José Ramón Sandoval has been Fuenlabrada’s manager for 11 weeks but hasn’t taken charge of a single game. He has led only two full training sessions at the Segunda División club, has barely met his players and never even got presented to the media, let alone the fans. He has suffered coronavirus and his timing could hardly have been worse, but he’s wearing a huge grin. Not that you can see it under the Fuenlabrada face mask he ordered himself and everybody laughs at, which is the way he wants it. “This period has been a like doing a master’s,” he says.
Sandoval had just overcome a hernia operation when Fuenlabrada, based on the outskirts of Madrid, called him. He had been out of work for 16 months, since the second of two short-lived spells with Córdoba. His appointment was announced on 11 March and there was a brief session that evening, his first contact with the entire squad. The following morning, 15 hours into the job, he had his second. And, it turned out, his last. That day, Spain’s football teams were sent home and told not to come back. His presentation was cancelled: this was not the time, the club decided. A state of alarm was declared two days later, the country locked down. “I’m a tsunami, taking everything with it, but after a day the tsunami was stopped,” says the 52-year-old, who made his way into management via amateur clubs starting in the mid-90s, having made little impression as a player.
Fuenlabrada’s players didn’t come back until 11 May, two months on, and even then it was for individual sessions, arriving and leaving in their kits, not allowed to loiter or gather together. La Liga hopes the Segunda División can return on 12 June but full training won’t begin until this coming week. Competition will get under way without Sandoval seeing them play a game. They return in 13th, just four points above the relegation zone (though also just seven off the play-offs). Yet as he explains the strangest of starts to a managerial reign, one thing is clear: the enthusiasm.
“I don’t think this has happened to anyone, ever,” he says. He has had to invent solutions, the challenges presented by coronavirus multiplied. But there has been optimism. A plan, too. “My first task was to win them over from home, empathise,” he says. “I asked for a video of the good moments this season, edited it and put it to music. They went into lockdown having not won in 13 and I didn’t want that lingering. I wanted positivity. We’ve been working towards that idea for nine weeks.
“We had a programme to maintain strength and avoid injuries and created a daily structure so their biorhythms didn’t change: up at nine, breakfast, connect. They had to send a photo of their scales: by 9.15 every day, I had everyone’s weight. The idea wasn’t to police them, but show we’re with them, they’re not alone. We had group sessions every morning, then the two fitness coaches rang half each in the afternoon, reporting back every night. I called them all individually: long chats, asking how they’re getting on, their families. You don’t have that relationship managers have built with players but you get to know them.”
In fact, Sandoval says, he might know them even better than under normal circumstances. “You’re talking every day, you chat before each session: jokes, what politicians are up to now. Some managers wouldn’t need all that but I’d only just arrived. I watched them work. You see things: how they position the camera, how they interact. You do a Zoom call and the same guy always connects first. Some exercise with their kids clambering on their backs. A cat walks past the camera. Someone’s doing press-ups and the dog licks his face. That tells you about personalities, sensibilities, and gives you ways of reaching them which are helpful.
“We wanted them to have a dose of reality too. I asked the doctor, who works in a hospital and is close to them, to connect after being in ICU. Show them there are people on the front line, this isn’t a story. Every day people are dying, as if two or three planes are falling out the sky. That helps motivate them: ‘We’re stuck at home, sure, but that’s as bad as it’ll be.’ Be enthusiastic about the work you’re doing. And it works in reverse too: when things improved, I rang the doctor: ‘Tell them the truth, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, the virus is weaker, we’ll be together soon. Don’t give up, nearly there. It’s been worth it.’
“They returned in good shape, physically and mentally and the last two weeks have been so enriching.” There’s a laugh. “They’re exactly as I thought. Take the player who was always last to log in. I’d be sending him a text message: ‘Champ, we’re waiting for you.’ ‘Sorry boss, connection problems.’ He’s there with the face of a man who’s just woken up. It’s the same face now, the same people. I know them: you can see some of that through a screen.
“At training, the representative from the league is there to impose the protocol. ‘Hey you, two metres.’ ‘The mask!’ I got a Fuenlabrada mask done. ‘How do you like that?’ And the players are laughing. ‘Boss, that mask.’ That’s good: I had to get their attention, interact, whatever it looked like. And in drills I’m in the middle, trying to avoid the league guy, so I can have a word, tell them things, engage.”
He has plenty of qualifications and experience – he won promotion to the top flight with Rayo Vallecano in 2011 and kept them there the following season – but adds: “This has been a master’s, especially in designing drills. We’re allowed small groups of 10 at most, but we have 24 players, including goalkeepers, and it doesn’t divide up right. At 8am, seven come in. At 10.30, the next group has eight, so that drill’s no good. Then the forwards come in, six of them. You have to have the same idea, but it’s not the same. Nutella for everyone, but one’s spreading it on bread, another on biscuits, another on toast. You’re changing drills: for five players, six, seven, eight. How do you build a model like that?
“There’s been no 11-a-side work, not even 10, and no friendlies. I’ve had them playing the inflatables and I’m running around bringing the ‘opposition’ to life. We’ll spend the whole of next week on full-sided games, see if they can do it against real people. But you know what? I hear managers complaining: ‘You can’t work like this.’ But I’m the opposite. I’m happy. It’s the journey you enjoy. And others have it far, far worse. There are medical staff, supermarket staff unprotected, at risk.”
Sandoval caught the virus. “My mother-in-law had just had a prosthetic knee fitted and then broke her hip. I took her to A&E but that same day they were closing hospitals, giving them over to coronavirus. I had to take her somewhere else, they couldn’t operate for three days. We went back and forth and I caught it. I didn’t have a fever, just this brutal pain in my head that wouldn’t go away. Three, four days, I was desperate. I couldn’t get up.
“I thought it was high blood pressure. But when we did the tests for La Liga, the doctor called me. ‘I’ve got a surprise for you: you had corona, eight weeks ago.’ ‘No way.’ He says: ‘There are people waiting for a miracle, a vaccine, and you’ve got that many antibodies inside you it’s as if you’ve been given four of them. You could hand them out and still have enough.’” Sandoval starts laughing. “Now I feel even stronger, like I really am a tsunami.”
And so here he is almost ready for his first game as manager of Fuenlabrada, three surreal months later. “I don’t know if we’ll win,” he says, “but, boy, are we going to enjoy it.”