De Tomás finds his place at Espanyol and reminds Madrid what they let go

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<span>Photograph: Alberto Estévez/EPA</span>
Photograph: Alberto Estévez/EPA

This time there was no apology and no regret, and nor should there be. Raúl de Tomás joined Real Madrid at seven and didn’t finally walk away for 17 years. He left having played just quarter of an hour for the club he always hoped would become home but at least destiny decided it was at the place that actually would be. In October 2014, aged 20, he came on for 15 uneventful minutes against Cornellà, the tiny third-tier team from literally next door who borrowed Espanyol’s ground for the second leg of their Copa del Rey tie with Madrid. In October 2021, aged 27 and now an idol in that same stadium, he led Espanyol to victory against his team – for only the second time in a quarter of a century.

It was a moment’s redemption for them all, arrival announced, their return complete. That day, the coach who gave De Tomás his only minutes as a Madridista was Carlo Ancelotti and as he came on Karim Benzema came off. On Sunday night, he helped ensure the Italian wouldn’t sleep, which Ancelotti admitted this week happens whenever he loses, by scoring the first, skidding to his knees and opening his arms in celebration before Aleix Vidal added a superb second, bursting through, nutmegging Nacho and bending beyond Thibaut Courtois. As for Benzema, he scored a beautiful goal but it wasn’t enough and at the end of a richly deserved 2-1 home win most fans weren’t listening when Espanyol’s manager, Vicente Moreno, insisted no one should “go mad.”

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Not least because actually they should and, aware of where they have come from, the man who brought them back to the first division this summer following relegation in 2019, Moreno knows that. Now they had only gone and beaten Madrid, something that he did with newly promoted Mallorca this time two years ago but that they had only done once this century. Espanyol fans went 26 years without seeing their team in the second division and they still haven’t, going down and back again in the time gates were closed because of the pandemic, their season in the second division played in silence. But good timing didn’t make them good times. Now, they might be.

De Tomás had joined Espanyol in January 2020, along with Leandro Cabrera and Adrián Embarba. After loans at Valladolid, Córdoba and Rayo, the year before he had finally walked away from Madrid and joined Benfica that summer but he had played just seven league games and not scored, getting three in his 16 games overall. He needed a way back, and so did they. Struggling at the foot of the table, in the relegation zone since September and desperate now, Espanyol had to try something. He was the most expensive player in the club’s history at €22.5m, while Cabrera cost €9m and Embarba €10m, both more than anyone else in the squad, but it was money well spent – or it would be if they could keep them up.

They couldn’t.

Four goals in 14 followed for De Tomás which were not enough so relegation followed too, cruelly confirmed against Barcelona. They had been through four managers who between them had managedonly five wins, and things might have been worse. Few thought they could keep De Tomás, relegation and a pandemic making for a dangerous combination. They were, David López said, “sunk”, in a dark place with “black clouds of pessimism” looming, and reductions had to be made across the board.

But, while initially reluctant to play in the second division, De Tomás eventually stayed, and so did the rest. It was good for them. Changes were made in the model, but the squad was maintained, players staying rather than moving for first division football. Helped by the parachute payment, Espanyol had the biggest budget in the division – at €45m their salary mass was twice the size of anyone else, in fact – a youth system that was producing players who would prove vital, and eventually the manager they wanted. Mallorca resisted because of how annoyed they were at how his departure was handled by him and his representatives yet a week before the season started, Espanyol finally got Moreno.

There may even have been something about the relegation that helped. In a fascinating interview with El Mundo last week, Sergi Darder discussed how he struggled mentally throughout his career, how every player in front of him suddenly became the best in the world and every thought was negative, football a game for “other people” that he was not good enough to play and certainly not to enjoy, only for going down to help lift him up again. “At the start of 2019-20 I didn’t imagine us in the second division but we got on a very bad run and I got the idea into my head. I prepared psychologically with someone who helped me. I was in a bad way, before the relegation, and I think going down helped me break through that mental block.”

The only difference in divisions, Darder said, was that “you go from charter planes to travelling by bus”. And yet Espanyol flew. Moreno had taken Mallorca up, now he did the same with Espanyol. Darder, liberated, was at the heart of everything in the middle, alongside David López. Embarba and Cabrera played 38 times. Youth-team products Adrià Pedrosa, Óscar Melendo and, especially, Javi Puado and Nico Melamed, played key roles. Melamed scored five times and gave three assists, Puado scored 12 and provided eight. And then there was Raúl de Tomas, R dot D dot T dot on the back of his shirt, becoming a hero in the supporters’ absence, the man whose manager insisted on Sunday: “When he puts his mind to it, he has no ceiling: hopefully he can keep making us this happy.”

Raised in Algete to the north-east of Madrid, the son of driving instructors, his father had played in the Second Division B, and De Tomás had always been a Madrid fan. A socio at Rayo too, playing near Barajas, he was spotted early and always stood out in the Madrid youth system – the most talented player of his generation.

He would later admit that growing up he hadn’t always kept the best company, the club recommending that he board at a private school in the city. Seen as a kind of Mini Cristiano, including by the actual Cristiano, he was also aware that people saw a heavy hint of arrogance, a cockiness that he said wasn’t true. It was more a kind of shyness, almost a vulnerability, a keen awareness of how cruel people could be and how exposed footballers often are. On some level, that sensitivity could be seen during lockdown when he took up drawing. “I did it with such enthusiasm and then it was a real downer when I saw everyone laughing at me, but I later laughed at the tweets,” he told AS, joking: “People have made sure I’ll never pick up a pen in my life.” Luckily, he added, he has two horses, one called Lord Sunshine, “and they give me peace”.

Opportunities at Madrid were limited which was natural but didn’t make it hurt less, and there was always a hint that he felt he had let people down – Zinedine Zidane had seen something in him that didn’t quite come to the surface. The loans were not always a lot of fun either, although they served a function. At Córdoba in 2015-16, aged 21, he recalled being whistled by fans, going home and locking himself in his room, crying. That, though, was part of what pushed him to become ultra-serious, living with his personal trainer.

Athletic Bilbao 1-0 Alaves, Atlético Madrid 2-0 Barcelona, Cádiz 0-0 Valencia, Real Mallorca 1-0 Levante, Osasuna 1-0 Rayo Vallecano, Granada 1-0 Sevilla, Getafe 1-1 Real Sociedad, Espanyol 2-1 Real Madrid, Elche 1-0 Celta Vigo.

He got six goals at Córdoba, then 14 at Valladolid, then exploded at Rayo scoring 24 to bring them up from the second division. The 14 he got in primera the next year were not enough to save them from relegation and although Julen Lopetegui wanted him to stay at Madrid he was not convinced there would be minutes. Concerned that he would waste a year he decided it was time to go his own way, finally severing the ties. Benfica, though, was bad. Which was when Espanyol came in, the club he says he will now support until the day he dies. Because if he could not revive them and they could not entirely revive him that first season, suffering relegation, last year they could.

Last season he got 23 goals, top scorer in the second division, as Espanyol won the title, returning him and them to primera together 304 days later. Where on Sunday, having won just one in seven, De Tomás scoring once and watching three ruled out by the VAR, they took Real Madrid to pieces. They did so on the first weekend that restrictions were lifted across Spain, if not yet in Catalonia, and in front of 23,377 fans – more than at any time in the last 18 months and the whole point of it all – any doubts that this is where R.D.T. and Espanyol belong blown away as he slipped to his knees, opened his arms and everyone went wild. No holding back, and no apology, just appreciation. The way it’s supposed to be. He had after all found his place and himself. “I consider myself a Madridista but I give my life for my team,” he said.

Pos

Team

P

GD

Pts

1

Real Madrid

8

12

17

2

Atletico Madrid

8

5

17

3

Real Sociedad

8

4

17

4

Sevilla

7

7

14

5

Osasuna

8

0

14

6

Rayo Vallecano

8

5

13

7

Athletic Bilbao

8

3

13

8

Valencia

8

4

12

9

Barcelona

7

4

12

10

Real Betis

8

2

12

11

Villarreal

7

5

11

12

Mallorca

8

-5

11

13

Espanyol

8

-2

9

14

Elche

8

-3

9

15

Celta Vigo

8

-4

7

16

Cadiz

8

-4

7

17

Granada

8

-6

6

18

Levante

8

-7

4

19

Alaves

7

-10

3

20

Getafe

8

-10

1

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