While Barcelona receive the plaudits for running away with La Primera so far this season, a similar scenario has largely gone unnoticed but is currently being played out in La Segunda. With 14 games remaining modest Elche, 25 kilometres inland from Alicante in Eastern Spain, hold a 12-point lead at the top of the table over second-placed Almeria and are a full 21 points clear of the last play-off place.
For a club that finished 11th in the division last season and has tasted top-flight football only twice in the last 34 years – both times a brief one-year stay – the transformation has been nothing short of remarkable. But what has brought about such a dramatic change in fortune? Ask any Elche fan and they will tell you there is one reason only – boss Fran Escriba, who at the age of 47 is in charge of his own team for the first time after a notable career as assistant to Quique Sanchez Flores.
Valencia-born Escriba joined his local club aged 12 but never quite fulfilled his dream of breaking into the first team at the Mestalla, despite playing at every other level. After several seasons with various lower League outfits, following his retirement Escriba returned to Valencia in 2002 as a youth team Coach, impressing enough for Sanchez Flores to make him his No 2 at Getafe a couple of years later.
A successful 12 months at the Coliseum Alfonso Perez culminated in Escriba and Sanchez Flores – the latter also a former Valencia player – returning to coach Los Che, where they guided the club to third spot and subsequent Champions League qualification in their first season. However, in spite of another top-four finish in 2007 the pair suffered dismissal in October of the same year after a string of poor results. A 12-month stint with Portuguese giants Benfica followed before Escriba once again followed Sanchez Flores, this time to Atletico Madrid in October 2009 after the sacking of Abel Resino.
Further success ensued, a Europa League final win over Fulham and a Copa del Rey runners-up spot to Sevilla, but when Sanchez Flores decided to abandon Los Colchoneros in May 2011 Escriba set his mind on becoming a Coach in his own right. Just over one year later he was appointed Elche boss, much to the surprise of some supporters, but results since then have shown it to be a masterstroke by the club’s hierarchy.
Halfway through the 2012-13 campaign Los Franjiverdes had posted an outstanding record of 15 victories, four draws and only two defeats – to Murcia and Lugo – with their 49-point total the best-ever tally for a Segunda side at that stage of the season. Two months on, Elche’s march towards promotion shows no signs of relenting as they are still unbeaten since the first week of November 2012.
Escriba, 47, who bears a striking resemblance to Jose Mourinho, bases his side’s approach on a counter-attacking style that owes much to hard work off the ball and speed on the break, reminiscent of his mentor Sanchez Flores’ tried and trusted methods. All the same, he possesses a squad very much moulded in his own fashion with a number of players brought in last summer, the most impressive turning out to be influential 35-year-old midfielder Alberto Rivera, signed from Sporting Gijon. Escriba is acutely aware of his players’ capabilities and his assembling of an experienced group, with 10 of its members aged 30 or over, has drawn comparisons with Levante, where Juan Ignacio Martinez’s reliance on what some consider journeymen footballers at the latter end of their careers has reaped huge dividends
The defence, which has conceded just 14 goals in 28 games, is also testament to Escriba’s organised approach, the importance of which is emphasised by the fact that six teams in the division have notched more goals than Elche and top scorer Coro has just nine to his name, exactly half that of La Segunda’s top marksman, Charles of Almeria.
Unsurprisingly, the majority of Elche fans are already preparing to welcome the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona to the 38,750-capacity Martinez Valero stadium next term, although Escriba is doing his level best to downplay the excitement generated in a city with a population of 230,000.
“I share the joy of the fans and have tremendous enthusiasm for what we are doing and what lies ahead, but we must analyse things with the coldness and seriousness demanded by our profession,” he says. “We are not making any long-term plans and the players will take each game as it comes. This philosophy has served us well and we are not going to change now.”
Others are quick to recall the club’s golden era of the 1960’s and 1970’s, when all but two of 19 seasons were spent in the top division, although a Segunda title in 1959 and a Copa del Rey runners-up accomplishment 10 years later are the only honours Elche have to show for 90 years of football.
Reaching Spanish football’s promised land will surpass those achievements, although the downside for Elche is that Escriba’s exploits have understandably not gone unnoticed. Several of Spain’s bigger clubs are aware that Coaches of the calibre of Levante’s Martinez, Sevilla boss Unai Emery, and Rayo Vallecano’s Paco Jemez all plied their trade outside La Primera in recent years before making the successful step up.
In the meantime Escriba is understandably exercising caution, but it would be no surprise if he was the next previously unidentified talent to follow in their footsteps.