Sporting Gijon have returned to the top flight following three seasons in the Segunda, with promotion achieved in the most dramatic fashion. Going into the final day, the Asturians needed to win at the home of Real Betis - already promoted - and hope against hope that Girona would slip up at home to mid-table Lugo. Sporting romped to a 3-0 win against the champions, whose collective mind-set was already on the beach.
In Catalonia, a first-half Fran Sandaza strike seemed to have put Girona on their way to their first-ever promotion to La Liga but Pablo Nicolas Caballero stunned the hosts with an equaliser as the match ticked into injury time. With the game seemingly up, Girona thought they’d won it, but Florian Lejeune’s header was correctly overruled for offside. Crowd protests followed, leading to a bizarre situation whereby the teams left the pitch, believing the game was over, before coming back on for 40 final seconds. That felt like 40 minutes for Los Rojiblancos, who tuned into headsets in Seville, knowing their fate was out of their hands. The final whistle at the Estadi Municipal Montilivi put the promotion party in full flow for Sporting.
The club’s promotion robbed the second tier of the fascinating Asturian derby, which had briefly appeared to have been restored following Real Oviedo’s promotion back into the Segunda. Both clubs have gone through some harrowing times off the pitch, but both have bounced back from the brink.
Sporting’s story is particularly worthy of note - only two League defeats in 42 outings demonstrates remarkable consistency, with a steely defensive line breeched only 27 times. The club have been subject to a transfer ban due to failing to clear their debt or negotiate a satisfactory deal with its creditors. Their fantastic season has been built on home-grown talent and a team spirit second to none, managed expertly by club legend and former Barcelona centre-half Abelardo Fernandez.
Las Sportinguistas will be wary of what may be a very tough season ahead, with their transfer ban set to be carried over. Lack of reinforcements will stretch Abelardo’s managerial quality to breaking point, and they’ll also be concerned over lack of firepower - 57 League goals in Segunda was the lowest in the top six.
But this is a club with a passionate fan base who stand by their club through the hard times as well as the good. They are widely regarded as fiercely loyal, noisy and colourful, creating an atmosphere which sets them apart from many others. Their average attendance in Segunda fell just short of 20,000, a number which will surely increase next year. Their promotion party in 2008 saw almost 300,000 take to the streets.
The Asturians’ excellent youth system is being recognised on an international level too. 18-year-old centre-back Jorge Mere only burst into first team action this year yet already has been parachuted into the Spanish Under-21 squad, where he joins club teammate Carlos Castro, an exciting young attacker who has been linked to Arsenal by the English press. Others who look set to have a big future in the game include central midfielder Pablo Perez, who’s debut season has seen him thrive against much more experienced opposition, and Alex Serrano, a highly-rated attacker who has caught the eye of scouts across Spain.
Sporting, with their talented young players and vibrant supporters, will add plenty of noise, colour and atmosphere to the top flight. This should be fun.