This afternoon I took a trip to Ponferradina, seventh in Spain’s second division, the Liga Adelante.
The Blue & Whites are located in a former coal-mining town of around 70,000 people on the edge of Galicia in north-west Spain, part of the Way of St James pilgrimage route which is gaining renown among tourists.
Founded in 1922, ‘Ponfe’ have never tasted the big time of La Primera and came into the game four points from the play-offs with five games left. The goal is of course a place in the top six and the end of season showdown.
With the nearest town of any size an hour and a half’s drive away, Ponferradina have a captive market of fans and a nice centrally-located stadium opened in the year 2000. This potential attracted manager manager Manolo Diaz, who coached Real Madrid reserves when Jose Mourinho was in charge at the Bernabeu.
Mourinho’s assistant Situs Judi Online team from back then have some pedigree: Pepe Mel went on to coach in England with West Brom and now his Real Betis side lead the second division, while Aitor Karanka has got Middlesbrough into the Championship playoffs in his first season at the Riverside.
Visiting the 8,000 capacity El Toralin amid the colourful hills today was Llagostera, a club from a Catalan coastal town around a tenth the size of Ponferrada, 56 miles (90km) from Barcelona.
Llagostera were one place and two points behind their hosts before kick-off, meaning this match was close to a six-pointer with the season’s sand fast running out.
The day felt hot, officially 25C but certainly the year’s warmest matchday so far. The players grabbed water breaks in the shade when they could. I was high in the roof in the press box, squeezed into a tight plastic cabin designed for radio broadcasts, vaguely reminiscent of those at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park.
I am sure they keep the chill mountain winds out for most of the season, but on a glorious day like today I would have enjoyed a gentle breeze to cool me.
The Spanish second flight, one of only two professional leagues in the country, has average crowds of 8,000, one thousand more than England’s League One, though less than half that of the Championship’s 17,857.
The quality of football is closer to the Championship however, but that said, you won’t see many Leo Messis or silky skills as much as fierce competition, quick, long clearances, fast channels balls and hopeful crosses: Like England’s old Second Division, this is a scrappers’ league with escape the pressing priority.
Added to that, the clubs’ crowds and TV incomes are way below their English equivalents and a country mile behind most of La Primera’s, let alone the golden duo of Real and Barça.
As regards the atmosphere, the heat probably sapped a lot of organised enthusiasm today, like it does back home. There was a home end, the ‘Frente Norte’ with around 200 hardcore fans, happily on their feet and chanting, while a distant drum beat out a rhythm.
I could not see any away supporters. Spain’s vast distances and the smallness of the visiting team probably did for that. From an English perspective it seemed odd to see more travelling journalists than fans.
Llagostera midfielder Tito, who should be marshalling the midfield with a name like that, got the action going in the sixth minute when he thumped a shot goalward, tipped over by Ponferrada’s Spanish U21 keeper Kepa, another aptly named.
Ponfe’s star is their Brazilian-born forward Yuri de Souza, their top scorer this season with 15 and voted the best player from the Americas in the Liga Adelante last season. He was the only non-Spaniard on the pitch today, another sign of the gulf between England and Spain’s second flights.
A Yuri breakaway was easily saved in the 20th minute before a near-post effort was mauled by the Llagostera goalie Rene a few moments later. The 32 year-old then closed the first half with a couple of near misses to get everyone eager for the restart.
Firstly a textbook falling bicycle kick in the 46th saw Llagostera goalie Rene save and fall with the ball agonisingly hugging the line. Then Yuri tumbled over in the box but the referee waved the appeals away, much to the Brazilian’s chagrin.
In the last action of the first half a raiding Acoran tried to round the last man and went to ground. It never looked a penalty but the home crowd sensed an excuse for some manufactured rage and howled wildly at the match officials as they trooped off the field with their police escort, as is the custom in Spain.
On the hour mark, Diaz made his move and brought on Pablo Infante, a bald bank manager no less but blessed with attacking fervour and good close control.
Five minutes later Yuri was withdrawn, shaking his head as he trudged off. Another day…
Maybe the heat was playing tricks on me but for a split-second I thought there were more than 22 players on the pitch, until I swifly realised the reflections from the press cabins were creating a trompe l’oeil reminiscent of the ghost armies in Pirates of the Caribbean.
Ponfe probably wished they had some phantoms on their side as for all their attacking intent they did not look like finding the net alone.
If the stalemate needed a kick it got in the 74th when Llagostera’s Aimar not so much impeded as mugged Acoran as he would not let go until he handed him his wallet. A red card was the only outcome. Game on.
From the resulting free kick Pablo chipped an exquisite ball over the wall but Andy guided his shot wide from what looked like a golden chance to score.
Ponferradina looked more assured now with the subs on. Pablo was making dangerous incursions from the left and Tete, a pint-sized raider with fast feet, motored down the middle.
But as the minutes wore on the Spanish afternoon heat took its sapping effect and a well-fought 0-0 scoreline looked imminent.
Some fans headed for the exit kicking their heels and cursing their team’s lack of luck once more.
Then out of nowhere, a sting in the tail. As the clock crept to 94 minutes, Llagostera substitute Alberto Perea danced through a tiring Ponferrada backline and fired a killer winner into the far corner.
Ponfe kicked off and the referee blew for full time. A sucker punch indeed which nobody in the ground had expected. Football, the ever-unpredictable game of surprises.
The Catalan commentator on my left went into full crazy Latino gooaaall mode. A woman a few rows in front turned and shouted abuse at him before a man whose hair was almost white climbed a few steps before thumping the plastic partition with some equally fruity epithets. Now I understand why they cage the hacks in.
Diaz should have been feeling the pressure as his team look odds-on to miss the play-offs and leave the dream of the first division and the likes of Barcelona for another year.
But the congenial Madrid-born manager was instead philosophical at his side falling to a last-gasp winner.
“We have all seen a lot of football and we know that these things happen,” mused Diaz.
“I have to congratulate the players, They are some of the best we have had here,” he said. “We created the chances. It is rare that we don’t score. I don’t know what happened this game.”
Inevitably a journalist asked him about his future, a stock theme of press conferences this stage of the season wherever you are.
As expected, Diaz replied he felt comfortable and wished to continue but that he accepts the club must have the final say. No surprise there.
It was an enjoyable afternoon all in all, despite the shock of a late defeat for the home side. A warm summer’s day, the flowers in bloom and the colourful hills around could not make it otherwise. Ponfe will miss the playoffs? There is always next season.