Before their promotion to La Liga in 1990/91, Deportivo La Coruña had been a fairly unremarkable club for much of its existence. Something of a “yo-yo” team, Los Branquiazuis (The Blue and Whites) had won the Segunda title on four occasions during the 1960s and yet completely failed to establish themselves as a potent force in the top-flight. However, when they reached the Primera División for the first time in 18 years in 1991, things turned out to be very different indeed.
Managed by Arsenio Iglesias, a former Depor player and a proud Galician, Deportivo’s first season back in the big time threatened to go the way of so many of their previous attempts to avoid the drop. Winning just eight of their games, Depor finished the season with the meagre total of 31 points and were forced into a relegation play-off with Real Betis who had finished fourth in the Segunda. A narrow 2-1 aggregate victory was enough to keep the team from the Riazor in La Liga, their survival and steadily growing fan base facilitating vast improvements to the squad that summer.
The arrival of veterans López Rekarte and Donato, not to mention the star Brazilian striker Bebeto and the promotion of academy graduates such as Fran, saw the makings of a strong side begin to take shape. Iglesias had transformed Depor from relegation candidates to a genuinely competitive side in a very short space of time; the ‘miracle’ of Deportivo La Coruña would soon be witnessed.
Indeed, it was the 1992/93 campaign that saw Depor really rise to become a major force in La Liga. Powered by the prolific goalscoring of Bebeto (the Brazilian international scored 29 goals to claim the Pichichi that season), Iglesias’ side finished just four points shy of champions Barcelona in third place, qualifying for the UEFA Cup in the process. After decades of mediocrity and seemingly constant relegations and promotions Deportivo had finally hit the big time.
The following season saw the Galician club come even closer to securing what would have been the first title in its history. Having led the table for large portions of the season, the final day of the 1993/94 campaign saw Depor start one point clear of Barcelona and having to beat Valencia to secure the championship. With allegations of Barcelona making underhand payments to Valencia players (something which isn’t strictly illegal in Spain) hanging in the air, the atmosphere at the Riazor was as volatile as it was hopeful.
As the game drew to a close Depor were awarded a penalty and Miroslav Dukic stepped up to take it. Seemingly overcome by the enormity of the occasion, the Serbian had his tame 89th minute spot kick saved by a jubilant Valencia goalkeeper. Bebeto, who had rather cowardly ducked the responsibility of taking the penalty, skulked away in the rain as news of Barcelona’s 5-2 victory over Sevilla filtered into the stadium. The title had cruelly eluded the Galicians, the silverware slipping from their grasp at the last possible moment.
The team now dubbed ‘SuperDepor’ went close again in 1994/95, finishing runners-up to Real Madrid in the league and again profiting from the brilliance of Bebeto who scored 16 goals in total, half of all Depor’s league strikes. The major success of the season, however, came in the Copa del Rey as Iglesias secured the club’s first ever major title in his final season at the Riazor.
The triumph was all the sweeter for Valencia being the beaten finalists, Depor still suspicious of Los Che and the suspected unsporting dealings between them and Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona. 89 long years after their foundation, Deportivo were finally winners of a major piece of silverware.
After a mixed few seasons under the leadership of John Toshack, Carlos Alberto Silva and José Manuel Corral, Basque coach Javier Irureta was appointed in 1998 and ushered in the second wave of the Deportivo miracle. A sixth-place finish that season qualified the club for the UEFA Cup, but it was to be 1999/00 that brought with it SuperDepor’s greatest success to date.
Having signed yet more stars such as the mercurial genius of Djalminha and the poaching instincts of Roy Makaay, Deportivo put together a sublime run of form to finish the season fully five points clear of Barcelona to be crowned champions. 22 goals from Makaay had spurred the club to glory, Irureta’s team winning the title with a beautifully balanced 4-2-3-1 system, the wily playmaker Juan Carlos Valeron pulling the strings in midfield. La Coruña, the smallest Spanish town to have ever had a title-winning team, lauded its heroes and revelled in their dazzling football. The miracle had reached its zenith.
On the back of their greatest success Depor put together a strong run in the 2000/01 Champions League, reaching the quarter finals before losing out 3-2 to Leeds United. Domestically, Irureta led Los Branquiazuis to second place, their form only bettered by an exceptional Real Madrid team including talents as rich as Roberto Carlos, Luís Figo and Raúl. A joy to watch and a refreshing change at the summit of La Liga, Deportivo had stolen the hearts of neutrals both in Spain and around the world.
The team continued to progress under Irureta, particularly impressing in the Champions League. Another quarter final appearance materialised in 2001/02 (the same season the club won its second Copa del Rey), Manchester United being the Galicians’ eventual conquerors, the team going one stage better in 2003/04 having come back from a 4-1 deficit against Milan to take their last eight tie 5-4 on aggregate. It was the performance which perhaps best summed up the strength of spirit and sense of enjoyment that Irureta’s team so regularly displayed.
But all good things must come to an end. By the 2004/05 season the team that Irureta had constructed was beginning to disband, Depor losing their regular position in the top four as they disappointingly slipped to eighth place. His project reaching its natural conclusion, the Basque manager left the Riazor at the end of the season, being installed at Real Betis the following year.
By 2005/06 SuperDepor had lost their magic, the majority of players that had made them great moving on to leave a relatively ordinary squad in their wake. Having dropped from the lofty heights of the early years of the twenty-first century to become a mid-table club, Deportivo may no longer challenge for serious honours but the memories of the great teams of Iglesias and Irureta will stay with fans of Spanish football for a very long time.