Rayo Vallecano do not usually beat Barcelona. In fact the humble club from the proudly working class Madrid neighbourhood of Vallecas, with their three-sided stadium and miniscule club shop, had last won a game against the Catalans in January 2002.
But coach Andoni Iraola sensed his side, who had only recently won promotion back to the top flight, stood as good a chance of an upset as ever when they hosted Ronald Koeman’s struggling side last month.
‘We spoke about it between us because they were missing some fundamental players such as Frenkie de Jong, Ousmane Dembele and Ansu Fati amongst others so it was a great opportunity for us,’ Iraola tells Sportsmail.
Andoni Iraola has worked wonders with Rayo Vallecano, LaLiga’s surprise package this season
The coach has led Rayo to sixth in LaLiga and his side have the best home record in the division
‘But to win against Barcelona you have to play a great game first of all and then have fortune on your side.’
Rayo ticked both boxes, taking the lead after half an hour by dispossessing Sergio Busquets and pouncing quickly, Radamel Falcao slotting in a cross from Oscar Trejo.
Iraola’s side held on to their lead resolutely and knew it was their night when Barca were awarded a penalty but Memphis Depay, usually so confident from the spot, had his shot saved by Stole Dimitrievski.
The minnows saw out an unlikely victory which proved the final straw for Barca, who sacked Koeman on the flight home.
For Iraola, it was the highlight of his young yet impressive coaching career, although there are plenty to choose from. Just a few weeks before beating Barca, his side won 2-1 at Athletic Bilbao, one of the toughest away trips in Spain.
Rayo then faced Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu and, although they ended up losing 2-1, they had Carlo Ancelotti’s side on the ropes after Falcao pulled a goal back.
In the words of Spanish newspaper Marca, Rayo had Real ‘begging for the final whistle’, high praise for Iraola’s side, who have LaLiga’s fourth lowest budget.
Radamel Falcao scored when Rayo beat Barcelona last month for the first time in 19 years
Rayo’s win over Barcelona led to Ronald Koeman (left) being sacked on the flight home
When Sportsmail speaks to Iraola via Zoom just after an evening training session, Rayo are sixth in LaLiga, three points from the Champions League spaces.
They also have a better home record than any other side, winning five and drawing one of their six games at the ramshackle yet charming Campo de Futbol de Vallecas, where the smell of marijuana is intoxicating and the noise of supporters deafening.
Iraola is not getting carried away, however.
‘You can’t deny the numbers are very good but it’s only the start of the season. It’s a good start, we’ve got 20 points which is around half the points we need for our objective to stay up,’ he says.
‘The team are looking comfortable in a very competitive division, many of the players are making their debuts in LaLiga but we’ve shown we can compete with any opponent. We’ve carried that hope and excitement from getting promoted with us and it’s giving us the energy we need.’
Rayo gave Real Madrid a real fright in a 2-1 defeat at the Santiago Bernabeu earlier this month
Iraola has been in charge of Rayo for little more than a year and has only been in management since 2018, when he took a leap into the unknown by coaching Cypriot side AEK Larnaca.
He helped them reach the Europa League group stage for only the second time and led them to win the Cypriot Super Cup, although his strong start eventually petered out and he left after six months.
Iraola returned to Spain as coach of second-divison Mirandes, guiding a team many thought were destined for relegation to finish 11th. He also oversaw a thrilling run in the Copa del Rey, where his side knocked out three LaLiga teams in Celta Vigo, Sevilla and Villarreal to reach the semi-finals.
At Rayo, the 39-year-old has developed an ambitious side that want to play on the front foot but also can scrap for their lives when they need to.
Take last season’s play-off final second leg away to Girona, when they won 2-0 to clinch an unlikely promotion after losing the first leg 2-1 at home.
‘That game says a lot about our team,’ Iraola says with pride.
Radamel Falcao has been a revelation since signing for Rayo as a free agent in September
He has averaged a goal every 66 minutes, netting winners against Barca and Athletic Bilbao
‘We had to come from behind away from home so we began the game taking many risks. We played with a very high line, we scored twice and then we had a man sent off and for nearly all of the second half we had to cling on with 10 men and defend much deeper.
‘It was a completely different way of playing but we managed to still be competitive. It’s a game that defines what we want to do very well.’
A lot of Rayo’s squad had no experience playing in LaLiga but early in the season the club pulled off one of the coups of the Spanish transfer window by landing Falcao.
The Colombian’s career looked to be winding down after two difficult years with Galatasaray, where he struggled for fitness and ended up rescinding his contract.
But the 35-year-old’s impact at Rayo has been remarkable. He has scored five goals in four starts and four substitutes’ appearances and has the best goals per game ratio in the league, netting every 66 minutes.
For Iraola, Falcao has brought a lot more than just goals.
Rayo Vallecano’s fans had waited since January 2002 to enjoy a LaLiga victory over Barcelona
‘He is a player who has been at the elite of global football with a tremendous history of scoring goals but we didn’t know what physical condition he’d arrive in or what type of attitude he’d have,’ says the coach.
‘But he has adapted so well in every sense. He has made it easy for everyone.
‘Radamel makes the rest of the team extra-motivated. they’ve seen him play at the highest level and when they train with him they see they’re not that far from reaching the same level as him.’
Iraola has also been impressed with the standards Falcao has set after the Colombian demanded that staff produce videos of opposing goalkeepers and defences before matches to keep him one step ahead.
‘Players don’t reach the top level by accident. It’s because they put in so many hours in the gym, they look after themselves, they study their opponents,’ Iraola adds.
‘It’s good for everyone to know that the players who reach the top are the ones who ask for videos so they can improve. We often think elite players don’t have to do these things, but the reason they have got to where they are is because they do all that stuff very well. Falcao is an example of that.’
Rayo’s passionate, noisy supporters remind Iraola of his former club Athletic Bilbao
Iraola spent the bulk of his career with Athletic but never managed to win a trophy with them
Iraola identifies with Rayo’s passionate supporters and their cagey ground, which reminds him of the stadium where he spent the majority of his playing career with Athletic Bilbao, the old San Mames, known as the Cathedral.
‘I knew the atmosphere from when I played here at Vallecas and now we have it in our favour. The closeness of the fans to the pitch reminds people of English stadiums. It’s beautiful for fans who come to the stadium as they can hear the players talking. You don’t get that in many stadiums,’ he says.
The pandemic meant Iraola could not experience the atmosphere in Vallecas until this season but he says the noise the fans made against Barcelona was worth waiting for.
He adds: ‘This is a very loyal fanbase that’s with you in the good times and the bad.’
Loyalty is something Iraola knows a lot about after spending 12 years with Athletic and turning down moves to Juventus and Liverpool to stay with the fiercely proud club, who only pick players with ties to the Basque Country.
‘I could have gone to another team but in my head I never seriously considered leaving because I was delighted to be at Athletic,’ he explains.
‘In that era my expectation was to win things with Athletic, and I got very close, we lost lots of finals and I had unfinished business in that respect. But I didn’t have aspirations to go to another club. Most of all I wanted to do my best where I was.’
Athletic is a club that truly values loyalty, so much that it created the ‘One Club Man Award’ in 2015, presenting the inaugural trophy to Matt Le Tissier for spending his whole career at Southampton.
Athletic value loyal players like Matt Le Tissier, who spent his whole career with Southampton
‘Le Tissier is the perfect example, he won the first edition and Matt embodies the values that Athletic embody,’ Iraola says fondly of Le God.
‘He played at a very high level and could easily have played for a bigger team but he chose to defend his club and I’m sure Matt is proud of his career.’
Like Le Tissier, Iraola ended his career without a major trophy, despite reaching the Europa League final and the Copa del Rey final three times.
But one achievement that can’t be taken away was finishing fourth in LaLiga in 2014 and reaching the Champions League for the first time in 16 years. For Iraola, success with Athletic means more than with other teams.
‘Athletic is a club different to the rest. Whenever you achieve an objective like qualifying for the Champions League the pride you have inside means you enjoy it more,’ he adds.
‘We’re prepared to win less but we enjoy it more.’
For Athletic players, the journey is often more important than the destination.
And one particular moment of Iraola’s playing career stands out: conquering Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United.
The former right-back’s face lights up when he casts his mind back to the Europa League last-16 tie in 2012 when a team led by Marcelo Bielsa outplayed United at Old Trafford to win the first leg 3-2. They also dominated the second leg at a raucous San Mames, winning 2-1 to advance to the quarter-finals.
‘To go to Old Trafford and outplay them like that was unforgettable,’ Iraola says.
‘At that time United had recently played in the Champions League final, they had won the league and were the best team in England.
‘So the win made us think if we could play that way against Man United then we could do it against anyone.’
One of Iraola’s fondest memories as a player was winning 3-2 away to Manchester United
Iraola described his former coach Marcelo Bielsa (left) as ‘the best person to motivate a team’
With 7,000 travelling fans taking over the top tier of Old Trafford’s East Stand, Athletic outclassed United on their own turf but went in at half-time with the score at 1-1.
Iraola distinctly remembers what Bielsa, who he describes as ‘the best person at motivating a team’, said in the dressing room.
‘He said: “You are playing very well and doing things very well but don’t settle for this. You have in your hands the chance to make history”. The ambition Marcelo had did wonders for the team.’
Lifted by those remarkable wins over United, Athletic beat Schalke and Sporting Lisbon to reach the Europa League final but were eventually beaten by Atletico Madrid, who had just been galvanised by the arrival of Diego Simeone and had a Falcao at peak powers up front.
‘That was the final that hurt the most,’ he says. ‘It was a European final, we were playing very well at that time and thought we could win but that day Atletico were better than us and Radamel made the difference.’
Iraola saw out his career at New York City in the USA, playing alongside Frank Lampard (right)
Iraola called time on his spell with Athletic in 2015, scoring in a 4-0 win over Villarreal in his final home game before being serenaded by an adoring crowd, who he joined in the stands to belt out their club anthem.
He went from a historic traditional club in Athletic to a brand new one with New York City in Major League Soccer, joining a team of legendary players such as Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo and David Villa.
‘It was a very good thing for my career at that stage, a chance to experience a very different dressing room to the one I was used to,’ he says.
‘There were people from different cultures and in different moments of their careers such as Villa, Lampard, Pirlo, then there was a young Angelino, Jack Harrison. It was an interesting mix of players.
‘And I had a coach in Patrick Vieira who came from the school of Manchester City who got us to play a much more positional, organised style of attack than what I’d experienced at Athletic.
‘In terms of the transition I was making from player to coach, it was a very good experience for me.’
Former right-back Iraola said New York City helped his transition from player to coach
So what does Iraola make of Vieira’s remarkable start to the season with Crystal Palace?
‘It’s no surprise at all,’ he says.
ANDONI IRAOLA’S COACHING CAREER
Aek Larnaca (June 2018-January 2019): Played 29, Won 13, Drew 8 Lost 8
Mirandes (July 2019-July 2020): Played 49, Won 18, Drew 17, Lost 14
Rayo Vallecano (August 2020-present): Played 63, Won 31, Drew 12, Lost 20
‘Patrick is a coach with lots of personality, he’s very convinced of his ideas. He likes his team to have the ball as he comes from the City school of positional play but he is also how he was as a player. He likes physical football too, which has prepared him well for the Premier League.
‘I’m delighted things are going so well for him at Crystal Palace but I’m not surprised because he has the personality to lead groups.’
Iraola enjoys exchanging ideas with fellow coaches and is constantly texting with childhood friend Xabi Alonso, sharing his experience of Spain’s second division with the former Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich midfielder, who is now coach of Real Sociedad’s reserve team.
More recently, Iraola has got to know Eddie Howe, who spent a week watching Rayo Vallecano train in addition to observing Diego Simeone and Atletico Madrid prior to being named Newcastle coach.
‘We spent a lot of time talking and exchanging ideas, learning off each other. But above all I was learning from him because he has lots of experience in the Premier League which for me is very valuable,’ Iraola says.
‘We spoke about certain games he had and the best way to approach matches against the top teams. I wanted to learn his methods of training and he made a big impression on me.
‘I’m delighted that not long after he got an opportunity with Newcastle and I’m convinced he’s going to do well there. He told me he has been educating himself in this time without a team, analysing many aspects of the game, and I wish him all the best.’
Iraola played under Patrick Vieira and says his success with Crystal Palace is ‘no surprise’
Newcastle coach Eddie Howe visited Iraola last month to watch Rayo’s training sessions
So could we see Iraola coming up against Vieira or Howe in a Premier League dugout any time soon? He smiles at the thought but does not want to get ahead of himself.
‘To get to the Premier League things would need to go very well for me,’ he says.
‘I’d have to have a very good career to get there but I’d love to because right now it’s the best league in the world.
‘But I’m conscious that I’ve just started, I have had 13 games in LaLiga and I have to do a lot more to prove myself as a coach.’