WHAT do Lionel Messi, Pep Guardiola, Diego Maradona, Xabi Alonso, Gareth Bale, Santi Cazorla, Gianfranco Zola and Javier Mascherano all have in common?
Yes, some of the largest and most prestigious medal collections in football, but they all also appear on the clubhouse wall of Biggleswade United. The ‘Wall of Fame’ at Second Meadow is like no other.
With a who’s who of world football – managers David Moyes, Aitor Karanka and Andre Villas-Boas all appear too – clutching a Biggleswade United shirt, the tiny Spartans South Midlands League club is certainly enjoying a higher profile.
The gallery of stars is down to director of football Guillem Balague. The hugely respected Spanish journalist, who broke the news when David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo moved to Real Madrid, has been calling in a favour from his big name contacts.
Already they’ve announced a shirt sponsorship with Nordeus, who make Top Eleven, the world’s most played online management game.
On August 15, United will unveil another major sponsor as the benefits from the Sky Sports’ pundit’s involvement continue.
“They are footballers and they love football,” Balague says. “Mascherano was one of the last ones – ‘Oh Biggleswade United!’ He’s just played the World Cup final, but because he follows me on twitter he knew.
“Maradona was the same. We did an interview in Jordan. There were all these Argentina shirts laid out to sign.
“We did a mini interview beforehand and I asked if he minded signing it and explained what it was all about, ‘OK’.
“Then he was asked if he could sign the Argentina shirts. ‘No’. And walked off! So the only shirt he signed was Biggleswade United. Amazing.”
With a fountain of knowledge gained from 22 years of building relationships and interviewing the biggest names in the game, he decided to get involved when chairman Chris Lewis emailed.
And there can’t be any other Step 5 clubs who have access to bright minds like Guardiola.
“You don’t realise because you are only asking questions, but you’re learning,” he says. “I thought I could put it in practice. When you hear Pep Guardiola talking about Barcelona he says things like when he was at a third division team, it was like university. It was a PhD in football.
“I’ve spoken to him about this and he says, ‘Every changing room is the same’. I asked, ‘OK, what advice would you give anybody who is trying to do what we’re doing here?’ “He said, ‘See the mark at the end, where you want to go. Don’t lose track. Just keep going’.”
Since arriving at the club last October, Balague admits he’s been on a steep learning curve. But the philosophy is a simple one. They want to grow the club and the local community by having the best coaching around.
Head coach Cristian Colas will lead the side along with his Spanish contingent of coaches, and former Chelsea attacker Enrique De Lucas played in the red and blue last season.
For Balague, it’s about supplementing the expertise from abroad with the local coaches to improve players.
Specifically improve English players who, he says, aren’t equipped with enough knowledge of how to solve problems on the pitch even at the highest level.
“For me it’s all about coaching,” Balague says. “Given the opportunity to do something with this club it was like, ‘Ok, we’re going to have the best coaching in the area and that will take us places’.
“Why Spain? Because I think we are ten years ahead of everybody else. If we win it’s obviously because we are a great generation, but also because of the coaching, the understanding of the game and what is put in the head of players.
“Why is that? Because in the 90s we professionalised everything before anybody else. Because we were humble enough to accept anything that came from abroad.
“Because we challenged everything we knew. And now there’s a lot of people who know. When you put a lot of people together who know, knowledge comes.
“So we had to pick from there and mix them with the local guys here. We’ve put it together and I think it’s a cocktail that will work.”
He believes the club offer the best coaching within a 20-mile radius and says the ideas are paying off already. The remit is to improve the club’s facilities as well as the profile in the town.
On Monday night the locals were out in force to have their picture taken with the FA Cup. On Saturday, United begin their cup campaign at home to Desborough Town.
And, after seeing the children patiently queuing to have their picture taken with the famous trophy, Balague has a confession to make.
“I must say that I wrote the FA Cup magic was dying,” he says. “Sometimes there’s a problem of being behind the scenes too much.
“You know the managers, you know the players and they tell you, the FA Cup is a problem, it’s the third competition.
“But you go further down the ladder and you see what it means. The first time the FA Cup leaves Wembley this season it comes here? For us this is amazing.
“One thing I’ve been attracting players with is August 15 – ‘The FA Cup starts, you’ve got to be here’.”