Saturday 11 July 2020

Looking Back 26 Years: Remembering the Last Time Newly Relegated Espanyol Played in Spain's Segunda División

May 1994, three-time Formula One world champion Ayrton Senna was killed in an accident during the San Marino Grand Prix, the Channel Tunnel linking England and France was opened for the very first time seven years after construction on it had originally begun, and Nelson Mandella was inaugurated as South Africa's first black president. Amongst these major global historical events, however, there was another far less noteworthy event that took place that month. 15 May 1994 RCD Espanyol travelled to Seville for the last match of their Segunda División campaign and lost a 2-1 to Real Betis having already secured promotion back to the top flight as league champions. Fast forward 26 uninterrupted years of playing football at Spain's top table and Espanyol are suddenly facing up to the fact that for the first time since that May afternoon in the Andalucían capital they will be playing second tier football once again next season.

2019-20 has been a very difficult season for those connected with Barcelona's second club. Having now played all bar three of their 38 matches they have only five wins to their name and sit rock bottom of La Liga Santander five points adrift from the side directly above them. Defeat away at their city neighbours FC Barcelona just a few days ago confirmed what had looked a foregone conclusion for some time and Espanyol were relegated from the Primera División. 11 top flight finishes, 2 Copa del Rey triumphs, and one UEFA Cup final defeat later, Reial Club Deportiu Espanyol have finally dropped out of Spain's top flight. 

But what of the last time Espanyol played outside Spain's top flight? Let's take a trip back in time to the 1993-94 season and see how they coped in the second division of Spanish football. 

Back in 1993 the club still used the Spanish spelling of their name and were known as Español (in 1995 they reverted to the Catalan spelling they currently use) and that 'Español' side finished third bottom of the Primera División. A relegation play-off defeat to Racing de Santander followed and the club were relegated from the top flight. The club had lasted just three seasons in La Liga having been promoted to the top tier in 1990 after a lone season in the second tier and were hoping this latest foray into the Segunda División would be just as short. Prior to that last Segunda División campaign, they had spent 19 straight years in the top flight and hadn't expected their latest spell to be as short as it had. But here they were back in the Segunda División for the 1993-94 season.

In preparation for the 1993-94 Segunda División campaign, a fresh faced man called José Antonio Camacho was appointed as head coach. New to the managerial game, José Camacho moved to Espanyol after just one lone season at second tier Rayo Vallecano under his belt. Camacho, who became known as a motivator whilst also a disciplinarian and a man with a big mouth, would spend four years managing the club over two spells before going on to manage Real Madrid and the Spanish national team amongst others.

Several players were shown the door after relegation whilst new arrivals were brought in to equip the side the for a long season in the second tier. A key signing, at least in the short term, was Bulgarian Velko Yotov who arrived from Leviski Sofia. Yotov would barely last beyond the season but was the club's top goalscorer in the Segunda División scoring 13 goals. Alongside him upfront was youngster Jordi Lardín who would net 9 times that league campaign. The 20-year-old had joined a year earlier having previously played local youth football and would make 163 appearances for the club over a five year period. Another new recruit Toni Jiménez started every single match in goal that season whilst another important signing was left back Víctor Torres Mestre who would end up spending five years at the club. Those two along with longstanding centre backs Mino and Albert Albesa, and right back Dmitri Kuznetsov, gave the club a solid defence that became the meanest in the league. That season Espanyol conceded just 25 goals in 38 games, seven fewer than the next best defence. The side also had experience in midfield which was complimented by new recruit Arteaga, aged 24, who would remain at the club until 2001.

Espanyol did not get off to the best of starts winning just two of their opening seven league matches and losing just as many with a 3-0 defeat away at SD Compostela being a particular low point. Things quickly improved, however, and the club went on a 22 game unbeaten league run. Included in that unbeaten run was a 3-0 win away at Real Madrid's B team on January 8 that saw Espanyol move into pole position in the league table for the first time and they never looked back. Espanyol would remain in first place 'til the bitter end.  

Compostela and RCD Mallorca had been Espanyol's nearest challengers but both began to drop points. Espanyol defeated Compostela 2-0 at home in February to earn themselves revenge for that defeat to them earlier in the campaign whilst a 1-1 draw with Mallorca followed in the next match. Around this time Real Betis went on an excellent winning run that saw them rise to second place but despite Espanyol losing to Athletic Club B in March and then drawing several matches in the weeks that followed no one could catch them. Espanyol had already amassed a significant lead at the top having lost only once since those two early season defeats and prior to that Athletic Club match had conceded just twice in their previous nine league outings. 

On 17 April Espanyol went to CD Castellón and hammered them in 5-0 in what would be their biggest victory of the season. Two goals for forward Igor Korneev, in for an injured Yotov, two for midfielder Roberto Fresnedoso, and one for Lardin, secured an emphatic win and put the club within touching distance of not only promotion but the league title.

When Espanyol faced Cádiz CF at home six days after that win in Castellón de la Plana there was an almost full house of over 39,000 present which was the highest attendance of the season at their then Estadi de Sarrià home. A win would confirm promotion and seal the title. Waving free blue and white flags that had been handed out, the supporters were expectant and the players did not disappoint. 

The home side were 2-0 up after just nine minutes thanks to two goals from Lardin. He slotted home from an acute angle after a quick break forward to give his side the lead and grabbed a second when he nipped into to get hold of the ball from a long pass forward and slotted past the goalkeeper who'd come forward to out of his area. There were joyous scenes in the stands and for those watching on tv well it doesn't take much to get a Spanish commentator excited... 2-0 became 3-0 22 minutes later when a long ball into the corner was hit towards Korneev who controlled the ball with an outstretched foot, dummied it past a defender, then slotted home. A piece of sheer beauty and the hosts had one hand on the championship trophy.

In the second-half Gregorio Fonseca, on as a substitute, made it 4-0 on 74 minutes. Just as a Mexican wave was going around the stadium, a long ball forward was crossed into the box and he headed home. The final result was 4-0 and there were jubilant scenes all around Estadi de Sarrià after what had been a perfect afternoon. Espanyol were champions, manager Camacho had taken them back to the Primera División at the first attempt. The club would lose their final three matches but would still win the league by a point.

"May the Segunda División never be spoken of here again," said then club president Francesc Perelló after the Cádiz win and until now it never was. But now, 26 years on, RCD Espanyol's quarter of a century long spell in the top flight has sadly come to an end. Back on the menu, the Segunda División, or La Liga Smartbank as it is for sponsorship reasons these days known, is once again being talked about. Supporters of Barcelona's second club, however, will be desperate for an immediate return to La Liga Santander just like last time. Can it be done? We shall see...

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