Somehow, at the end of it all, Rayo Vallecano left-back Fran Garcia was still running. Off he went once more, sprinting from one end to the other. The game against Almeria had finished, another Monday night and another win [2-0] secured, and he had been the player nominated for the postmatch pitchside interview, maybe because he was the only one with any energy left to open his mouth. He spoke briefly, keen to get away, aware that his teammates were waiting for him.
They were in front of the stand on Payaso Fofo street. There is, after all, no stand opposite it, nearer to where he had spoken: just a wall and the blocks of flats that look over the pitch, so close that a few weeks ago a Fede Valverde shot literally flew into someone's living room.
When Fran Garcia got there, Rayo's players listened to the fans belt out a classic song, briefly revived last season after many years and now sung again. Going back two decades, there used to be t-shirts for sale in the club shop with the lyrics printed on the front, over and over. They're simple enough. A neat way to express the dream of a European place, the hope that it brings and the enormity of it all. The lyrics run: "Next year, Rayo-Liverpool."
So, erm, yeah. About that ...
There is just one small problem, and it's not them. Of the two teams, right now, Liverpool look the more likely not to keep up their side of the deal; Rayo on the other hand are doing so. They have taken points from Barcelona's Camp Nou and Atletico Madrid's Metropolitano, beaten Real Madrid, and sit fifth in LaLiga, just three points off a Champions League place.
So? So this is a club that have only ever been in Europe once -- reaching the UEFA Cup in 2000-01 via the fair play league -- and with many players who have never been there either. In fact, when it comes to football experiences, the thing they most share is relegation. Monday night's XI had eleven of them, and the most expensive player there cost €2.5m to sign, with the entire starting XI coming in at under €15m. You may not have heard of many of them. That's ok ... you're not alone.
There was a moment on Monday when Rayo forward Alvaro Garcia described Isi Palazon -- the magnificent right winger from Cieza, Murcia, where like most people there he worked picking fruit -- as coming "from the mud." It is a line that is applicable to pretty much all of them.
Álvaro García goal 63rd minute Rayo Vallecano 2-0 Almería
Look at that starting XI again. The list of teams Rayo's players last played for might include Real Madrid, where Fran Garcia was, but that's their B team and he's on his way back at the end of the season. Sergio Camello is an Atletico player, but he's on loan and he came from Mirandes. Then there's Almeria, Alaves, Reus, Ponferradina, Coruxo, Tenerife, Rayo Majadahonda and Toulouse. This is a team with the smallest budget in the first division and a three-sided ground that is almost as much of a crumbling mess as the club itself is. It's not just that so many players have the experience of relegation; it is that their only real target at the start of this season was to not have another one.
In short, they shouldn't be here. And they certainly shouldn't have got here the way they have. You know the usual drill: over-achieving team does it by being tough, uncompromising, competitive. And yes those are euphemisms. Small team breaks the mould by, well, breaking a few bones along the way. By being defensive, well-organised and, put bluntly, really not very good to watch.
Not Rayo. Which isn't to say they aren't tough -- they are. And it's not to say they're not physical -- boy, are they. In fact, there may be no team in Spain that's better prepared physically than they are. "Our football is very physical; we all leap into the press, we try to make the game physically very hard for the opponents," Alvaro Garcia says. Within the game, their fitness coach, Pablo de la Torre, is considered among the best.
This though is in the mind too. Vallecas is a famously working-class neighbourhood down to the east of Madrid and it's proud, which fits somehow. You know you're smaller, poorer, but you're not going to cower. You're going to stand up, fight if you have to. And so they're, well, fun.
Only Barcelona, Madrid, Athletic, Atletico and Real Sociedad have scored more in LaLiga this season, and they're only one goal off being in the top three for goals. Rayo don't wait for you; they go for you. Over and over and over again. They don't let you breathe and don't let you out. They throw everything at you, full-backs and wingers doubling up on both sides, the ball in the box repeatedly, getting beyond you on all sides, suddenly loads of them in your six-yard box. They get into your half fast, all over you -- only Athletic play a higher percentage of their passes in the opposition area or put in more crosses. They run and run and run. Fran Garcia especially, but all of them. And yet, don't think this is only athleticism; they can play. It's just that it's all accelerated, which makes it even harder. The volume is turned up high.
That's volume, noise. And volume, quantity.
Organised chaos is one way of putting it, and it's a way that manager Andoni Iraola quite likes. In fact, he says he probably likes the chaos part even more than the organised part. Things happen. A lot of things. "It's important that the people enjoy it," he says. And do they ever. Vallecas is the best night out in Spain.
You might have heard a bit about Iraola this week after Leeds United made an approach to hire him after sacking Jesse Marsch. He says this is about his players -- and while they look like an unlikely bunch of misfits you have never heard of from small teams, there are some seriously good footballers in there -- but it is about him too. Young, smart, the 40-year-old is the outstanding coach emerging now and there is an identity clear in his teams. This is, it was put to him this week, an author's team. His team, playing his way. This is his vision, perfectly applied, his players with him 100%.
At least to the end of this season. He didn't go -- mid-season is not the time, he has always thought -- and while Leeds was attractive, there is a job to do. Not to get Rayo into Europe, at least not in theory, but to get them safe. "The position doesn't interest me; the points do," he said on Monday. On 32 points, Rayo are basically safe already. So maybe the targets can be changed, recalibrated. Maybe Europe isn't so absurd - although to be clear, it is absolutely absurd for a club like this. Certainly, it sounded like they might actually believe that it's possible this time.
"This time" is the key. Last year, Rayo started the season superbly too -- it took until the second half of the season for them to lose at home and the talk then was of Europe too, that song sung then as well -- but then in Alvaro Garcia's words "we made a right mess of it." In the end, they did have to fight to avoid relegation. The very fact that it happened before might help to stop it happening again and Iraola has talked about lessons learnt, a balance found. One of those lessons, he suggested, is that this is a team that play better under pressure. One that needs ... to need. And so Europe could be a useful demand even if they don't get there in the end.
"If we can get [survival] sorted, then why not dream?" Alvaro Garcia said. It would be good for everyone else, but is Europe ready for them?
"I trust that this season we can take a step forwards," Isi told Spanish radio after Monday night's win. "Would I sign up for Europe now? Of course, man. Give me a pen and a piece of paper and I'll sign right now. We have the experience from last season and it wasn't easy in the second half of the season but I think we're more complete this season. But we have to keep our feet on the floor: we're Rayo Vallecano."