“It’s easy to be here,” says Javier Aguirre, wearing a Real Mallorca cap, a Real Mallorca training top, sat in front of a Real Mallorca crest. For a ‘perro viejo’ – an old dog – as he describes himself, Aguirre sports few wrinkles, with grey hair that would be the envy of many a Barcelona manager at this stage in life. “It’s like a big family. You have to understand, the group, the players, the gardeners, the kitchen staff, the kit guys. I am the oldest of course, the one with the most experience, but it’s very easy for me to do my job,” Aguirre tells Football España.
The 64-year-old Mexican has been in management for 27 years but it sounds like he acquired a taste for island life in La Palma. “I have my three boys here, my wife, my granddaughter, it’s like an extension of my house,” he continues. Aguirre admits he turned down offers from Saudi Arabia and Japan before taking the job, and tells El Pais he has found ‘enormous peace’ at Son Moix.
The islands seems to be enjoying the chuckling Mexican too. Never afraid to speak his mind, Aguirre has a highlight reel for his press conferences comparable to Jose Mourinho. When Aguirre came in at the end of the 2021-22 season to save them from relegation, attendances grew by 12%. Last season they posted their highest figures in a decade, and this year Mallorca are recording their second-highest average attendance in the 21st century, separated by only 40 fans from top spot.
And things aren’t exactly smooth sailing so far on the Costa de la Calma, with just one win in nine games and two points between themselves and the relegation zone. Star striker Vedat Muriqi has been missing penalties, star signing Cyle Larin has been missing chances, which delivered another Aguirre clip – ‘He must be shameless – son of my life.’
Yet speaking to Aguirre there is little pretence in his jovial manner, neither is there much sense of concern in the voice of Graeme Le Saux, the former England international now seven years into his role as advisor and director. Mallorca will be alright, when not so long ago, that really wasn’t something that could be said with confidence.
Los Bermellones climbed two tiers and stayed in La Liga between 2017 and 2020. After a season in Segunda, Mallorca are now into their third campaign back in the top division. Despite the lush surroundings, turquoise waters and celebrity owners Steve Nash and Steve Kerr dropping in, there is no sign of Mallorca ‘til I die, nor All or Nothing: Real Mallorca being produced yet.
The Islanders have moved away from absolutes, which in football is a chimeric prospect on its own. Aguirre says his main aim is to bring through the kids, and in the wily Mexican, the ownership has not imposed a turtle-necked philosophy nor an idiosyncratic style on their football team. The money is going towards infrastructure rather than sound systems and club night lighting.
“The performance side is more or less the same wherever you go, it’s about details,” reveals Le Saux. “But for instance, the food culture in Spain is incredible, but we didn’t have a canteen, which didn’t sit with me at all.”
“The Spanish, Italians, French, can spend all day discussing the quality of a cup of coffee, but there was no canteen for the players to sit in after training. So that was a piece of infrastructure we needed to put in. And then creating a culture around that. It’s those little details that are really important to me.”
“People talk about culture all the time, and it’s a bit of a buzz word,” Le Saux the director admits. “But fundamentally that’s the way people feel about their work, the identity they have, and the passion they bring.”
Marketing jargon it may be, but when it isn’t there, it’s a problem. “To be honest, what I saw when we arrived was quite concerning… You know, Mallorca is a nice place. People come here to live, and that’s a positive because you sell them on that, but we definitely had a few players who had their flip flops on when we were safe from relegation, that kind of thing. So you have to be careful, you have to put that kind of filter on it too.”
If you were to read the facts on a page, there are enough of the usual suspects to make this into a Netflix car-crash delight; foreign ownership with expertise in other sports, the head honcho living elsewhere. That shudder you feel is the Valencia fans across the water. Le Saux has a career of experience in England, but is dealing with a different beast in Spain. When Aguirre returned to Leganes four years ago, he had been out of Europe for over five, spent mostly in Africa and Asia, which rightly or wrongly has tended to drag managerial stocks down. How exactly are they keeping pace with the Iraolas and the Michels of this world, young, hungry managers with a detailed tapestry of the team they want on God’s seventh day? Aguirre says the biggest change in the last two decades is the technology.
“20 years ago, Rafa Benitez introduced Wyscout, basically. Now we have a lot of tools, La Liga provide us with a lot of data. To be honest I’m from the old school, I understand that it can make things better and easier. But you can never lose your intuition, your senses,” Aguirre says, touching his nose to make it clear he can sniff his way through the modern game too.
“I understand the numbers, the data, but at the end of the story, I have the final say, and I put my experience and my senses ahead of all that.”
Le Saux for his part is careful to note that he makes suggestions rather than demands, that players are consulted first, and specifically with Mallorca, he feels his Jersey upbringing makes the island mentality easier to relate to. “I’m still here seven years later, and so much of what I enjoy is learning about the Spanish football culture and the challenges, rather than coming in and just cut and pasting Premier League practice.”
For now, Le Saux and Mallorca are fervent about documenting the good, as much as the bad.
“Football can be very reactive, whether you’ve won or lost. Capturing other things on a monthly basis, for six months, or a year, is absolutely critical. Whether you’re successful or not.”
“But it’s about being brave enough to admit things might go wrong, and capturing things from that. The reality was when we were promoted back to La Liga in 2019, there was a good chance we would get relegated, but capturing the experience of that year was vital, that gave us a base camp towards sustainability. It’s about investing when you’re successful, and building something that lasts beyond the period of success or failure.”
Aguirre too is very clear that ‘if you’re open and receptive, you never stop learning, age doesn’t matter’, and it’s telling that Aguirre remains a father figure; full with mischief, funny, but at the heart of the matter able to make those around him feel loved. The lesser spotted actually cool Dad, that you would look enviously on as a kid. When he started coaching, Bill Clinton had just been sworn in as US President. Aguirre was in his first stint as Mexico manager when summer signing Samu Costa was born. By the time Aguirre arrived at Osasuna, his first job in Spain, 21-year-old Javi Llabres midfielder had only just been delivered, yet he endures as a relevant guiding hand, rather than an outdated and occasionally gauche grandfather.
“The key is the communication. You cannot lie to the players. You can never ever lie to the players, even if it’s the worst news for them. ‘I don’t like you, I want you out of the team.’ Or ‘I like you but for this and that, you can’t play right now.’ Face to face. Always. Not through the media, agents, nothing, always face to face.”
“I know that it’s hard to say [these things], sometimes you have to be so polite,” something you can imagine requires great restraint on his often amusing if prole tongue. Before our time is done, Aguirre manages to refer to his own players as ‘motherf*******’.
“But after 48 years in the game, why I’ve been here that long, is because I am honest. I’m an honest guy, and I have a lot of problems, maybe more losses than wins, I don’t know, but you can talk with me about absolutely anything. I am a father, grandfather, I went to university, I understand a lot of things about different cultures, religions, problems with young players, old players, problems with drinking, smoking, drugs, I’m a father to my players [when I am coaching them].”
That probably explains why Mallorca feel so stable at this point. Above, there is an ability to look failure in the eyes without insecurities obscuring their vision. Below, Aguirre treats his players like his own, a figure who draws problems out of people, and doesn’t just halve them, but shrinks them to size. As Mallorca squint at a less than pleasing opening quarter of the season, there is little apprehension about how the season might turn out when they capture it for the mantlepiece.
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