Tuesday, 12 June 2012

In memory of Manolo

In memory of Manolo Preciado

In my first post for Just Football - a site that prides itself on its global take on the game - I paid tribute to Manuel Preciado, the former Sporting Gijon coach whose memory will resonate with fans all over the world much like his deep voice did on the touchline.

The death of Manuel Preciado in the early hours of last Thursday morning plunged Spanish football into grief, relegating coverage of the country’s build-up to Euro 2012 from the front page of the sports dailies.

The former Sporting Gijón coach had been set to lead Villarreal’s attempts to bounce straight back from relegation when he succumbed to a heart attack just 24 hours before he was due to be officially unveiled at the club. Reports that he had died well before his time, aged only 54, were all the more shocking as some correspondents on Twitter, unaware of what had happened yet, were still tweeting news to do with his appointment by the Yellow Submarine.

Preciado had a relatively low key career as a player and took charge of a succession of unfashionable clubs as a manager – most notably, along with Sporting, Racing Santander and Levante – but the reaction to his death proved, if proof were needed, that success on the pitch is relatively unimportant when considered alongside the other ways in which an individual can leave a lasting impression on football.

Preciado was admired and respected in equal measure, not just as a coach but as a man. The adversity he faced at the clubs he managed was as nothing compared to the incredible hardships he had to overcome off the field. All the while, he retained a sense of humour and a down-to-earth perspective about not only football but life too. The devastation at his passing came in the knowledge that the sport was a much poorer place without him.

In all honesty, I didn’t really know anything about Preciado prior to starting to follow Spanish football closely at the beginning of last season. It wasn’t long, though, before I started to learn what an important figure in La Liga he was. The big moustache denoted a big character.

Preciado was then the longest serving coach in the top division, having been at Sporting Gijón since 2006. Under him they had gained promotion in 2008 and, despite a tight budget, maintained their status since, but Sporting began the 2011/12 season poorly. During an opening sequence in which the team took only one point from its first seven games, the true measure of Preciado became clear to me following his words in a press conference. “I’m the one responsible for this shit,” he told the room, displaying the blunt honesty and strong sense of integrity for which he will be remembered.

It was only later that I found out about the tragedies life had thrown Preciado’s way over the last decade. His wife died in 2002 following a long battle with cancer and then two years later he endured the terrible loss of one of his sons in a traffic accident. Cruelly, his father was also run over and killed last year in Santander. Preciado’s reaction to such heartbreak has been oft-quoted since Thursday but the words do not lose their impact with repeated reading: “I could have become vulnerable and shot myself or I could look up to the sky and carry on. I preferred the second option.” Having remarried less than a year ago, he now sadly leaves a widow.

Back in January, following a brief renaissance in the autumn, Sporting were once again in trouble near the foot of La Liga. After a 5-1 defeat away to Real Sociedad – when some changes to team selection backfired spectacularly – Sporting slipped to nineteenth place and Preciado’s job was on the line. A matter of hours before he was sacked, Sid Lowe wrote a piece for the Guardian that many people would later return to when trying to come to terms with the news at the end of last week.

In it, the writer explained Preciado’s special appeal within Spanish football in terms that nobody could deny now serve equally well as a eulogy:
“Few men have connected so well with players and fans. Media, too. Loud, earthy, and likeable, Preciado is Sporting Gijón. He smokes 40 a day and opened the local cider festival. He grew the greatest moustache known to mankind and every time he opens his mouth, the floor vibrates.”
For all his remarkable qualities as a person, though, it would be wrong not to consider his achievements as a coach too. Preciado was more than just a personality. Taking Sporting up to La Liga in 2008 was not his only such success, as he had done the same with Levante in 2004 and had enjoyed promotions further down the pyramid with Gimnástica and Racing Santander’s B team earlier in his career too.

Having enjoyed his best years as a player with Racing, it was fitting that he helped their first team retain its top flight status during two separate spells in charge before moving to Sporting in 2006. He never had a big budget, but Preciado had an invaluable knack for leaving his club in a better position than he joined it in or at least maintaining its circumstances against the odds.

One of the few people that Preciado crossed during his time in football was José Mourinho, who in 2010 accused him of allowing Sporting to roll over against Barcelona in a league fixture at the Nou Camp. Strong words were exchanged between the pair but they later reconciled their differences and the Real Madrid coach was among those to pay tribute to Preciado last week.

“He had everything that I like in a person and in sportsmen: character, openness and the courage to fight against blows…My memory of him will be heartfelt and permanent,” Mourinho told the Madrid website. In terms of clubs coached and honours collected the contrast between Preciado and his Portuguese counterpart could not have been greater, but by the manner in which some managers go about their job and the example they set to others they transcend the usual ways in which history might remember them.

Preciado was a man’s man, a coach’s coach. His teams benefitted from the strength of personality and sense of fortitude that he brought to the dressing room. He will be missed.

(photo credit: vmrobledo via Flickr)