Here's a quiz question for you: which Primera coach has been in his job the longest? By my calculations it's Espanyol's Mauricio Pochettino, who took over the reins at Barcelona's "other" club in January 2009, a whole three and a half years ago. Compare that to the English Premier League, where Alex Ferguson has beeen in charge at Manchester United for more than 26 years, Arsene Wenger at Arsenal for 16 years, and David Moyes at Everton for ten. Coaches in Spain must think of their reigns like dog years: a season in La Liga is worth about seven anywhere else.
Not surprisingly, then, Pepe Mel is nearing the top of the list of the longest-serving coaches in the Spanish top division. He got the job at Betis in the summer of 2010, a couple of months after José Mourinho (2nd on that list) was appointed boss of Real Madrid and a few weeks after Paco Herrera took over at Celta de Vigo. And tomorrow's Copa del Rey game with Valladolid will be his 100th competitive game in charge. That's not yet in Fergie territory, but it's still counts as eternity in Spanish football.
He's marked the occasion with a series of interviews in which he's confessed his desire to carry on till he's beaten Lorenzo Serra Ferrer's mark of 262 games as Betis coach, and if he continues to be as successful has he's been so far that might not be beyond the bounds of possibility. Promotion in his first season, comfortable safety and a derbi win in his second, a solid start to his third... Betis under Pepe Mel simply keep improving, and if anyone wants more from a manager than that, they're just being greedy.
The ridiculous thing is that although Primera presidents are famously quick to pull the trigger on their coaches, it's almost certainly a counter-productive tactic. It's no coincidence that Betis president Miguel Guillén has a business background outside football, and was therefore able to see the bigger picture when the team were suffering their terrible run of nine defeats in ten games last autumn. An old-style owner - Lopera, for instance - would definitely sacked Mel, just to show that he could. But Guillén backed him almost to the point of recklessness, and the gamble payed off. Betis eventually came out of their bad run and the coach was able to continue his overall good work unmolested.
And Guillén obviously knows he made the right decision. "It's very important to point out that we've had the same coach for three seasons," the president told journalists last week, when asked what he thought about Betis's position in the league table. "This is absolutely key if you want to understand this Betis. The club, the project and the team are all young and we're all guided by the hand of Pepe Mel."
As for the fans, they could hardly love their coach more if he were made of green and white chocolate. He's built decent teams with hard-working, unstarry players, he's given chances to talented youngsters and, even though he's originally from Madrid, he's shown time and time again that he "gets" Betis (helped, of course, by the fact he played more than 100 games for the club 20 years ago). His name is chanted with great gusto at every game, something that still takes him aback apparently. Asked by AS this week what has surprised him most since he arrived at Betis, he said, "That's easy, and apologies for being self-centred, but I'm amazed that not a single day goes by, even when we're losing, without the crowd at the Villamarín remembering me. You can't buy affection. That's the most unexpected achievement and also the most comforting."
Olé. Here's to the next 100.
Pic: Yesterday's Seville edition of AS newspaper. The coverline reads, "Coaching Betis is a thrill."