Monday , May 20 2024

Man City’s sister club Girona are taking giant strides and sit proudly top of La Liga thanks to Guardiola… Pep’s brother Pere

With Girona’s new era still in its infancy, before City Football Group became involved in 2017, the bosses did a deep dive into the make-up of their membership. Having never reached La Liga, they were everybody’s second team.

Fifty per cent of those signed up, the core support, also described themselves as Barcelona supporters. Going to Girona was a hobby, Barca the passion in a way that fandom is just that bit different in Spain.

Nice day out, Girona. Beautiful city, with its multi-coloured hanging houses over the river Onyar. The area around the cathedral provided the set to some of Game of Thrones. Michelin stars for the foodies. A paella bocadillo is worth a try.

And then there is a charming old ground with a capacity of only 13,500. Estadio Montilivi actually shakes when the wind whips up. Or when supporters jump and thrash around the temporary stands.

Their team has certainly sent reverberations around La Liga this season. Twenty games in, a place with the population of Burnley still proudly sits top, ahead of Real Madrid and their illustrious neighbours. Presumably a few of those two-club supporters have been contemplating difficult choices over recent months, especially when Girona turned up and did them 4-2 last month.

Girona are enjoying a stunning season in La Liga and are chasing Champions League football

Girona are enjoying a stunning season in La Liga and are chasing Champions League football

The Estadio Montilivi ground shakes in the wind but their team has caused a storm this season

The Estadio Montilivi ground shakes in the wind but their team has caused a storm this season

Girona earned a 4-2 win over Barcelona last month and proudly sit top after 20 matches

Girona earned a 4-2 win over Barcelona last month and proudly sit top after 20 matches

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‘We thought the way we should talk to fans, our tone of voice, should not polarise or turn them against Barcelona because it was inside them,’ chief executive Ignacio Mas-Baga tells Mail Sport. ‘We opened our arms, let’s try to become a new club who want to do something different.

‘We were selling 800 shirts a year. Kids now wear Girona. In retail, we’ve grown 2000 per cent in the last eight years. From €30,000 revenue of all retail sales to €1.2million. Shirts sell all over the world. We’re a small club doing big things. We’re relevant now.’

Their rise can be charted back to 2014, when Pep Guardiola’s brother Pere led a takeover to effectively prevent insolvency. From there, City Football Group (CFG) – with Manchester City as its jewel – went halves three years later, after a first promotion to the big time.

They went down, eventually coming back up after a three-year struggle. Now a club that was attracting attendances of 200 while bobbing around the regional fourth and fifth tiers at the turn of the century has an opportunity to write one of the great modern-day European stories.

They’ve lost just once – against Real. Carlo Ancelotti’s side, a point behind, do have a game in hand but that won’t impact the carnival just before 9pm on Sunday when Freed from Desire is blaring out of Montilivi’s fan park – followed, rather bewilderingly, by a popular rendition of Sweet Caroline – with Sevilla in town.

‘Girona became the project of our lives,’ Guardiola says. ‘The reality is we are the underdogs. Everyone says it’s impossible that we can fight or annoy the big ones. But if you scout well and have a good coach there is always one day you can play better than the other ones.’

Plenty of those days this year. Atletico Madrid were beaten by a stoppage-time winner in an all-time classic a fortnight ago. Girona barely broke sweat in swatting aside Rayo Vallecano to reach the Copa Del Rey’s last eight on Wednesday. Only Inter Milan, Bayern Munich and City have scored more goals in the top five leagues.

Girona beat Atletico Madrid 4-3 with a stoppage-time winner in an all-time classic

Girona beat Atletico Madrid 4-3 with a stoppage-time winner in an all-time classic

Head coach Michel is earning the plaudits for overseeing Girona's stunning campaign

Head coach Michel is earning the plaudits for overseeing Girona’s stunning campaign

Pep Guardiola's brother Pepe, right, led a takeover of Girona in 2014 to prevent insolvency leading to the club becoming part of the City Football Group

Pep Guardiola’s brother Pepe, right, led a takeover of Girona in 2014 to prevent insolvency leading to the club becoming part of the City Football Group

Michel, the personable coach with oodles of energy, is earning the plaudits. Girona are daring, take no backwards steps. The full backs pop up in unconventional positions, space in the middle of midfield is manufactured to dominate in. ‘Pressing high, the build-up from behind, trying to find the space,’ Guardiola says. ‘This is the DNA.’

Sounds familiar. ‘Yeah!’ he laughs. ‘But we are not doing this to copy. It’s because we believe in it, we grew up with this type of football. Michel is like a glove to us. And we’re like a glove to him. If he wants to stay, he will stay forever. It’d be difficult for us to stop him [leaving] because our size is our size.’

Michel had been at Rayo Vallecano and Huesca, sacked by both after winning promotion to the top flight, but Girona saw long-term possibilities when appointing him in 2021. As Michel learned Catalan from his elderly neighbours, the board held an unwavering belief in how this would work – despite conversations around a poor start to his first campaign.

‘The coach is so passionate,’ winger Viktor Tsyhankov says. ‘The football he plays is beautiful. Top of La Liga? Amazing, this season is historic already. When we started winning we were all surprised but thought, why not? Try something big.’

Michel is now linked with mega jobs, even mentioned as a potential Guardiola replacement at City. The pair of them WhatsApp after matches, meeting on a few occasions and sharing dinners; Guardiola has watched Michel train a couple of times. ‘They get on very well,’ Mas-Baga says. ‘They share ideas.’

There is something that Pere Guardiola says that condenses Girona’s surprising success. ‘Because we don’t have the money that others have, we need to be quicker, faster,’ he explains when summing up their recruitment strategy. ‘We can’t talk too much about yes or no. If it’s yes, we need to go for it. The only option we have is to get there one minute before the competitors.’

There is a spending cap across the league and Girona’s stands at £44m for the entire season. Real’s is £626m, the financially withered Barca’s is £232m. Even if CFG wanted to bankroll an overnight sensation, they can’t.

What they can do is share data and information. Identifying potential signings is easier owing to the sheer numbers of recruitment staff across the group’s 13 clubs in a way that Ferran Soriano dreamed when he initiated the multi-team model a decade ago. To comply with UEFA rules, that exchanging of knowledge will likely have to stop should Girona go on and reach the Champions League with City, but for now they are revelling in the shrewd acquisitions made by sporting director Quique Carcel.

Carcel, who was performing this role while captain at L’Hospitalet even before retiring, was the man who convinced Guardiola into investing. He’s light on his feet and has a history of squeezing the maximum out of small budgets in the lower divisions.

Winger Viktor Tsyhankov spoke to Mail Sport Jack Gaughan about Girona's rise this season

Winger Viktor Tsyhankov spoke to Mail Sport Jack Gaughan about Girona’s rise this season

Tsyhankov joined Girona last January with his career halted by the war back home in Ukraine

Tsyhankov joined Girona last January with his career halted by the war back home in Ukraine

The 26-year-old revealed the atmosphere in Girona is unlike one he had ever seen before

The 26-year-old revealed the atmosphere in Girona is unlike one he had ever seen before

When Girona lost four of last year’s standout stars over the summer, another overhaul was required. Barca poached midfielder Oriel Romeu; top scorer Taty Castellanos (on loan from sister club New York City) went to Lazio for £12million; Atletico wanted the mercurial Rodrigo Riquelme back; Wolves spent £8.5m on Santi Bueno.

Daley Blind, 33, joined after his release from Ajax while Dnipro-1’s Artem Dovbyk has taken on goalscoring responsibility in the absence of Castellanos after signing for a club-record £6.5m. Eric Garcia came in on loan after a turbulent time at Barca. Yangel Herrera’s loan from City was made permanent. Girona are looking at reinforcements this month to give them an extra push, just as when Dovbyk’s Ukraine teammate Tsyhankov arrived from Dynamo Kiev last January.

Tsyhankov, who hadn’t been playing during conflict at home, was unusually met by table football stood in the centre of their home dressing room. It’s a Girona tradition going back two decades.

‘My first game against Valencia, they were playing it one hour before kick off!’ Tsyhankov says. ‘Me, from Ukraine, I thought only about focus. But they are laughing, shouting. It’s a different atmosphere that I’ve never seen and I think it’s a key to our success. Even the coach players! The kit man, who is Ukrainian, is one of the best. I tried once and after that, no. They are professionals, it’s a Spanish thing.’

Like many of the squad, Tsyhankov lives near their training base next to the region’s preeminent golf course, one that hoped to host the 2031 Ryder Cup. City’s manager has dragged his players for a round on a couple of trips.

And there are always familiar faces. At 37, club legend Cristhian Stuani is still going, a Panenka against Vallecano in the cup prompting the unfurling of Uruguay flags from the stands.

And then there is Savio. Or Savinho as they call him here. Not pulling up trees at CFG’s Troyes – failing to make a single appearance – or during an injury-hit loan at PSV Eindhoven, Girona took a punt on the 19-year-old winger to give them a sparkle. Michel needed convincing but the Brazilian has repaid that faith in a way nobody expected. Six months later, he’s tipped for the top.

Tsyhankov lives Girona's training base which is located near to the region's leading golf course

Tsyhankov lives Girona’s training base which is located near to the region’s leading golf course

Club legend Cristhian Stuani is still going at the age of 37 and scored a paneka against Rayo Vallecano in Girona's 2-0 Copa del Rey win

Club legend Cristhian Stuani is still going at the age of 37 and scored a paneka against Rayo Vallecano in Girona’s 2-0 Copa del Rey win

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Nobody knows how this ends over the coming months. Real, you suspect, should become more relentless but then again, we predicted all that with Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City in 2016. Irrespective, what it has done is propel Girona into a different stratosphere. Staff talk about how the world is watching – and they’re not wrong – while significant infrastructural changes are afoot.

Breaking ground on a new £25m training ground is weeks away, a concept that will include the traditional CFG circular dressing rooms. ‘The academy will have an old Catalan farmhouse, Masia, right in the centre,’ Mas-Baga says. ‘The heritage of the region will be in the middle of our academy.’

The stadium’s capacity will decrease in Europe next year – should they make it – because the temporary elements cannot be used in UEFA competition. Plans for a rebuild, which will keep a modest capacity of around 20,000, are being looked at.

This will all be music to club president, Delfi Geli. A boyhood supporter, who came through their academy, he boasted a strong career in La Liga and was capped by Spain. As a 20-year-old, he’d moved to Barcelona where he met a certain Pep Guardiola. He roomed with Guardiola. Of course he roomed with Guardiola.

Girona will soon be breaking ground on a new £25million training ground as the club develops

Girona will soon be breaking ground on a new £25million training ground as the club develops

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