Head over heart reaping rewards for Newell’s Old Boys

Devotees of football in Argentina will know about the influence that emotions can have on the recruitment of both players and managers. In the case of players, they are sold to Europe at the first sign of promise. Some go on to have successful trophy-laden careers, while others arrive back with their tails between their legs having not fulfilled their potential. If they are in the former group, it’s not long after leaving for Europe that Argentina begins longing for their return. The campaign, which centres around begging the player to return “home”, builds and builds until they reach their twilight years and no longer have anything to offer Europe. They dramatically return to Argentina as club heroes, back on the pitch where they took their first steps as a professional footballer. Take the examples of Carlos Tévez, Fabricio Coloccini and Maxi Rodríguez in recent years. They may no longer be able to run, but in the case of Maxi at least, they are still comfortably the outstanding footballer on the pitch, amongst a selection of domestic players for whom Europe didn’t call.

Of course, everything must come to an end and when the returning hero decides they can no longer go on, somewhere down the line a new dream begins to develop in the minds of obsessive fans. Could this player who has given so much to the club as a player, lead their hometown club to domestic and continental glory as a manager? History has proven that it’s not as simple as that. For every Tata Martino or Marcelo Gallardo, there is a Chocho Llop or Lucas Bernardi.

Newell’s Old Boys, perhaps more so than many other clubs in Argentina, are especially vulnerable to both the ‘returning hero’ and ‘ex-player, brilliant manager’ hypothesis. There’s a reason for this. All of their championship wins came under managers who had previously played for the club. The success of Marcelo Bielsa and his continuing phenomenon helps to keep the ‘returning hero’ dream alive at Newell’s while there’s always hope that an ex-player could be the next Tata Martino, the club’s record appearance holder who led the club to an unlikely championship win in 2013. And then of course, there’s Lionel Messi. The Lionel Messi that says he could only play for one other club apart from Barcelona – Newell’s Old Boys. 

Since Martino’s triumph as a manager, which eventually opened the door for him to take over at Messi’s Barcelona, Newell’s have rarely strayed from the strategy of appointing ex-players as managers in the hope that Martino’s success could be replicated. Alfredo Berti, Gustavo Raggio, Ricardo Lunari, Juan Pablo Vojvoda and Juan Manuel Llop were all well-regarded as players at Newell’s but this counted for nothing in the years after Martino and all were relieved from their duties after hugely disappointing spells as managers.

Newell’s even threw the dice with some ex-players who most fans barely remembered in the rojinegro. Diego Osella played 5 games for Newell’s and Héctor Bidoglio was a reserve player under Marcelo Bielsa in the late 80s, before Bielsa was given the senior job. Predictably, their managerial stints at Newell’s followed similar trajectories to their playing careers at the Rosario club. When Bidoglio left at the end of the 2018-19 season, the door opened for another ex-player to take the reigns, and one with the playing credentials to back up their potential as a manager. While early speculation linked Sebastian Beccacece, a self-proclaimed Newell’s fan, with the job, it was former Manchester United, Real Madrid and most importantly, Newell’s Old Boys defender Gabriel Heinze who became the prime candidate.

The campaign to entice ‘El Gringo’ back to Rosario began to take shape with Newell’s fans even unveiling a banner in Heinze’s neighbourhood to encourage him to return to the club once again (he had retired at the club as a player, winning the title in 2013 under Martino). Heinze had already kicked off his managerial career with disappointing spells at Godoy Cruz and Argentinos Juniors but by the winter of 2019, he had started to build momentum at Vélez Sarsfield, ingraining an attacking brand of football which was being delivered by a host of promising youngsters.

For Heinze, it seemed like a backwards step to leave for Newell’s, despite the love he holds for the club he supports. As the dream of Heinze making an emotional return to Newell’s diminished, the Lepra board surprised the fans by quickly making an appointment that completely departed from the ex-player turned manager strategy. “Bienvenido Frank” was the message coming from the Estadio Marcelo Bielsa as Newell’s, somewhat suddenly, announced that their new manager was not only not an ex-Newell’s player, but had not kicked a ball as a professional at all. 

Frank Kudelka’s CV as a coach is extensive. A promotion specialist in the lower leagues, it took him 25 years before he made a mark in the big leagues, bringing Talleres from the Torneo Federal A to the top half of the Superliga within four years. An unlucky spell in Chile followed but the start he has made at Newell’s makes that look like a simple blip.

His approach to the languishing Newell’s squad he inherited has been somewhat ruthless and he has acquired no less than eight first-team players during the recent transfer window. His first decision was to recruit a new centre-back pairing and his signing of Cristian Lema and Santiago Gentiletti, two players with recent experience in Europe, has set the agenda for the style of football he wants to play. While previous managers favoured defenders known for their last-ditch diving clearances and their single-minded ability to defend only using their heads, it’s obvious from the opening games of the 2018-19 season that Lema and Gentiletti can play football on the ground, pass with vision, and even score goals, with Lema scoring a brace in the 4-1 thrashing of Huracán. His acquisition from Palestino of the defensive midfielder Julián Fernández looks a masterstroke while up front, Lucas Albertengo’s ability to finish is making Newell’s fans wonder why Independiente were willing to let him leave on loan.

Of course, it’s early days, but the fast start to the season by Newell’s, who are at risk of relegation under the promedios system, gives Lepra fans great hope. It still remains to be seen if Kudelka can improve the club’s away form, which has been dire for a long time, and which wasn’t helped by a 3-1 defeat to Vélez, managed by Heinze who famously decided not to answer the call from Rosario.

Sunday’s Clásico Rosarino against rivals Rosario Central might give an indication as to Kudelka’s ability to instil a confidence in the players that they can win away from the Estadio Marcelo Bielsa, and Newell’s fans have been buoyed by the recent departure from Central of the talented attacker Maxi Lovera. However, Central haven’t lost a game yet and have looked hard to beat in the opening stages of the season. La Lepra will be without the influential Mauro Formica but there’s no better time to claim bragging rights in Rosario having put 4 past Huracán in their last game. One of the world’s most famous derbies is finely poised with both teams at risk of dropping out of the Superliga, and the 268th Clásico is Frank Kudelka’s chance to prove that you don’t have to be a former player to become a hero amongst Newell’s fans. 

Jamie Ralph runs the Newell’s Old Boys – English account and is a Newell’s socio based in Galway, Ireland who has appeared on BBC, Talksport and numerous podcasts to talk about his love of the Rosario club.

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