Understandably, given the aforementioned dysfunctionality at boardroom level, optimism is hard to come by amongst the Balaídos faithful. After two seasons of securing LaLiga survival on the final day, Celta have this time turned to Eduardo Coudet to keep them up. The 17th coach hired by Mouriño in 14 years has never coached in Spain and is unproven outside the Americas. For Alex and many others connected with the club the feeling is very much ‘here we go again’. “He is a completely different coach to the previous, a continuation of the trend. It’s possible he will change things short term, but I don’t see anything really happening until there’s change upstairs”. Even an upturn in form may not repair the increasingly strained relationship between supporters and the club. Despite the unlikely event of fans attending games this season, the club informed season-ticket holders that they would need to pay a 50-euro fee to retain their seats. The Federation of Peñas accused Celta of “not being understanding” of the “serious economic and social situation” many Vigo residents face because of the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s as sure a sign as any that the club is out of touch with its fans.

But perhaps there is reason for optimism, or to at least not expect the worst. The managerial changes in recent years, while contributing to overall instability, have staved off relegation (just). Coudet knows the club - having played nine games for Celta in 2002 – and with an Argentinian Primera title with Racing Club on his CV, he knows how to win. Despite floundering in 20th with just seven points from 10 games, oddsmakers are confident in their survival chances. According to Sports Betting Dime, their odds to be sent downrange from 7/2 to 4/1, still better than six other clubs sitting near or at the bottom of the table. Perhaps most importantly, Aspas is fit and firing. In nine appearances this term he’s found the net four times. Ultimately, it’s a case of what could have been for Celta Vigo. “They had a very good team that could have taken it to the next level and been regulars in Europe now”, says Alex. “But they destroyed it for themselves. It’s both sad and frustrating to see”.

A concept adopted by the club in recent years is that of ‘afouteza’, a Galician word that describes those that act without fear of difficulties or dangers, and the security that a person demonstrates in themselves. If the struggles since 2017 are anything to go by, then this rallying cry has gone largely unheard. Come the end of the season, there may be few options left for Mouriño other than to consider his position.

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