âThis is the game,â Pablo MachÃn said but things werenât going as planned, his weekend beginning badly and ending worse. Storm Fabien hit Spain, blowing through at 100km an hour, and east of Madrid an overhead cable came down, leaving him and his team trapped inside a train. Meanwhile, about the same time Espanyol were stuck in Guadalajara, pleading in vain for the league to delay the following morningâs kick off, MachÃnâs opponent was sitting with his feet up in front of the telly at home, the dayâs problems slipping away. Which wasnât the way LeganÃ©s manager Javier Aguirre planned it either but, like almost everything heâs doing, it worked.
âChance,â he called it, which it wasnât. Virtually none of it is, however much he likes to portray it that way. âThe weather was worse yesterday, it was raining, horrible,â Aguirre explained on Sunday as he looked back on the last session before the biggest match of the season â bottom against second-bottom. âA final for the dethroned,â AS called it, while Marca went for âHunger Gamesâ and El Mundo Deportivo declared it âlife or deathâ. âWe trained awfully: awful, awful, awful,â Aguirre continued, âso I had two options: let it go, or really lay into them. I held off for a bit. I went home, watched Valladolid, made myself a gin and tonic, nice and cosy, and I completely forgot to lay into them. And look: it turned out nice.â
Very nice. In a game that kicked off as planned in wind that turned plastic bags into kites and had balls deciding they didnât want to go that way after all, LeganÃ©s had just beaten Espanyol 2-0 with two wonderful goals. Martin Braithwaite scored the first with a brilliant flick, turn and finish; Youssef En-Nesyri the second, finishing of a sharp move built by KÃ©vin Rodrigues and Braithwaite. At the final whistle, Butarque rose to applaud before breaking into a chant: âYes, we can!â They can too. That at least is the belief now â and belief is the word.
âWeâre still in the hole,â Aguirre said afterwards, but it could be worse: they could be where they were the day he came. At his presentation as LeganÃ©s manager, the clubâs technical secretary Txema Indias said they found themselves in a âvery, very, very complicated situationâ and he could say that again. In fact, he did, about 30 seconds later. It was early November and LeganÃ©s had won just once in 12, scored only six goals, kept a solitary clean sheet, sat bottom, and were six points from safety having picked up five points all season. Oh, and their next three games were Real Sociedad, Barcelona and Sevilla. Theyâd sacked Mauricio Pellegrino but coaches had turned them down, convinced they were relegated already. Hope had gone a third of the way through the season.
âIâm here to clear the rubbish from the playersâ heads,â Aguirre said that day. Six weeks on he has done, sweeping it away swiftly. It is startling how easily he has won them over, how little it takes for players to fall under his spell. For people to. Full disclosure here: journalists too find it hard not to be drawn towards him, a depth and directness to the way he talks, responding to everyone by name, an enthusiasm and a willingness to engage, to break from platitudes and cliche.
His press conferences are a show, but they do not feel like it is for show; rather, they feel more real, honest, a glimpse of the way he is with everyone. âWhat you see is exactly what he is,â one friend insists. If anyone proves that swearing is big and is clever, it is Aguirre: charismatic and entertainingly sweary, cabrones, carambas and chinga madres cluttering his speech. Heâs the coach who used a press conference to graphically explain the difference between a Spanish up yours and Mexican one and in another defended himself after being sent off for calling the referee a son of a bitch by protesting âthatâs the way I talkâ. He then proved it by rattling through the swearwords as if he was against the clock on some pottymouthed game show. Heâs also the coach who rescued Espanyol and Real Zaragoza, took Osasuna to a barely believable Champions League qualification and who, in Marcaâs words this morning, has now performed another âmiracleâ south of Madrid.
Aguirre has made LeganÃ©s more aggressive, defensively strong, direct, the structure simpler. Training is more intense and heâs always demanding more. Itâs not always the prettiest â âIf only we could play better,â he said â but he has trusted in Braithwaite, Ãscar, En-Nesyri, Roque Mesa, his ball players, and insists that his âstyleâ is just to âget pointsâ. Rodrigues came in on the left side of a back five while Jonathan Silva, who had played there before, moved inside. Rodrigues had started just once before Aguirre came; in the four starts since, he has scored one, provided two and been sent off. Meanwhile, Silva has been superb as a centre-back. Not that Aguirre claims credit: â[Dimitris] Siovas got injured and we put him inâ, he laughed. âHeâd barely warmed up, he came on and he played spectacularly.â En-Nesyri said he would not celebrate scoring any goals until there was a reason to celebrate, some hope. Scoring at all would be a start â he had just one beforehand â and he soon got that. Under Aguirre, he has scored three in five. Braithwaite has scored in the last two games. Mesa and Ãscar are performing either side of RubÃ©n PÃ©rez.
Mostly, it is in their minds. âIf they donât believe, weâre going nowhere,â Aguirre said, while midfielder JosÃ© Recio said some players had âbirdies in the heads.â That is where Aguirre is an expert. If the demands increased dramatically â âtheyâre working like animalsâ â so did the attempts to build them up. One on one conversations began from the start; group therapy went with it. âI see confidence that wasnât there before,â he said. âWhen youâre bottom, youâve only got five points, you lose faith in yourself. You start to think: âIâm worthlessâ, âanother defeatâ. Players doubt themselves, teammates, everything. Thatâs normal, understandable. I havenât got a magic wand. All I did was try to make them see that they could compete. Look in the mirror, look at what youâre doing in training, how can it be that you donât dare to try a 40m pass, or a dribble, or come for a cross? What I see now is a team thatâs strong, that dares.â
In his first game, that team drew 1-1 with Real Sociedad. Next, they were unlucky to lose 2-1 to Barcelona, having taken a 1-0 lead. And then a single goal beat them in Sevilla. That might have sunk them, but something had shifted. âWeâve competed in every game, even when we lost,â Aguirre insists. They went 3-0 up against Celta and although the Galicians came back to 3-2 - âI was shitting myself,â he said â they held on. At AlavÃ©s, the plan was to go in 0-0 at half-time, âbut those bastards didnât listen to me,â and instead they led 1-0. It took an 81st-minute goal with more than a hint of handball to deny them victory. And now a 2-0 win that puts them three points ahead of Espanyol, whose manager probably wonât make it through Christmas. Defeated in the game, MachÃn could be gone within the week. LeganÃ©s are still not out of the relegation zone, but safety is only two points off, while catching Eibar, AlavÃ©s and Valladolid suddenly seems possible.
Valladolid are up next after Christmas and Butarque felt different on Sunday, players departing on holiday happy. âWe know that this wonât happen straight away but the key is we feel capable of getting out now,â PÃ©rez said. âThe attitude has changed. Of course we can believe,â Rodrigues said. As one player left the ground, three generations of the family heading home together, he beamed: âWeâve got a good manager.â
âWeâre still in the relegation zone, still a long way off; we ainât done nothing yet, nothing. Iâve just looked at the table and parp.â Aguirre said. âThatâs the reality and we have to keep behaving like a team at the bottom. But this is a time to be with their families and they can go happy. The team believes in what itâs doing, there are reasons to enjoy Christmas. Valladolid are just around the corner but Iâve tightened the screw on them, so they deserve not to see me for three or four days, and so do you.â