Span­ish club soar af­ter Wolves deal

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - SOCCER - ED AARONS

AT first glance Ju­milla — a small town in south-eastern Spain with a pop­u­la­tion of 25,000 and famous for its va­ri­ety of Monas­trell red wine — has very lit­tle in com­mon with Wolver­hamp­ton. But three months af­ter the sur­prise an­nounce­ment that the lo­cal foot­ball team had en­tered into a part­ner­ship with a Pre­mier League side lo­cated nearly 1,400 miles away, things are be­gin­ning to look up for Los Viní­co­las .

A 1-1 draw with their pro­vin­cial ri­vals Real Mur­cia last week ce­mented Ju­milla’s mid-ta­ble place in Se­gunda B — Span­ish foot­ball’s third tier — as Leonel Pontes se­lected goal­keeper Jack Ruddy, mid­field­ers Will Ran­dall and Ben Steven­son and striker Dono­van Wil­son in his start­ing line-up. They are four of the nine play­ers who are spend­ing the sea­son on loan as part of the link-up with Wolves, which was agreed only two weeks be­fore the trans­fer win­dow closed in Au­gust.

“The part­ner­ship was es­tab­lished quite ur­gently,” ad­mits Steven Lee, who, like his busi­ness part­ner Tang Hui, made his name as a foot­ball com­men­ta­tor in China be­fore buy­ing Ju­milla with him in 2016. “The be­gin­ning is al­ways the most dif­fi­cult — we aim to have a long-term plan but in China we pre­fer to do things step by step. We will see how ev­ery­thing goes in the first sea­son.”

Af­ter al­le­ga­tions of match-fix­ing un­der their pre­vi­ous Ital­ian own­ers, Lee paid off ex­ist­ing debts of around €200,000 when he com­pleted his pur­chase of Ju­milla and es­ti­mates he has since ploughed more than €2m into the club.

Also known as Li Xiang, he owns a suc­cess­ful dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing com­pany in Shang­hai called Arkr Dig­i­tal but trav­els to Spain ev­ery month to check on his in­vest­ment, which was ini­tially ear­marked as a platform that would give young Chi­nese play­ers the op­por­tu­nity to ex­pe­ri­ence life at a Euro­pean club.

“We in­vested the money to help Ju­milla ac­quire bet­ter play­ers and we also wanted to use it as a base for our play­ers,” he ex­plains. “Since 2016, 10 have come from China but right now there are only five, who are all play­ing for the ‘B’ team. Af­ter two and a half years we are sorry to say that none of them have played in the first team yet be­cause the level in Se­gunda B is still too tough for them.”

Ju­milla fin­ished a re­spectable 10th in his first sea­son, with the league match in Novem­ber 2016 against their fel­low Mur­cian side Lorca — owned by for­mer China coach Xu Gen­bao — dubbed the Shang­hai derby and tele­vised live in their home­land. How­ever, with at­ten­dances and in­ter­est dwin­dling, last year’s dis­ap­point­ing 13th-placed fin­ish prompted Lee to act. One of his first calls was to Wolves direc­tor Sky Sun, who played a ma­jor role in Fo­sun In­ter­na­tional’s takeover of the Mo­lineux club in 2016, a few weeks af­ter Lee had in­vested in Ju­milla.

“Their head­quar­ters is based in Shang­hai and we are in the same in­dus­try so we talk a lot about all the is­sues in Chi­nese foot­ball,” Lee says. “We have been friends for a long time.”

In came Pontes — who coached a 12-year-old Cris­tiano Ron­aldo at Sport­ing Lis­bon be­fore be­com­ing Por­tu­gal’s as­sis­tant man­ager for four years — and the new part­ner­ship with Wolves was for­mally con­firmed by both clubs a month later.

Yet de­spite Fo­sun’s 15 per cent stake in Jorge Men­des’s Ges­ti­fute player agency via a sub­sidiary com­pany called Shang­hai Foyo, Lee in­sists Pontes is not a client of the Por­tuguese agent and says he has yet to en­counter the 52-year-old.

“I re­ally look for­ward to meeting this guy be­cause he is the most pow­er­ful agent in this in­dus­try. But un­for­tu­nately I have never met him and I don’t think he cares about some­thing hap­pen­ing in the third di­vi­sion of Span­ish foot­ball. The num­bers he is deal­ing with are al­ways in the mil­lions, so I’m not sure why he would be in­ter­ested in such a small club?

“The coach is Por­tuguese but that’s be­cause our dress­ing room is formed of English and Span­ish play­ers, so we had to find a bal­ance in be­tween. We had a lot of can­di­dates, some from Eng­land,

Af­ter al­le­ga­tions of match-fix­ing un­der their pre­vi­ous Ital­ian own­ers, Lee paid off ex­ist­ing debts

some from Spain, but ul­ti­mately we chose a guy from Por­tu­gal be­cause Leonel speaks English and Span­ish per­fectly.”

Ruddy, a Glas­gow-born goal­keeper who is flu­ent in Span­ish hav­ing grown up in Mur­cia be­fore join­ing Wolves in 2016, has had lit­tle prob­lem set­tling into his new en­vi­ron­ment and made a sec­ond ap­pear­ance of the sea­son in the draw against the club where he be­gan his ca­reer last week, while the highly rated 21-year-old Wil­son al­ready has five league goals.

Seyi Olofin­jana — a for­mer Wolves mid­fielder and now the club’s player loans and path­way man­ager — vis­ited Ju­milla at the end of Novem­ber, when a 1-0 vic­tory over Wolves’ un­der 23 side il­lus­trated the depth of tal­ent now avail­able to Ju­milla’s coach­ing staff, al­though FIFA’s plans to in­tro­duce new rules re­strict­ing the num­ber of play­ers al­lowed to join over­seas clubs on loan from 2020 is a po­ten­tial span­ner in the works.

“I’m not sure,” says Lee. “Ev­ery­thing is oper­ated un­der FIFA’s rules. I think it’s a very nor­mal op­er­a­tion if some play­ers want to ex­pe­ri­ence foot­ball abroad, like Jadon San­cho is do­ing now at Borus­sia Dort­mund. Un­less they change the sys­tem, ev­ery­thing we are do­ing is le­git­i­mate. We are kind of Wolver­hamp­ton’s ‘B’ team. It’s just like young play­ers from Real Madrid’s or Barcelona’s academy must prove them­selves in the ‘B’ team first.”

Such is his work­load at Ju­milla that Lee no longer com­men­tates — “I was al­ways hav­ing to ad­just my body clock and work overnight” — but re­mains hope­ful that his bold gam­ble will pay off.

“It’s been a big in­vest­ment, we are not as a big a com­pany as Fo­sun,” he says. “We are just pure foot­ball lovers. When we worked as com­men­ta­tors, we were quite pop­u­lar but just out­siders, and now we want to gain some in­sight into the foot­ball in­dus­try. Thanks to the link with Wolves, we are more con­fi­dent that maybe one day we can achieve some­thing spe­cial.”

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