CD Almuñécar City came into being last summer, entering the Tercera Andaluza (Granada) División, and are already on the verge of securing promotion with plenty of room to spare, but their instant success is not the real headline. Founded by a then-29-year-old UEFA A license-holding coach with playing experience spanning the globe, CDAC are tearing through the Spanish system their own way.
In their brief existence, they have already been represented by Japanese, Russian, English, Australian, New Zealander, Danish, American, Swedish, Indian and Spanish players. A steady stream of new talent is secured by their link-up with the FC Malaga City Pro Season Academy, whereby academy graduates are offered a route directly into competitive league football. Paperless ticketing systems, active social media coverage, match programs and a global membership scheme are just some of the elements that set them apart. Not forgetting, of course, the iconic club symbol: Alpacas.
“People like it,” said general manager Chris Darwen. It is a simple enough statement, but one that shows the mindset of the nascent club in drawing from the support base it hopes to develop. In a recent documentary about Salford City featuring many of the Class of ‘92 owners, Gary Neville can be seen almost frothing over with enthusiasm at the deep symbolism of the lion as their new mascot. The silent groan of Paul Scholes at the board table cuts through the bluster as his former teammate barges on, convincing himself that the fans will get on board with a plan to make the players celebrate every goal with the new mascot ‘like a pride of lions’.
A more unique, colourful and close-knit herd you will be hard-pressed to find, especially on the lower league pitches of southern Spain, but sometimes the group has to part with members. What is different about CDAC is that they actively encourage this process, rather than struggle to keep every single player – and herein lies the motivation for the very formation of the club in the first place.
“We had a super talented group of last year under-19 players and I was upset they hadn’t been signed to a club in the previous season,” explained FC Malaga City and CDAC founder George Jermy. “I believe in them and know they just need more time. This got me thinking that there must be something I can do, so put together with my passion to run a football club properly, where the players come first, I started to research establishing my own football club. Here we are following just under two years of work, paperwork and politics with the birth of CD Almuñécar City. The aim is for the academy to be a direct feeder and the two work in unison.”
There have been previous examples of loosely similar setups, most notably the Glenn Hoddle Academy that was established a decade ago less than 200 miles away in Jerez. Back then, the former England manager realised a long-held dream of giving scholars rejected by top clubs a second chance to develop at their own pace by drafting in former professionals as coaches, and effectively buying out struggling fourth-tier side Jerez Industrial CF as a reverse feeder club.
Suddenly, young players that would otherwise have been lost from the game had a direct pathway laid out for them to use as a springboard to return to the upper echelons of professional football. For a while, the combination of academy and club worked, giving the likes of Ikechi Anya and Sam Clucas – both of whom have played Premier League football in recent seasons – renewed hope.
A dispute with the owners, who allegedly reneged on a six-figure repayment due to Hoddle personally, led to the project upping sticks and moving entirely to an academy-only structure at Bisham Abbey. While the intentions were unquestionably sound, the immediate pathway differed somewhat from FC Malaga City Academy, as Darwen points out.
“They went and bought a club and did it that way; we’re starting from the very bottom but trying to make our way up as a high as possible as quickly as possible, so we’re different in that way. People have likened it to the Nike football academy, [with players] getting a place in the football league, and then becoming professional as well. That’s the idea behind it.”
The sheer weight of Nike’s global appeal, not to mention their financial clout or luxurious facilities within the FA’s St. George’s Park, means there are still some obvious differences, but the ethos of pastoral care is every bit as strong. While the Nike Academy offers first-class training and preparation, the one element that even they lack is the guaranteed re-entry into professional football.
A regular turnover of graduates means that there is still the intense pressure of earning an offer of a professional contract or being rejected from the academy itself, so while the second chance mantra rings true, there are still many who fall through the cracks in face of such stiff competition.
Nevertheless, the chance to impress against high-profile opposition is a critical aspect of their work; Barcelona and Internazionale have both fallen to the academy side, while the worldwide reach of the recruitment program has unearthed the likes of Celtic’s Tom Rogic.
FC Malaga City Academy is at a bizarre advantage. Although it may lack the seemingly bottomless pit of money and resources available to the American sportswear giant, the partnership with CD Almuñécar City offers a more structured path directly into the professional game with a group of staff who are effectively pulling towards exactly the same goal. Jermy is the obvious tangible link between the two entities, and his driving ethos since setting up FC Malaga City Academy four years ago dictates the direction of both. One gets the sense that this is what drives him as much as anything when he describes his thinking.
“The academy has stuck to its roots, which is helping young people be better footballer players and most importantly better young men. We run the academy as a non-profit organisation as opposed to a commercial enterprise. Being a private academy this is extremely unique and this shows in all levels, not just from costs to the player to come for a full season but from the level of care given to the players from the coaching team.
“We take players to trials no matter where. I can remember driving eight hours to Portugal to take two players to train for a week with a pro club there, organizing hotel rooms for them, getting them fed…everything. Last season a player needed his appendix out and was in hospital for four nights. We made sure a coach slept in the hospital with him every night to ensure he was comfortable and had any help with language.”
Regular midweek showcase matches against LaLiga and Segunda División academy sides offer a real chance to impress, and with tangible results too. At the time of writing, there were seven players either on trial or attending training with clubs in the top four tiers of Spanish football, including one at Málaga CF. Saurav Gopalkrishan recently went on trial with Kerala Blasters in the Indian Super League, while Ellis Hare-Reid earned a call-up to the New Zealand under-20 squad and was offered a full contract at Ayr United after his time with the academy.