From that infamous April night in 2006 when Juan Roman Riquelme saw a penalty saved by Jens Lehmann which saw Villarreal miss out so narrowly on a Champions League final to Arsenal, the Yellow Submarine’s demise has been as shocking as it has been tragic.
Moulded into one of the most recognisable, likeable clubs in La Liga under the presidency of Fernando Roig, the 2011/2012 ended in relegation to La Liga B with the news compounded by the devastating passing away of new manager Manuel Preciado Robolledo on the same day he was appointed.
If ever a club didn’t deserve such a disaster, it was Villarreal. A true tale of romanticism that began in the lower reaches of the Segunda B and the third division throughout the 70s and 80s before passing through promotion to La Liga, two Intertoto Cup wins and a runners-up place as recently as 2008.
It was all driven in the mid-noughties by Manuel Pellegrini and his exciting, adventurous side built around the genius of Juan Roman Riquelme and a vast array of stars. Robert Pires provided his French guile on the wings, Diego Forlan and Guiseppe Rossi provided the goals whilst Marcos Senna and Juan Capdevilla both complimented their service with success with the phenomenally talented Spanish national side. Antonio Valencia, Pepe Reina and Santi Cazorla all passed through El Madrigal to arrive at the top of the English Premier League.
It was the sale of Cazorla, sold to Malaga for 20 million Euros two summers ago, that went some way to exposing the financial struggles of the club. Villarreal had just finished fourth, but were forced to sell their best player to the newly rich Malaga as Roig confirmed that the club would have to sell a player each summer just to survive and that the budget for incoming players would have to be cut significantly.
A terrible ligament injury to Guiseppe Rossi’s knee also saw the club shorn of a striker who had just netted 32 goals the previous season. His replacement, Marco Ruben, only managed nine goals while the post-Cazorla support line also struggled, the trio of Jonathon De Guzman, Javier Camunas and Nilmar only managed five between them.
It is indicative enough of Villarreal’s struggles that Ruben’s nine was the club’s highest tally and despite the initial shock of their relegation, it was little surprise to see Atletico Madrid’s 1-0 win on the final day of the season subject them to their fate.
The unrest at management level could not have helped either, the previously loyal Roig moving through three managers in one season, Juan Carlos Garrido, Jose Francisco Molina and Miguel Angel Lotino all biting the bullet. Following Rebolledo’s untimely death, the position was given to Julio Velaquez who immediately went about forming a team ready for a return to the top tier.
He had to contend with a mass-exodus at first, Nilmar, De Guzman, Christian Zapata, Carlos Marchena, Diego Lopez and Borja Valero all leaving in the summer before Giussepe Rossi made official his move to Fiorentina in January.
Marcos Senna, however, signed a new one-year deal to reinforce his commitment to the club and his vast experience was added to in the form of Olof Mellberg, Walter Pandiani and the 36-year-old defender Javi Venta who played for the club in the Pellegrini years. From the Chilean’s much lauded era, the club also retained Bruno Soriano, winger Cani and Jonathan Pereira, the winger having rejoined from Betis.
Even though they recouped a total of £29 million in transfer fees over the course of the summer, Villarreal operated on free transfers and cheap deals to build a determined squad hungry for immediate promotion. The 528,000 Euros spent to secure Frenchman Jeremy Perbet’s loan deal in January their only spend over the past season.
And it has been a season in which they finally reached their main objective of returning to La Liga, albeit via another managerial casualty with Velazquez sacked in January and Marcelino Garcia Toral being drafted in to see the job through. The Yellow Submarine eventually finished in second place after concluding the season with a run of just 1 defeat in 21 matches.
It was a fitting way for Marcos Senna to end his eleven year spell as the midfield lynch-pin, the 37-year-old departing for the New York Cosmos to deep nostalgia in Costa Azahar. Gate 19 at the club’s El Madrigal stadium is now named after him. Venta, Mellberg and Pandiani have all left the club as they will return to the Spanish top-tier with a new look squad.
The captaincy has now passed to Soriano, the 29-year-old defensive midfielder, who is likely to be joined in the spine of the side by Tomas Pina, the 25-year-old, who has been signed for £4.4 million from the newly-relegated Mallorca. Giovani Dos Santos, the Mexican attacking midfielder who has so far seen his promising career stutter in Spain after passing through Barcelona’s highly-regarded La Masia academy, also joins from Mallorca for a fee of £5.2 million.
Enough was seen in Jeremy Perbet’s 18 appearances (and his 11 goals) to make his deal permanent whilst Aleksandar Pantic, a promising 21-year-old centre-half from Red Star Belgrade, and left-back Bojan Jokic, a regular for Chievo and the Slovenian national side, will bolster the defence.
In the search for goals, they will still be relying on Jonathan Pereira, who hit a modest tally of seven, including the goal that saw them promoted, in the Segunda last season, and Nigeria’s Ikechukwu Uche who top scored last campaign with 14 and has a respectable scoring record in Spain with spells at Recreativo and Getafe.
The creativity behind them will come in the form of Dos Santos, the very impressive Perbet, Cani and the experienced Juanma, who joined from Betis in January. Javier Aquino, having also arrived in January, is also a very exciting prospect, the right-winger having already amassed 17 caps for Mexico by the age of 22.
Following the most heart-breaking of recent years that included the steepest of declines since becoming the last club to break the Real Madrid, Barcelona hegemony in 2008, La Liga is preparing to welcome back one of its most-loved clubs in the yellow-kitted submarine that is based in a town with a population of just 50,000.
Loss of brilliant players both to injury and financial struggles, managerial sackings and even managerial deaths, Villarreal have suffered it all in recent years but they’ve served their time and now, under the cultured stewardship of Marcelino Toral, they are back to reap their rewards.
This relatively small club, having only emerged to the top level in 1998, are returning to paint Spain yellow, in the hope this time, their new-look submarine won’t sink. One thing is for sure, they’ll have the support. El Madrigal was a 25,000 sell-out for the promotion-sealing win over Almeria last season and it is likely to be more of the same as the good times are back. After all, the supporters know just how horrible, and just how easy, it is to experience the bad.