By Daniel Edwards | South American Football Editor
Cinema fans of a certain age may well remember The Mighty Ducks, an enjoyable if fairly predictable zero-to-hero sporting comedy set in the United States. In the film, a local ice hockey hero returns to his old neighbourhood to take charge of a set of kids who can barely hold the stick the right way round. Of course, in true Disney fashion and thanks to the coach's inspirational leadership, the former misfits become a formidable team and end up defeating their rivals in the final game of the season to become champions.
Fast forward 10 years from the release of that film, and the story appears to be repeating itself in real life down in Rosario, Argentina. The ragtag kids in this story are the aptly-named Newell's Old Boys; and the Emilio Estevez character, the returning hero, is none other than Lepra idol Gerardo Martino.
Admittedly, the 2009 Apertura runners-up were not quite in the torrid state as their celluloid equivalents, but they were not far away. Having enjoyed two years of relative stability under Roberto Sensini, 2011 saw the former Parma star, Javier Torrente and Diego Cagna all come and go, as on the pitch Newell's slumped to 19th and 18th place finishes - picking up just 32 points in the process. Martino took over in December as the fourth trainer in less than 12 months and with the club needing points to avoid a relegation scrap, but now their sights are set rather higher.
The turnaround, which could be completed on Monday night if the Rosarinos defeat Arsenal de Sarandi to take outright top spot in the Clausura with eight games to go, has been startling. With little money to spend Martino chose to trust in the Newell's youth system, promoting prospects such as Maxi Urruti and Martin Tonso to a regular place in the first team. At the same time, veteran, consistent Primera performers such as Victor Lopez were drafted in to fill gaping holes in the team - and results have been impressive.
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A mixed start has been followed by a brilliant run of form from the Lepra, who going into the 11th game of the season are unbeaten in six matches, of which five have ended in victory. Urruti, an unknown striker before 2012, has become one of the stars of the season and, with five goals so far, is in the chase to finish the Clausura as the league's top scorer. There has been no magic or mystique around the resurgence either. A disciple and former part of Marcelo Bielsa's iconic Newell's team of the early 90's, even if Martino doesn't share 'El Loco's' love for no-holds barred attacking football, there is certainly much in common when it comes to discipline.
Neither man will tolerate insubordination or misbehaviour from his charges, and it is this regimented approach to football which has seen Newell's turn from virtual strangers on the field to a close-knit team. And, in a league where just last week one star player brandished a pistol at a team-mate, and another broke his hand on the face of a rival fan who was taunting him, a little discipline in the ranks is certainly not to be underestimated.
A virtual coaching novice in his own country, 'El Tata' came back nevertheless with a stellar reputation, earned during his coaching apprenticeship in neighbouring Paraguay. League title with Libertad and Cerro Porteno indicated promise, but it was with the national team that he showed the talents which are currently turning Newell's into real championship contenders. Martino took the job after a humiliating 6-0 exit to Mexico in the Copa America and in the four years which followed, he turned the Guarani into one of the most effective units in South America.
The cruel loss of Salvador Cabanas was a blow to Martino's World Cup plans in 2010 after the America striker scored six during qualifying, but a quarter-final loss to Spain was more than respectable for the functional rather than scintillating Paraguayans. The Copa America told a similar story. There were far more talented teams who took the field in Argentina last year, but few could boast a team spirit and work ethic to match Martino's dogged battlers.
"I've always been an admirer of Bielsa ... His professional character fascinated me and it makes me proud to be compared to him"
- Martino has high praise for his mentor
The Albirroja may have failed to win a single game in regulation time during the tournament - although that statistic belies the fact that draws against Brazil and Venezuela were both products of last-minute equalisers - but the team remained solid and committed and few begrudged them a place in the final against Uruguay while the highly-touted hosts crashed out in shame.
It has been a long time since Newell's fans have had much to cheer about. Granted, the relegation of bitter city rivals Rosario Central in 2010 was a source of much mirth around the Estadio Marcelo Bielsa and still is, but in terms of on-pitch success victory in the 2004 Apertura was the last silverware to make its way around the pitch for the traditional lap of honour.
There is plenty to be optimistic about for the Leper faithful, however. Mafioso former president Eduardo Lopez - famed for his close links to the murderous barra brava and his corrupt practices within the club - has been replaced by a much more transparent administration. Fans, meanwhile, are beginning to put behind them the internal war in the stands that left several individuals dead or injured in mob-style hits over the last five years and once more lend their voice to what is one of the most exhilarating, intense sporting arenas in Argentina.
In Martino, those same supporters are lucky enough to have one of the idols of their clubs and, most importantly, one of the most talented coaches in Argentine football barking orders from the sidelines. 'Tata' may already have one of the stands in the Estadio Marcelo Bielsa named after him, but if he brings glory back to Newell's there is no doubt that the entire red and black half of Rosario will be united in exalting their very own miracle man.