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Racing to salvation

Real Racing Club Santander and I seem destined to meet this season.

Back in September I saw them lose miserably to third division Real Unión in the King's Cup, then win impressively in October in the Riazor, home of Deportivo.

On Sunday I saw them beat fellow-strugglers Rayo Vallecano 2-0 in El Sardinero (the place where you tin sardines) and do themselves a considerable favour with regard to boosting their chances of pulling away from the bottom three.

That makes two wins on the trot for President Piterman and his merry men, and as he took to the field on Sunday with his new employees (he dressed in a fetching beige Armani coat), I counted two whistles and one boo - hardly evidence of a popular rebellion.

Since two youths were sitting below my press desk looking fairly bored, I decided to ask them what they thought of their new owner.

Did they think he was out of order, buying the club and then involving himself with what took place on the pitch?

Neither Adrian (14) nor Oscar (13) thought so. 'He's put in the money', said Adrian, 'and so why not? No-one else came up with it. So he's ok for me'.

Oscar agreed: 'There are loads of rich folks here who say they support us, but where are they now? We would have gone bust if he hadn't come in'.

Could he be referring to Seve Ballesteros, the local man whose name David Coleman never managed to pronounce correctly and who now spends his spare time sitting in the Camp Nou, instead of putting some of his hard-earned Euros into the club he professes to follow?

Whatever, there are no anti-President banners, no media circus today. The threats to ban the American from descending to the field of play have faded like Cantabrian mist now that the noble members of the Spanish Federation have resigned en masse, fearing the consequences of a pending investigation into their creative accountancy.

Piterman sits down on the bench with the official manager, Chuchi Cos, and the game gets under way. It's a cold sunny afternoon, with a real nip to the sea air, but there's an air of optimism about the place. Probably because Rayo Vallecano are in town.

The day before, I had attended the Saturday morning training session, run by the president. The previous sentence has rarely been written in football circles.

I ask an older supporter, his head lost in a plume of cigar smoke, what he thinks of Piterman. His name is Federico, and his eyes peek out from the cloud; 'Nos ha salvado. Tiene un par de cojones así' (He's saved us. He's got a pair of balls this big) he tells me enthusiastically, cupping his hands as if he is holding up a heavy round object.

I ask him if he thinks that the departure of the previous manager was nevertheless something to be lamented. He turns more serious at this one: 'Maybe', he ventures, eyeing my notepad - 'but it was his choice, him and Quique [Setien]. They could have stayed. Now they're history. Good blokes, but life's like that.' He shrugs. Racing won last week. The tide could be turning.

The day before, I had attended the Saturday morning training session, run by the president.

The previous sentence has rarely been written in football circles, but it was immediately clear that Piterman knows what he is doing. He had the players go through a complex but interesting warm-up routine, all the time doing the moves himself to demonstrate what he wanted, all the time involved.

I watched the senior pros, like Munitis and Ceballos. They were taking it seriously. They seemed interested. And later on, when the players lined up against each other for a series of 30 yard sprints, Piterman joined in.

The first time he came up against the French midfielder, Nafti, and beat him by five yards. The second time he beat Guerrero, 15 years his junior. If they were letting him win, it didn't look like it. Does a man require some dubious qualification for this?

Later that day, at about 12.30, Spain's most famous man emerged from a small mouth of a door in the stadium wall and walked towards his large silver Merc, parked obediently outside.

Notoriously suspicious of interviews, he was followed by the club press officer - the same chap who had granted me an interview earlier with Yossi Benayoun, the new star Israeli forward.

The press officer had told me, however, that talking to Piterman would be 'impossible', a word that seemed far too vague to stop a spontaneous Soccernet world exclusive from taking place.

As I approached the president, the press officer - several steps behind his employer - saw me and began to wave his finger in a desperate fashion, silently mouthing 'No way, no way!'

Too late was the cry.

Never trust lawyers or journalists. I had already employed that time-honoured trick of the Fourth Estate and addressed Piterman as 'Dimitiri' if he was supposed to know me. It never fails.

From close up, he looks older than 39, unlike the players, who always look ridiculously young once they're in civvies.

'Dimitri' I ask. 'Could you sign this piece of paper for my son?' and I hand him the pen and paper.

Javi Guerrero (right) holds off Vallecano's Viktor Onopko
Javi Guerrero (right) holds off Vallecano's Viktor Onopko

Momentarily fazed by the sudden appearance of English onto the scene, he takes the offerings and kneels down to sign, using his thigh as a rest for the paper.

To my horror, my ancient biro fails to work. The millionaire, a man who exudes a ruthless confidence and efficiency, simply sticks it up in the air behind one ear and the press officer obliges, replacing the biro with a more expensive item from his jacket pocket.

Piterman's hand grasps the pen, and after asking me to whom he should dedicate the message, he scribbles something incomprehensible and hands me the piece of paper.

'Thanks' I say, adding 'So how are things now? Are you happier?' The press-officer has given up and is pretending to phone someone on his mobile. Piterman stands up and eyes me, pausing to consider the question and the questioner, as I have seen him do on the telly.

In a 90 per cent convincing American accent, he replies 'Sure. I'm happy. You?' I assure him that I am, but how does he feel about his new club, about the whole thing? 'We've won a game' he attempts, beginning to smile. 'If we win again tomorrow...' he adds, then begins to walk off, signalling the end of the exclusive.

I know what he means, and by the end of the game on Sunday, the crowd are reaching out to give him high-fives, the players are milking a rare ovation. That most temporary of emotions - the fragile pleasure of three points gained - is winning the people of Santander around to a young millionaire's vision of mixing business with pleasure, although I'm not at all sure, even from such a brief acquaintance, that Piterman is on the kind of gigantic ego-trip that his detractors insist is his main source of motivation.

He seems to be keeping his head whilst all around are losing theirs - see Gil, Gaspart, and the Spanish FA. It could all go horribly wrong for him, of course, but for now at least, certain members of the Spanish media are having some problems wiping the egg from their faces.

  • Out now! Phil's new book on Real Madrid, White Storm. Also available, his splendid story of Spanish football, Morbo.
  • If you've any comments for Phil, email the newsdesk