Gaizka Garitano – From Despair To Delight And Back Again

Everybody’s favourite footballing fairytale of 2014 was SD Eibar. Real Madrid may have secured their décima, Atlético may have won an impossible league title and Germany may have won football’s biggest prize on its biggest stage, but the story that warmed every football fan’s heart was that of Sociedad Deportiva Eibar’s extraordinary promotion to La Liga.

Eibar’s story was also Gaizka Garitano’s story, the manager who, with his eight Basque surnames and support for independence from Spain, is as Basque as bad weather.

Garitano was the young up-and-coming manager behind the success, but his story had not always been a happy one. He may have secured Eibar’s promotions from Spain’s third tier to its second and from its second to its first – with the second division’s smallest budget I might add – yet this was not the first time Garitano had been promoted to La Liga.

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On 18th June 2005, Garitano had also taken Eibar to La Liga. But only for 26 minutes…

It was the final day of the 2004/05 season and tiny Eibar had a chance to win promotion to Spain’s top flight for the first time in their history as they welcomed Racing Ferrol. The situation was fairly simple for the tiny Basque mountain town of just 27,000 people – better the result at least one of Celta Vigo or Cádiz, the two teams one point in front of Eibar in the last two promotion places, and Eibar would be promoted.

Only Eibar’s goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz had played more matches for Eibar this season than the determined and ambitious captain Gaizka Garitano, who would lead his team out at Ipurua Stadium in front of a record crowd. It had been a fantastic season for this team and for Garitano it only gets better when a 17th minute Eibar goal –scored by Joseba Llorente – puts Eibar into La Liga for the time being.

As it stands at 6.47pm on 18th June 2005, Eibar is a La Liga team. By 7.13pm, however, Eibar’s brief La Liga status would be lost and Gaizka Garitano would have missed a glorious chance to double Eibar’s lead. The club would not recover their top flight status until the heroics of the Garitano-coached team nine years later.

The evening only went from bad to worse for José Luis Mendilibar, the Eibar manager both then and now again in 2015. Both Celta Vigo and Cádiz progressed onto victories and they, not Eibar, would compete in the 2005/06 La Liga season. Eibar meanwhile conceded a penalty and drew the match 1-1, making Garitano’s late first half miss all the more costly.

Eibar’s shot at the top division was lost, yet the fans certainly didn’t complain; rather, the fans applauded the players and gathered at the town hall where an open top bus soon paraded the squad which had achieved Eibar’s best ever finish in Spain’s league pyramid.

Speaking to the press, Garitano summed up the mood: “We’re all quite pissed off [with the result], but the fans were brilliant, which I’m sure will help Eibar in the years to come.”

He was wrong.

One day short of a full year later, Eibar would again host Racing Ferrol on the last day of the La Liga season, but this time only 900 fans would turn up at Ipurua, compared to the 4,500 in attendance the previous season. The reason for this is simple – Eibar, the team that was in La Liga for 26 minutes in June 2005, had already been relegated to the third division by June 2006.

Rather than build from the ashes of their ‘what if’ season of near promotion, the squad had disintegrated completely. Garitano was among several stars to leave – such as goalkeeper Iraizoz, play-maker and future Manchester City star David Silva, and even the manager Mendilibar – as he finally got his chance to play in La Liga, having moved from Eibar to Real Sociedad.

It was hardly a happy time for Garitano in La Liga as he was part of the only Real Sociedad squad to suffer relegation from the top division in the last half a century. That was not the only relegation Garitano would suffer in his career, having already been relegated with the Bilbao Athletic youth team, and he would go on to finish his career with a disappointing relegation to the third division with Deportivo Alavés, a rapid fall from grace for the team which had appeared in the UEFA Cup final just eight seasons previously.

At the age of 34, Gaizka Garitano hung up his boots and his shinpads – the same pair he’d worn all his career as he was superstitious enough to never change them – and left behind him a career of near misses and embarrassing relegations. Brighter things were soon to come.

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Garitano had already been studying for his coaching badges that final day of the season in June 2005, at just 29-years-old. He always knew he would become a football coach; what he surely can’t have expected is to have coached Eibar into La Liga by the age of 38.

He began his coaching career as Eibar’s assistant manager in 2009, only to be fired with the head coach Ángel Viadero Odriozola. From there, Garitano took over the youth team, earning enough respect for his work that when club president Álex Aranzábal was looking for a new coach ahead of the 2012 season, Garitano was to be his wild card. It worked out perfectly.

In his first season, Garitano won promotion from the Segunda B division to the Segunda, Spain’s second tier. Eibar’s president has even admitted that the club’s “natural place” is in the Segunda B so this was already an overachievement, but Garitano only went and surpassed it in his second year. His goal ahead of the 2013/14 campaign was to stay in the second division. He didn’t manage to do that; he had instead won them promotion to the top division of Spanish football to compete with the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona.

That season also started wonderfully for Garitano, with Eibar soaring as high as eighth place in the league. The drop of in the results hadn’t quite hit yet, but it was in the post and a tortuous second round of fixtures ensued in which Eibar registered just two wins and was ultimately relegated on the final day by the finest of margins. No, they didn’t go down on goal difference, where they would have had the advantage over Granada and Deportivo La Coruña, the two teams with which they finished on level points. Instead, the Spanish league stipulates that the head-to-head results are what matters if teams are level on points and this is what undone Eibar.

They say the league table never lies, but with this format that means a team’s fate comes down to the results of just four matches rather than all 38, the league table lies like a FIFA executive with a Swiss bank account. It was narrow, and perhaps unfair, but what mattered was that Garitano’s Eibar were relegated.

It was a decade after that near promotion of 2005 and Gaizka Garitano had gone from the despair of that failure to the delight of winning promotion, where he was paraded around the very same pitch on the shoulder of the Eibar fans. Now, with this relegation, he had again crossed the fine line of success and failure.

Garitano did not take his fourth relegation in football well. In the press room on the final day of the season after Eibar’s 3-0 victory over Córdoba had become worthless due to results elsewhere, Garitano told the press: “I was very determined to stay with Eibar in the Primera, but I didn’t accomplish the goal and I have to go. A manager who gets relegated does not have the authority to continue.”

Just as he was ten years previously when in the same press room he predicted a successful 2005/06 season for Eibar, Garitano was again wrong. He may have been relegated, but he did have the authority to continue. Eibar, with its absence of A-list players, was odds-on favourites to finish bottom of the league and instead they had finished 18th and just a whisker away from safety. Despite this relegation, the season was still a success.

However, rather than choose to delight in the beautiful failure, Garitano chose despair.

Ultimately, Eibar would be saved when Elche were relegated for administrative reasons, but Garitano refused to take up his old post, maintaining that he didn’t have the authority to do so and instead moving to take over at second division Real Valladolid, seemingly punishing himself for his own perceived failure.

From despair to delight and back again, this was the story of Gaizka Garitano’s last ten years.

Euan McTear is author of ‘Eibar The Brave: The Extraordinary Rise Of La Liga’s Smallest Team’ and founder of Basque football blog The Basque Pass.

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