The death of Manuel "Manolo" Preciado, one of the most popular and colourful characters in Spanish football, has cast a pall of sorrow over the national side's participation in the European Championships.
His sunny personality and willingness to express a salty opinion earned him an affection which transcended the often tribal divisions which mark the sport in the country. News of his passing came the day after he had agreed to take over as coach of the second division side Villarreal, and it united Spain's football family in grief.
As a player, Preciado was a reliable defender who never quite reached the stellar heights of the Spanish game in 15 years as a professional. He began his league career with Racing Santander, and made more than 100 appearances for the club in the late 1970s and early 1980s. After leaving Santander in 1982 he played for a succession of lower league clubs including Linares, Mallorca and Alaves.
He was always destined to make a bigger impact as a coach, where his astute knowledge of the game and his skills as a communicator and a motivator proved invaluable. As a manager he made a speciality of fighting fires at troubled clubs and earning unlikely promotions for unfancied sides against the odds. After serving a lengthy apprenticeship as a coach at Racing Santander, Levante and Murcia, Preciado landed the role which really made his reputation in 2006.
He took over as coach of Sporting Gijon, a modest second division club who had enjoyed little success in their 101-year history, and in only his second season he took them into Spain'stop flight. It was a stage made for Preciado's outgoing style, and his charisma and highly quotable public pronouncements made him a huge public favourite. His leadership helped Gijon grab a slice of the attention usually monopolised by Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Preciado was not afraid to engage in verbal sparring bouts with more illustrious coaches from the bigger clubs. More than that, he thrived on it, and his vivid outbursts added a welcome daub of colour to the Spanish football scene. He embarked on a memorable and highly entertaining joust with Jose Mourinho after the Real Madrid coach accused him of gifting three points to Barça by fielding a weakened team at the Camp Nou. Preciado responded by branding Mourinho "a villain, and a very bad companion".
Preciado had the last word in that spat when his Gijon team went to Real Madrid's daunting Bernabeu stadium and won 1-0 to end Mourinho's record of never having lost a home game in nine years with Porto, Chelsea, Internazionale or Madrid. It was typical of Preciado's likable character that Mourinho became an admirer and friend, and his tribute was one of the earliest and most moving.
"Manolo was always an honourable opponent, who I got to know well," he said. "He had everything that I like in a person and in sportsmen: character, openness and the courage to fight against blows. We have been left by a football figure and above all by a very special person. My memory of him will be heartfelt and permanent."
Preciado was sacked by Sporting Gijon in January after a string of disappointing results which eventually ended in relegation. He had defied footballing gravity to keep them among the élite for so long, but 2011-12 turned out to be a season too far. For once, the protestations that club and manager were parting on amicable terms wasn't a gross distortion of the truth; Preciado had become a cherished adopted son of Gijon. A club statement said: "With deepest regret, Sporting Gijon wish to express their sorrow at this sad loss, for someone who formed an integral part of this club's history, and send their deepest condolences to his family in this time of grief. His name will be written in the annals of the club's history in golden letters."
Preciado's life away from football was scarred by tragedy. He lost his wife to cancer in 2002, while in 2004 his15-year-old son died in a road accident. Last year his father was also killed in a car crash. He bore these catastrophes with stoic bravery. "Life has dealt me several blows," he said. "It could have made me vulnerable and driven me to suicide, but I decided to look to the sky and believe." He died after suffering a heart attack.
Manuel Preciado Rebolledo, footballer and coach: born El Astillero, Cantabria 28 August 1957; married (wife deceased 2002; one son deceased); died Valencia 7 June 2012.