In the beginning, there was a typewriter and José Manuel Llaneza. And that, Villarreal president and owner Fernando Roig is fond of saying, was that. It is not entirely true – Roig’s son recalls a guy called Gumbau and a man named Parra – but it’s not a long way off and it is an effective way of expressing just how far the club has come and how they did it. Who did it too. Another came from Manu Trigueros, the footballer who has made more appearances for the club than anyone. At Camp Nou on Thursday night, he looked up and said: “If we play in grounds like this, it’s thanks to Llaneza.”
It wasn’t easy for Trigueros to talk, still less play, but he was right. The team were eating lunch when they were told that Llaneza, who had been fighting leukaemia and who had lost his wife a few weeks earlier, had died at 74. “This has hit us hard,” Trigueros said. “He was very close to us, always at our side. The club grew hugely with him.” A third of his life had been dedicated to Villarreal, making them what they are: from almost nowhere to one of Spain’s biggest clubs. Travelling to Camp Nou is just what they do now; it has become normal when it’s not.
There’s an image of Llaneza at the entrance to Barcelona’s Avinguda Diagonal, scarf in hand, waiting for supporters to arrive. That day, two decades ago now, they faced Barcelona B at the Mini Estadi. On the first night without him, they played across the road in front of 73,261 and were beaten, broken too. The following morning, the team returned for his funeral in Santa Marta de Puçol. Last night, three days after his death, at the end of a week captain Dani Parejo called “ugly, unpleasant”, in a game prefaced by the president saying “it hurts” and Unai Emery insisting “[the match] will be his”, in which “we all have to be Llaneza”, Villarreal defeated Almería 2-1. “This time we could say thanks,” Parejo said.
Just not exactly the way they had hoped.
“It was the least we could do,” Parejo added. When Llaneza joined Villarreal part-time in 1993, they had never been in the first division. They had a tiny ground and few fans. An employee with Goodyear, the son of an Asturian trade unionist, Llaneza did two jobs for a while. His wife said it wouldn’t last, but it lasted to the end. More than a quarter of a century later, the team from a little ceramics town – yes, you know that now, but it remains remarkable – have played 23 of the last 25 seasons in primera, 15 in Europe. In 2021, they won the Europa League. Last year, they reached their second Champions League semi-final. This season they have a squad that should return to Europe’s premier competition, Sunday’s victory putting them four points off.
“So many things go through your head,” Llaneza said the night they won the Europa League, a world from where it had started. With the previous owner Pascual Font de Mòra suffering with Alzheimer’s disease, he was the one who had to find a buyer and build the club, rescue it. He sought out Roig, a man of political and economic power, convincing him to take over and invest – which Roig did, heavily. He travelled looking for players too, especially in Latin America. One day, a taxi driver in Argentina told him the story, the legend almost, of this Llaneza character who would turn up and spirit away players from River Plate’s grasp.
There were many signings, Marcos Senna perhaps the best, but he was always proud of getting Martín Palermo because he put Villarreal on the map. For once, that old cliche was sort of true. But it was the kids he sat and watched every weekend that most satisfied him. They constructed a youth system from scratch. Now, Villarreal is the only B team in Spain’s second division. Ten of the first-team squad came through the junior teams. On Sunday, one of them, Álex Baena – a 21-year-old attacker with seven goals in 16 games this season – dedicated his goal to Llaneza.
Fifty-five minutes had gone and Villarreal were trailing 1-0. After an almost perfect start to the season – four games played, three won, nine scored, none conceded, a convincing victory over Atlético Madrid included – that familiar frustration had returned, just when you thought they really could compete. That yeah, but; a recurring rut, a failure to take the final step. Two draws wedged between single-goal defeats to Betis and Real Sociedad had been followed by a win against Osasuna, but then Barcelona defeated them. Now they were losing again, the chance to pay homage slipping away. Then, on the most emotive day of all, Baena headed in the equaliser.
In the stands, Llaneza’s son clenched his fists and turned to Llaneza’s sister, sitting behind. On the pitch below, Baena pulled up his shirt to reveal the top underneath. On it, he had written: “Thank you for everything, Llaneza.” He crossed himself and pointed to the sky. Suddenly, referee Ricardo de Burgos Bengoetxea was standing before him, whipping out a second yellow and then a red, thrust into the air.
From the stands, Roig sat, saying: “No! No!” Baena looked sunk. Players surrounded the referee, who was now repeating a shirt-over-head gesture. They pleaded, he pushed them away. Then he ran to the bench and pulled out another red, for Manu Morlanes. “Calm down, man!” Pepe Reina was saying. Baena went to the linesman, shaking his head, shocked. Yeremi Pino came over. “A fucking disgrace,” he called it. Around the ground, a chant started: “Donkey! Donkey! Donkey!” “I’m indignant at Baena’s sending off,” said Fernando Roig Negueroles, the club’s CEO and son of the president. “It’s absurd.”
De Burgos was right, or maybe he wasn’t. The rules say that players should be handed a yellow card for taking their shirt off or covering their face. Baena didn’t exactly do either: he left the shirt on, pulling the front over his head so that his tribute could be seen. His shirt didn’t so much cover his face as pass it, hiding it a fraction of a second en route. Perhaps the referee could have ignored it or certainly delivered the card differently – it can’t have been much fun for him either but there was no sign of contrition or empathy – and yet Emery admitted afterwards, with admirable restraint: “He’s a good referee, and he applied the rules. Sensitivity is another issue, but you think of that too late. Maybe if he had been a bit calmer he would have acted differently but he acted according to the rules.”
All of which raises questions about the contradictory clamour for consistency and also common sense, the punishment of minutiae rather than stuff that actually matters, a whole debate to be had. Maybe about players’ responsibilities too. On Sunday, though, what ultimately mattered was that it fuelled them – and in the end made the eulogy even better, more lasting, the impact greater.
“The other day we said goodbye at the funeral. Today we did so on the pitch, which is where he lived with us. Today we had heart,” Emery said. “We said we have to have his spirit, his bravura, because when it came to competing he was immense.” Down to 10 men, Villarreal chased a winner to dedicate to Llaneza with time running out, but with 26 seconds left Parejo curled in a sensational ball for Nico Jackson, another academy player, to run onto. Four seconds passed that felt like for ever before Jackson steered it past the keeper.
In the stands, Baena leapt into the arms of Capoue, Moreno, Pedraza and Foyth. On Vila-real radio, when they finally stopped repeating the word goal – the count was lost somewhere around 100, genuinely – the commentator, almost in tears, shouted: “It’s José Manuel Llaneza! It’s him, it’s him! It’s Llaneza in the last minute, incarnated in Jackson, telling him: ‘Be calm, be calm, be calm.’ On 93.40 on Llaneza’s night: goal! This is for you, José Manuel!” Lying there, Jackson buried his face in the turf, no time for more. At the whistle, Parejo gathered the players, including those who hadn’t played, and led them to the centre circle. There they pointed to heaven, to the man who built their club.
“We’ve had a painful month and a half, first with his wife’s passing, now his,” Parejo admitted. “He deserved something like this, for all he did for Villarreal and for football.” Winger José Luis Morales said: “In the end, it feels like even the red was good for us. We found an epic way to get the victory that gives us three important points but above all the emotion of dedicating this to José Manuel and his family.” At full time, as they gathered together, the club that Llaneza built posted a tweet that expressed it best: a picture of Baena’s homage and a simple message. “This shirt is worth a million red cards,” it said.