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ALPACAS ARE INTRIGUING ANIMALS. Their thick, tough fur has been used for millennia to produce high-quality clothes, rugs and textiles, and while they trace their roots back to the wild Andes of Peru, they are now a domesticated cousin of the llama bred all around the globe. Despite their unusual appearance, they are highly instinctive animals who are extremely protective of their herd – a perfect symbol, then, for a multinational seventh-tier Spanish football club.

You are very unlikely to have heard of CD Almuñécar City, but their unique story is the embodiment of a dream most fans can only imagine. They only 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.

Original Series  |  The Academy Way

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.

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Not all opportunities result in a guaranteed full-time career in the game, but to judge the success of the academy and the club in those specific metrics would be to miss the entire point: it is the volume and quality of the opportunities that set them apart. Youngsters who drop out of top-level clubs will at best restart in the lower reaches of their respective country’s league system, where facilities may be lacking or staffing may be stretched. At worst, of course, they may be lost to the game for good as they lose all focus and motivation.

The fact that a number of academies aimed at giving a second chance have begun to appear suggests there are gaps in the system that needs filling. Jamie Vardy’s experience of working his way up from humble beginnings to become an England international is one that has inspired his V9 academy, aimed at giving non-league players a shot at the big-time, but it doesn’t offer nearly the same year-round contact that Almuñécar City and FC Malaga City do.

Jermy’s tale that led to the creation of the two is as winding as it is laced with equal measures of heartache and fortune. He had to develop a keen sense of independence and boldness in his personal career path from a startlingly young age. After being picked up by Norwich City while playing in local Sunday League football, he was soon training with the reserves at the age of just 15 and attracting interest from the likes of Tottenham. A move to Bournemouth around the same time current manager Eddie Howe arrived as a player showed him the unglamorous side to battling for a career.

“Having had the cotton wool for almost a decade of the Premier League academy system and now finding it a daunting task of the frantic style of League One I would say it was a tough transition period to say the least,” he said. “At the time I could not understand why all the changing rooms didn’t have underfloor heating, why the training ground didn’t have 10 pitches all cut with scissors and why the stadium was called the Fitness First Stadium but the first team didn’t have a gym. With my age and maturity, this led to a lot of frustration and really left me disillusioned with English football.”

Contacts at Norwich lead to a move to fourth-tier Spanish outfit CD Jávea, who were then managed by former Plymouth and West Ham striker Kenny Brown and had another Englishman, Mark Caitlin, as club president. As the youngest player in the squad, he won two player of the month awards before Villarreal reserves snapped him up in the winter break. A matter of months earlier he had been disillusioned by his prospects in the English system, and now he was rubbing shoulders with the likes of Diego Forlán, Robert Pirès and Juan Román Riquelme.

A return to the Costa Blanca came when a change in academy personnel made it clear his path to the first team was closing, but then the global financial crisis struck, leaving Jávea unable to survive. As the club folded, Jermy was left stranded, until an opportunity arose out of the blue to play in Australia. Before the new season had begun, however, he suffered a serious injury that would prevent him from playing a single minute as he underwent rehabilitation.

It was during this low period that the idea occurred to him to set up an academy. Seeing such limited to non-existent pathways to professional football for talented youngsters, he vowed to do something about it. By that stage he has already earned his Level 2 FA coaching badge but had no outlet to develop his skills off the pitch.

Upon returning to the UK he was told his injury would prevent him from ever reaching an elite level, but all this did was fuel his desire to prove himself even more. Eventually he fought back to playing condition while working for the FA, and once again a call from Down Under threw up a tempting offer; Wairarapa United of New Zealand wanted him to spearhead a campaign to win the national knockout cup competition.

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After years of agony and uncertainty, he finally he settled into something resembling normality as he began to enjoy playing and scoring goals. As if a cruel pattern was beginning to emerge, the relief at having managed an injury-free period of his career was soon tempered somewhat, this time by paperwork.

The visas the club had got for him and two other overseas players hadn’t been arranged as planned, and after six months he was forced to hit the road once more. One of the other unfortunate two was a Fijian who was returning home to play in a qualifying tournament for the Oceana Champions League. Needing little encouragement, he signed a contract to join FC Suva.

“The most interesting aspect was life experience for the eight-week camp plus tournament. On the field it was a blast; the level was great physically but very different tactically … every game was a packed house with these fantastic stadium housing 15-20,000 football-crazy locals. I left the country not just with 20,000 new friends but as a completely new person and with a new outlook on life. As footballers, the industry encourages you to be very self-centred, self-determined, self-critical, self-image conscious; Fiji taught me how wrong that is and that football is so much more than the players and how much it can help so many people.”

Although his playing career was far from over – spells in the United States, Gibraltar and Spain followed – the seeds had been well and truly sown. After a quixotic nomadic existence, he had built up an extensive body of knowledge, experience and contacts that leant him the ideal tools to secure the technical side of the academy.

All that remained was to find the necessary investment to take the project off the ground. Running a club like Almuñécar City at this level will cost a minimum of €15,000, and with the academy to run as well it has been no mean feat to maintain both as not just sustainable, but hugely successful. Sponsorship and personal investment have so far supported operations, but to satisfy Jermy’s grand designs, a whole other level of finance will be required.

“We kind of split our journey into two sections really,” said Darwen of Almuñécar’s targets. “The first is to get up to Tercera as quickly as possible. I’ve seen Real Oviedo play Eibar in the Segunda B playoff semi-final about four years ago which Eibar won, and now they’re playing in LaLiga. The way football is run here, if you get to Segunda B you really can make it to LaLiga.”

Almuñécar itself is a small town of about 35,000 people that had a professional club until a few years ago, leaving behind a 4,000-capacity stadium that CDAC now occupy. What makes the town ideal to host a club if such disparate origins is the international makeup of the locality itself; around a third of the residents are foreign-born.

When the club were approaching their opening fixture, there was a genuine surprise to see a healthy crowd of over 200 people attending – a number “that would put a few Tercera clubs to shame”. Communications had been conducted entirely in English initially in anticipation of a largely English-speaking expat community support. What was more unexpected was the reception that the town’s new club received from Spanish locals.

Now it is easier to see how a well-run club would garner a widespread following, but before the true nature of CDAC had even revealed itself to the administrators themselves, yet alone the potential fan base, the club’s early popularity is harder to fathom. Aggravation towards the foreign upstarts across the division’s region became clear, as Darwen explains.

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“Because we’re a different club, because we’re run differently, we have a big target on our backs when we go and play opposition. It can become a different game; the opposition can be terrible, it’s a crap pitch, the facilities are terrible, but we’ve got to overcome that and overcome these challenges. We get a bit of resistance when we’re playing away from home because the team is predominantly non-Spanish, so it can be a bit challenging in that way.”

Success breeds success, in every sense. One instant promotion later and the dreams are starting to take a more real shape. The quality of new signings is increasing too; Kasper Mikkelsen is a former FC Midtjylland youth team product who was on the books of UD Los Barrios in the Tercera División last season, but has dropped down three tiers in the hope of finding better long-term opportunities. USA international beach soccer player Alessandro Canale joined this week after having played in the American league system, and debuted in a 9-0 annihilation of Orgiva.

As for the long-term plans of the future of the whole club, it entirely depends on how far they can work their way up the system. “I’m not going to sit here and say that we’re expecting to go from the seventh tier to LaLiga, that’s a dream, but you never know,” mused Darwen. “You’ve got to aim for it; the facts do tell you that it is possible. Granada, who were in LaLiga last season, were playing Tercera football in the last decade. SD Compostela, a famous Spanish football club, are in Tercera now. If you plot the journey, it is possible to make your way through the leagues. The advantage we’ve got is that we are a well-run club.”

With interest in investment coming from all around the world, an international membership scheme, social media accounts that number followers in the thousands, an extensive network of contacts and a thoroughly original academy linked to the club, it would take a very bold man to bet against CD Almuñécar City making far bigger and brighter headlines before long.

As for the founder himself, amidst the sheer determination to do things his own way off the pitch, the temptation to get back on it rears its head. Jermy has played a minimal part in the team itself despite being registered as a player, although he maintains that he would still be the fittest member of the squad. “The transition from playing to coaching is the hardest thing a footballer will ever go through,” he said. “I defy any player capable of playing to disagree. My focus is certainly with the coaching, preparation of the team and running of the club.

“I go through lots of emotions at different periods, often still having a huge itch to play as high as I can. However I am honest with myself and I cannot play as high as I previously have or as high as I would want to, so my focus is becoming the best coach I can.”

Let’s indulge in a touch of fantasy a moment, and imagine CD Almuñécar City have reached the stated first target of promotion to Tercera Division. What next? The academy and club founder has admitted himself that the whole model would have to be revisited, both from an investment and personnel point of view, as the leap up to Segunda B would suddenly throw a different challenge of being genuine bona fide competitors with the very clubs they currently help players find trials with.

A billionaire oligarch investor? Full internationals on the books? Jermy’s vision is simpler: “The ethos will remain the same. That is to help as many young people as we can, whilst getting promotions along the way as top talented young footballers come for a stepping stone in their career.” Perhaps the ultimate fantasy is to turn the tables; for other clubs to be stepping stones towards CDAC, and not the other way round. 

By Andrew Flint  

Photo: David Darby