Espanyol’s bumpy road back to the big time

Espanyol promotion in 2024

Espanyol are back in the top flight after beating Real Oviedo 2-1 on aggregate in the Segunda Division play-off final.

It’s the second time in four seasons that Espanyol have won promotion to LaLiga, but this was a far bumpier road back to the big time than their pandemic-affected 2021/22 campaign when they won the title without a supporter setting foot inside the RCDE Stadium.

Three years on, the fans were back but pre-season optimism that their squad would simply prove too strong for all of their second tier rivals quickly faded. As Leganes and ultimately Real Valladolid marched to automatic promotion, Espanyol hired and fired their way to a top six finish and in theory a one-in-four shot at extending their impressive record of having never spent more than a single season outside of the top flight.

Three coaches in rocky ride to the play-offs

Espanyol were relegated in 2023 with their former player and one-time fan favourite Luis Garcia at the helm. The club could have opted for fresh direction in the summer but stuck with Garcia and in the early days of the 2023/24 campaign, all the signs were positive that Espanyol were on the right track to potentially dominate the division in a similar way to their Segunda success three years previously.

A 4-1 win at Levante on matchday five with braces from homegrown duo Nico Melamed and Javi Puado pushed Espanyol onto 13 points and left the impression that Garcia had found the right formula for a season that would see their young players develop with a smooth passage back to the top flight likely.

The Segunda Division is rarely that straight-forward though. Newly promoted Eldense left the RCDE Stadium with a 3-3 draw the following weekend and while Espanyol would still top the table after matchday 11, Garcia had been sacked by the conclusion of matchday 14, following a run of just three wins from nine.

President Chen Yansheng, in his eighth year of a pretty turbulent time at the head of the Catalan club, opted for former Albacete and Tenerife boss Luis Miguel Ramis as his replacement.

The 53 year old made a promising start with seven points from his first three games but that was immediately followed by a five game winless streak which quickly piled the pressure on Ramis heading into the new year.

After a brief revival, draws against lowly Huesca and Alcorcon in March prompted another change, despite Espanyol only being one place outside the automatic promotion positions at the time.

Enter B team boss Manolo Gonzalez to oversee an unbeaten and defensively sound conclusion to the regular season, albeit one that featured twice as many draws as it did victories, as the Cornella-based side dropped a place to finish 4th, having been 3rd when Ramis departed.

Braithwaite stars after summer of discontent

Key to Espanyol’s ability to reach the play-offs was the form of Segunda Division top scorer Martin Braithwaite. The Dane fired in 22 goals and in fairness to him, frequently highlighted the point that he was trying to make for most of last summer – that he’s a bit too good to be playing second tier football.

Braithwaite is widely reported to have gone AWOL a year ago, leaving Espanyol’s pre-season camp without permission in an attempt to force a move away.

There seemed no way back for the former Barcelona man at that point with bridges burned and there was even speculation that the experienced forward, who just happens to be incredibly wealthy as a result of his non-football related business interests, might retire from the sport in an attempt to break his contract and solve the dispute.

When he returned to training, then boss Luis Garcia opted for a “play rather than punish” approach with Braithwaite completing the full 90 minutes on the opening weekend at Albacete. He scored the first of his 22 goals on his return to the RCDE Stadium the following matchday, but judging by his comments after promotion was finally sealed this weekend, he has not totally moved on from the events of last summer.

“My future? I still don’t know” he claimed speaking after the play-off final. 

“A year ago the club made me a renewal offer, but it was disrespectful. Let’s see if they want me to stay here because that showed that they don’t trust me. I’ve worked hard to leave Espanyol in the Primera Division. Let’s see what the club wants now, I can leave for free. This is not the time to talk about these things, because it is a very important day in the history of the club.”

Joan Garcia’s time arrives

One player whose future looks clearer, despite reported admirers in Spain and beyond, is that of young goalkeeper Joan Garcia who grasped his opportunity in the latter half of the 2023/24 season and whose moment looks to have finally arrived.

Garcia has long been a highly rated young talent at the club but his few opportunities to appear for the first team in league football had unfortunately resulted in some very shaky performances. That led to the impression that the young keeper was not ready to make the jump into the senior side on a regular basis, at least not at top flight level.

He started this campaign as back-up to the very capable Fernando Pacheco, but came into the starting eleven in March at the end of Luis Miguel Ramis’ reign. After a series of impressive performances, Manolo opted to keep faith with the 23 year old when he took over with Pacheco relegated to the substitute’s bench.

Despite a costly error in the first leg of the play-off final against Oviedo, Garcia has very much seized his opportunity this time around. He finishes the campaign with a hugely impressive record of just eight goals conceded in 18 Segunda Division appearances including the play-offs in which he kept three clean sheets in four games.

Puado strikes seal play-off success

Manolo’s period in charge was defined by defensive improvements, at times at the expense of a greater attacking threat, but Espanyol always had the edge on most of their rivals in the forward department with Braithwaite and Javi Puado two players who are more than capable of operating at a higher level.

While Braithwaite scored the bulk of the goals during the regular season, it was Puado who came to the fore in the play-offs for Los Pericos.

As it turned out, they’d only need to score three times across the four play-off matches to clinch promotion. Javi Puado scored the lot with his late strike in the first leg at El Molinon deciding a tight semi-final against Sporting while he broke more Asturian hearts on Sunday, scoring twice in the dying moments of the First Half to turn the final against Real Oviedo on its head.

It’s the second time that Puado’s goals have helped Espanyol clinch promotion from the Segunda Division. His loyalty to the club is admirable and while he hasn’t always set the world on fire at top flight level, at 26, he’s no longer a bright young thing but a player who should be coming into his prime.

Puado is sure to have a big role to play next term, but on the evidence of a patchy Segunda Division campaign, Espanyol are going to need to recruit really well if they’re to avoid another season of struggle in LaLiga.

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About Mark Sochon 2079 Articles
Mark is a freelance writer based in Madrid. He has been writing about Spanish football since 2014 and regularly attends and covers matches across Spain. His work has also been published by various newspapers and websites including These Football Times, World Soccer and Guardian Sport. Freelance requests: marksochon (at) hotmail.co.uk