Spanish club soar after Wolves deal
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, 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."
Independent News Service