It looked like a final roll of the dice. President Florentino Perez was under pressure early last year from fans following the unpopular decision to remove Carlo Ancelotti and the subsequent slump under Rafa Benitez. After sacking the Spaniard, he had to get it right.
Up stepped Zinedine Zidane, a club legend but a man with no coaching experience at the highest level and only a moderate record at Madrid's youth team, Castilla. It led El Mundo Deportivo to describe him as a "plaster" on their front cover - and that description merely summed up what many were thinking.
But fast forward exactly 17 months and Zidane has written his name in the history books at Real. The French coach inherited a team in trouble, but reinstilled belief and led Los Blancos to the Champions League after just six months in charge.
A few months after hitting the wonderful winner that gave Madrid their ninth European Cup in 2002, Zidane said: "I want La Decima (the 10th), La Undecima (the 11th) and La Duodecima (the 12th)." And now he has them all.
Zidane was an assistant to Ancelotti as Real edged out Atletico in Lisbon to claim their 10th title in the continental competition and thereby end a 12-year European drought. And it was clearly a partnership that worked, with Madrid fading in the Italian's second season (after the Frenchman stepped down to coach Castilla).
The 11th European Cup crown came courtesy of a win on penalties against Atletico again - this time at San Siro. Madrid did not play well that night in Milan, but still found a way to win. Just six months earlier, Real had been a club in crisis. Now, they were a team transformed.
The UEFA Super Cup and the Club World Cup followed in 2016-17, with both of those titles on the verge of being lost until late levellers (from Sergio Ramos in Trondheim and Cristiano Ronaldo in Japan). That led to Zidane being described as a "lucky" coach, but if anything, it was a compliment - because the very best bosses have fortune on their side.
Luck is usually a result of hard work and preparation, after all. And having led Madrid to La Liga for the club's first title since 2011-12, Zidane steered the Spanish side to a 12th European Cup on Saturday. It was fully deserved, too.
Juventus had Real on the ropes after Mario Mandzukic's wonderful equaliser in Cardiff. But Madrid ended the first half with the ball and emerged in the second to push the Italian side back. They took the iniative while the Bianconeri defended deep - and while there was an element of fortune about Casemiro's deflected long-range effort that made it 2-1, Madrid had earned it with a dominant display early in the second period.
Real went on to score four goals past a team that had kept two clean sheets against Barcerlona earlier in the Champions League and conceded only three times in the entire competition, with only one of those scored from open play.
Ronaldo, as so often, was the principal protagonist with two more goals to add to the five he netted against Bayern Munich in the last eight and the hat-trick he hit past Atletico in the semi-finals.
But Zidane can take some credit for that, as well, because it was his clever rotation (and ability to convince the Portuguese that rest would be better for him and the team) that saw the 32-year-old fresh and firing when it mattered most.
"No one did it [defending the Champions League] and we did it so you can say today is a truly historic day for all Madrid fans," Zidane said on Saturday night. "For myself, for the whole [Madrid] family."
However, Zidane knows this club better than most and he added: "You know how things are. Next year it's going to be even more difficult and we are going to have to work very hard to be able to win once again."
With the world's strongest squad at his disposal and a chance to bring in some more top talent this summer, plus his knack of winning the biggest prizes, Zidane will want even more in 2017-18 - and now this team can go on to define an era. Don't put it past them.