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At the end of their 1-1 draw at San Mamés on Sunday, Valencia’s players headed across the pitch towards the tunnel, a rare look of enthusiasm in their eyes. Waiting for them was the bust of Pichichi, the striker with the hankie on his head who won his first Copa del Rey in 1914, and Marcelino García Toral, the manager who won his first 105 years after that. José Luis Gayá was the quickest to get there. Gabriel Paulista came next, then Maxi Gómez. Jaume Doménech followed, arms as wide as the smile on his face. Others soon joined, all hugs and happiness.

Football players and managers get reunited all the time. They’ve spent their lives watching people leave, seeing them again on the other side. Most are used to moving on and being brought back again, if briefly. And don’t think they like it that way. Every week there’s someone, some path crossing, the lack of fans and the closure of dressing rooms making the pitch more of a meeting point than ever before. But this was different, deeper, not just a high five and a hello. More public and meaningful, more nostalgic. Longer and warmer, symbolic, genuine and with a hint of rebellion too, something almost illicit in their unity – a reminder of how they were and how they should be.

Sunday was the first time Valencia’s players had seen the man who, as Gabriel put it, helped make them. The coach who took over a club in crisis, their 13th managerial change in five years, and led them from two 12th-placed finishes in a row to consecutive Champions League qualifications and the Copa del Rey – their first trophy in over a decade – only to be gone three games later. Forced out of Valencia, sacked when they were more successful than at any time in almost 20 years and seemingly stable at last, they hadn’t seen him since.

Marcelino has been back in football 34 days, taking over at Athletic Club. He has already won the Spanish Super Cup, has the 2020 Copa del Rey final to come on 4 April, and has reached the semi-final of the 2021 Copa del Rey. He has faced Real Madrid and beaten them, he has had played Barcelona three times already and beaten them once too, and this weekend came Valencia. Which is why, although it didn’t matter much in Bilbao, while Marcelino started just four of his typical XI, everyone agreed it was an event. As much for this moment as anything that happened on the pitch (which, not entirely surprisingly, wasn’t much).

“Face to face” proclaimed the front of Las Provincias. “It will be different for sure. I was there two seasons and a bit and it was extraordinary; I have very nice memories,” Marcelino admitted before the game. Marca described it as “not suitable for the nostalgic”. And Super Deporte went dark. This, after all, was a big game for Valencia, and so they depicted Marcelino as a skeleton and declared: “you’ll always be our hero, today you’re our villain.”

Most think the real villains are others, thousands of kilometres away: the men Marcelino didn’t mention as he expressed his gratitude to players, staff and fans. Peter Lim, whose Meriton Holdings owns Valencia, hasn’t been in Spain since December 2019. Club president Anil Murthy had just flown to Singapore. In their absence, awkwardness and frosty formalities avoided, players and staff embraced and do so with feeling. “My beloved Marcelino,” the headline in AS had said, and here was a glimpse of how beloved, the size of the hole left behind. A glimpse too of where the players’ loyalties lay.

They were there a long time at the side of the pitch, laughter echoing around well after the whistle, chatting about the glory days. It’s not so long ago – Valencia are still reigning cup holders – but it feels like another age. Marcelino was sacked 515 days before in September 2019, his relationship with the owners broken, but so much has happened. It is not just what he achieved with them or that those days have gone; it is the feeling that they’re not coming back, the feeling of decline and disillusion, darkness. Of distance between fans and a club that sometimes seems strangely blunt, oddly reluctant to explain its position, to even pay lip-service to fans in their behaviour.

The divide widens. Where once there would have been white hankies the pandemic demands more imagination. Fans have held drive-by rallies and hired a Mariachi band to follow Murthy around, playing out a protest. Art has appeared in the city, street signs pointing to Singapore 11,116km away, banners insisting “our feeling is not a business”, mocked up Hollywood posters of Lim, lost in translation. By the side of the motorway near Sagunto, a little north of Valencia, is a huge, old building. Long since abandoned, crumbling and derelict, its insides are ripped out, its windows are smashed, and there is graffiti all over the walls. A faded sign has been erected on the roof, a metaphor in metal. Meriton, it says.

Although it runs deeper, occasionally it can feel like it all starts with Marcelino’s departure, like the damage was self-inflicted. If it was necessary – and there are occasional suggestions that it was – it is never explained. “It was a beautiful story, lovely, and it can’t be wiped out,” Marcelino said but at times it has felt like there has been an attempt to do just that which hasn’t even succeeded in bringing closure. It wasn’t just Marcelino who went, so did Pablo Longoria, the sporting director; Mateu Alemany, the CEO; Paco Camarasa, the match-day delegate. Even the doctor went. Players too, particularly those who had defended Marcelino.

“Whoever took this decision dragged down an entire team and fan base,” Ezequiel Garay had said when Marcelino was sacked. “I say it clearly and loudly: it’s not fair.” He did not continue, publicly complaining of a campaign to damage his reputation. Dani Parejo had previously suggested, rather optimistically, that at last a manager was “not working with the idea that maybe tomorrow they’ll get rid of me”; when Marcelino left, he wished him well, pointedly noting “you’ll be a success anywhere they let you work”. He was sold this summer, to Villarreal, a decision that was political as well as financial.

Francis Coquelin, Rodrigo Moreno, Geoffrey Kondogbia, and Ferrán Torres were among the eight players who left with him. Villarreal took Parejo and Coquelin for just €8m combined and then, as if they were trolling Valencia, signed Étienne Capoue too – the player manager Javi Gracia had set up to replace them.

Garcia is their third coach since Marcelino, the scars of that sacking still on show, still conditioning life for the men who come next. The way the club is run too changes everything, a model in which the coach is just a “functionary” in the president’s now infamous words. Gracia has already tried to go and is only still there because they refused to pay the €3m it would cost to sack him and he couldn’t afford to pay the penalty to walk away, leaving a lingering smell of bitterness and distrust. The players know that, and so does everyone else. Furious at the failure to sign players, Gracia’s relationship with president and owner is broken. Even when three players arrived this window on loan – Patrick Cutrone, Christian Oliva, and Ferro – he was swift to note: “I wasn’t involved; the club told me when they saw fit.” A day before, he said he knew “nothing”.

None of which is conducive to building success, certainly in the short term. There have been good moments – scoring four against Madrid – and players who have stepped up. Gayá in particular, Carlos Soler too in central midfield. Young players emerge, a strong academy to draw from. Yunus Musah’s appearance excited. Gonçalo Guedes might be returning to some form, Uros Racic, Daniel Wass and Gabriel are reliable. But while seven of the starting XI from the cup final remain, Maxi has joined since – his warmth with Marcelino was striking considering how little time they had together – and there are good players still, problems remain.

All of which can’t help but impact upon performance. “The decision they took was the decision they took – and the results are there to be seen,” Marcelino said this weekend. Ninth last season, Valencia came into the game in 14th, four points off the relegation zone. “Our objective shouldn’t be [just] survival,” Carlos Soler had said, while after Sunday’s game, Gracia insisted “we’ll see what we aspire to in the final weeks”, but they knew that’s what it may have become. Which is why Domenech’s superb save and Gabriel’s goal mattered so much. “Leaving here with a point is important,” he said. Leaving there having seen Marcelino mattered even more, if only as a reminder of how happy they had been and what they once were.