English Premiership

Charisma, camaraderie, control - how Pochettino saved Espanyol

Mauricio Pochettino (Gallo Images)
Mauricio Pochettino (Gallo Images)

London - Mauricio Pochettino saw the ice-cream from a distance and went ballistic. 

Espanyol's players were at the airport about to go on a pre-season tour, when young defender Javi Chica was given an ice-cream by one of the coaches. He will still not say which one.  

"Pochettino saw me and marched over," Chica told AFP. "He said, 'hey, do you know how many hours you have to run to burn off an ice-cream? Who gave it to you?' 

"I told him, 'if you have to punish me, punish me, but I won't say'. He made me go to his room again later to try to get it out of me."  

Pochettino had taken charge of Espanyol in January 2009, returning to the club for a third time after two separate stints as a player.  

The second had been to save the club from relegation and now he was back, to do it again as coach. 

"We had just lost 4-0 (to Malaga) and we went to the house of the president Daniel Sanchez Llibre," says Joan Collet, who was on the Espanyol board at the time.

"We said we wouldn't leave until he sacked the coach and started talking about Pochettino."  

Not everyone was convinced. Pochettino had been a prominent player for Espanyol but his coaching experience amounted to studying Marcelo Bielsa's sessions with Chile and a brief spell in charge of the Espanyol women's team.  

"I remember thinking, 'oof, this guy has hardly any experience'," said Chica. "He knew a lot of the staff, some of the players were his friends, it just seemed like it might be difficult. We were apprehensive."  


They were in trouble too, 18th in La Liga, with three wins from 19 games and five points adrift of safety.  

A 0-0 draw with Pep Guardiola's Barcelona in Pochettino's first game proved a false dawn as Espanyol sank to the bottom of the table in March after a 1-0 loss to Osasuna.  

"I drove through Barcelona and cried," after that defeat, said Collet. "We received threats, all sorts. We thought we were down."  

Instead, an astonishing revival, including eight wins and a draw from their last 10 games, kept Espanyol up and launched Pochettino's coaching career. 

"It was incredible," said Collet. "I have never seen anything like it."  

As a player, Espanyol had found in 1994 - and then re-signed a decade later - a natural leader in Pochettino, as well as a feisty centre-back.   

"I remember before we won the Copa del Rey final (in 2006) he made a very emotional speech," said Moises Hurtado, who played with Pochettino and then under him too. 

"It was amazing. He wasn't captain by then but he had charisma. Raul (Tamudo) often asked him to speak."  

It was a skill Pochettino retained in management, his rescue act in 2009 more down to uniting the squad than tactical tweaks. 

"He knew how to lift our spirits," Chica said. "He just had this way of getting under your skin."  

"Pochettino's personality seemed to inject adrenaline into the players," said Collet. 

He was obsessed with control too, a trait that earned Pochettino the nickname 'el Sheriff' among the players. 

Physical conditioning was transformed, chefs hired and diets changed, which helps explain Chica's ice-cream meltdown.  

Breakfast was compulsory at the training ground, which Pochettino revamped to give his players more privacy from the press.


For some, the control went too far. "He was very demanding," Hurtado said. "The training was tough but it wasn't just the football, it was everything around it too, like the people that managed the players and their personal relationships. 

"Perhaps he had seen us as team-mates and wanted to change it."  

But most were enchanted by Pochettino's attention to detail and tireless work ethic.

"He was all about camaraderie," Collet said. "I imagined Pochettino wanted what he has now at Tottenham - an amazing training ground where players come in at 9 in the morning, eat, talk and train together. We just didn't have the money."  

Espanyol would finish 11th in Pochettino's first full season in charge and then eighth in the next, when an unlikely challenge for Europe fell just short.  

But economic problems grew more serious, key players increasingly sold and not replaced, in part to pay for a new stadium, which was opened in 2009.  

"Pochettino felt like the coach, sporting director and president all at once," said Javier de Haro, a Radio Cope journalist, who has covered Espanyol for more than 25 years.

Pochettino cut an increasingly frustrated figure and after a 14th-place finish in 2012, he departed the following November.  

"I thought he would be our Alex Ferguson," said Collet, who removed Pochettino a week after becoming club president. 

"But in the end I'm still the only one to have sacked Pochettino. He had a contract but let us off paying for the last year.  

"They were complicated times but when he says his children wear Espanyol pyjamas, that his greatest joy was to save Espanyol, or that he might one day return, these things all mean a lot. 

"Pochettino to Espanyol is like Pep Guardiola or Johan Cruyff to Barcelona. For that, we will always be grateful."