For any player looking to expand their horizons and play in an unfamiliar league, success is ultimately the goal. No matter who it is or where you come from. Irish players have done this and some have been successful. Some less so. Unfortunately for Steve Finnan, he falls in the latter category. Injuries and plain bad luck made the Champions League winner´s tenure at RCD Espanyol somewhat underwhelming.
Espanyol are a Barcelona-based club originally from the middle-class neighborhood of Sarrià. Their former stadium, the EstadioSarrià was used as one of Spain´s World Cup venues in 1982 hosting players like Diego Maradona, Zico, Marco Tardelli, Socrates and Dino Zoff.
The stadium was sold and demolished in 1997 and the club were forced to take up home in the purpose-built Olympic Stadium at the scenic Montjuic hill. The stadium had seen the world´s greatest athletes compete in the 1992 Olympic Games. On transfer deadline day in 2008, Liverpool defender Steve Finnan would now call it his home.
Finnan arrived in Barcelona with an impressive C.V. He has been a Champions League winner just a few seasons before in what some describe as one of the greatest Champions League finals – a game in which he started in. Along with his 150 appearances for Liverpool, Finnan has also played for Birmingham City, Notts County and Fulham. Falling out of favour with then manager Rafa Benitez, Finnan´s exit from Anfield seemed likely.
It was then, on September 1st 2008, that Espanyol signed Limerick-born defender on a two year deal for an undisclosed fee. Not that Finnan wanted to leave Liverpool. “It was totally out of the blue,” Finnan told the press at the time. “It’s exciting to be going to a great club in Spain but I didn’t want to leave”.
Sensing there would be limited opportunities at Anfield, he added “But it was obvious that I wasn’t going to get a game by staying so I didn’t really have much choice”. From the lower leagues of England to European glory with Liverpool, Steve Finnan´s next adventure was La Liga.
Of course, Spain is not an easy league to succeed in. Finnan was going to the same league where legendary players from England´s top flight such as Mark Hughes and Michael Owen had both previously failed. Having arrived with muscular problems, he didn´t make his debut immediately. But on on 20th of September 2008, Steve Finnan made his debut for Espanyol against Getafe at the Olympic Stadium coming on as a substitute for striker Raúl Tamudo with eleven minutes to go. The game finished 1-1.
Four days later, Espanyol were due to travel to southern Spain to take on Sevilla at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuan stadium. With French-born defender Gregory Beranger forced to withdraw from the squad due to injury, Finnan was now in the starting eleven. Espanyol´s coach Bartolome Marquez admitted before the match that it would be far from an easy debut for Finnan, saying: ‘It will be a baptism of fire because he will play on one of the flanks and that’s where Sevilla have some very good players’.
Finnan knew he´d be up against the class of Jesus Navas and Luis Fabiano. This was his opportunity to shine for his new club. Show them all what he is made of. The game kicked off at 8pm before a near-full house. With an unbelievable and cruel twist of fate, injury struck Finnan down after just 33 minutes. He was tragically forced to be taken off while JaviChica, a young Catalan right-back took his place for the remainder of the game. Espanyol ultimately the game lost the game 2-0.
Finnan´s injury was a slight tear in his left thigh muscle. It was a big setback for the defender. He would certainly miss out on the opportunity to play against local rivals FC Barcelona in the Olympic Stadium the following week. Barça fans see the game against Real Madrid (commonly known in Spain as “el clásico”) as the biggest fixture in their calendar. Espanyol fans look no further than the “Derbi Barceloní” – Espanyol v Barcelona. Finnan would have been made aware of the huge importance of the game for the club ´Blanc i Blau´ faithful.
But aswell as that, Espanyol was looking for experience in their right-back position on a more long-term basis. Sergio Sanchez was challenging Finnan for the position and in 2008, Sanchez was severely lacking the experience and confidence he posseses now. In the end, it turned out to be mid-November before Finnan could play for Espanyol again.
Espanyol coach Bartolome Marquez selected Finnan in the starting eleven for Espanyol´s home game against Numancia. Finnan took up his usual right-back role with Gregory Beranger on the opposite flank. The game started poorly for Finnan. After just 14 minutes, his side went a goal down. Espanyolequalised after 35 minutes. Numancia took the lead and Espanyolequalised yet again in second half.
Then, after 72 minutes Espanyol were awarded a penalty. 3-2. Just eighteen minutes to hold on before Finnan would get his first ever win in Spain. With six minutes to go, Numanciaequalised. Then very cruelly, in the 93rd minute Carlos Bellvís left footed shot captured Numancia´s winner. The game finished 3-4 and the 18,000 Espanyol fans were left deflated. As was Espanyol´s Irishman in the number 15 jersey.
The Republic of Ireland had featured in a friendly the following Wednesday against Poland. The boys in green lost 2-3 at Croke Park. The result ended Giovanni Trapattoni´s six game unbeaten run. Finnan didn´t get a call-up. On Sunday 23rd November, Espanyol travelled to the port city of Santander to face local club Racing de Santander at El Sardinero. Finnan was selected once again in the starting line-up in his usual right-back position.
It wasn´t a good evening.Espanyol were beaten 3-0 in a fairly one-sided affair – the same result Santander inflicted on the ´Blanc i Blau´ the previous season at the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona. Little did he know at the time but this, only his forth appearance, was to be Steve Finnan´s last game for Espanyol. A training ground injury would see Finnan watch his team from the sidelines for the remainder of the year.
By the time the next transfer window arrived, Finnan has looked for a way out of Spain. Injuries and bad luck grew his frustrations. It emerged in January 2009, Hull City were keen on the Irish defender. The press at that time had been speculating that Hull´s then-manager Phil Brown was interested in offering Espanyol £1 million and a deal that would see Finnan play in a more familiar league. He had yet to win a match in an Espanyol jersey.
There was also a rumour that Tottenham wanted his services in a loan-deal, but it wouldn´t have been a wise move considering the talent Spurs had that season in defence. Then the reports came that Finnan failed a medical at Hull. Finnan remained silent and told journalists “What do you want me to tell you? I can say nothing publicly. You would have to ask Hull. You ask them. In reality it was not strange; it was not strange for me”. The deal fell through and Finnan would have to remain in Catalonia.
Espanyol has a new coach in José Manuel Esnal, the much travelled Basque better known as Mané. Himself and sporting director Paco Herrera (who was previously Liverpool´s assistant manager under Rafael Benitez) insisted that Finnan was a valuable member of the squad. Further injuries caused Finnan to watch the club´s remaining fixtures from the sidelines. After 38 games and just 12 wins, Espanyol finished in 10th position – exactly in mid-table. Finnan featured in four games and didn´t win one. On Monday 29th July 2009, Espanyol released a statement that they had mutually terminated Finnan´s contract due to “consecutive injuries that have not allowed him to fight for a place in the line-up”. Two days later, he returned to England and signed for Portsmouth, where the Irish defender saw out his career. His time at Espanyol could only be best described as luckless
Espanyol have since moved to a brand new €60 million stadium in Cornellá, just outside Barcelona city. However, just beside the club´s former ground, the Olympic Stadium, there lies a small park with a sign on the fence reading in Spanish “No ball games”. Thanks to sheer bad luck, Steve Finnan barely had the chance.
Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)