AFC Wimbledon's under-18s are counting down the days to when they face the youth team of Spanish giants Atletico Madrid, having earned an exciting three-game tour.
The young Dons leave for the Alcorcon region of Madrid on July 30 for just under a fortnight in Spain. This fantastic experience has been made possible after the Academy were one of just four clubs to be selected as part of a Football League programme.
Incredibly, AFC Wimbledon's youth side were playing Epsom Eagles ten years ago and now with such rapid progress find themselves up against one of the big names in European football.
Delighted Head of Football Mark Robinson explained: "While we're out there we play hosts AD Alcorcon whose first-team play in the Segunda Division – the equivalent of the English Championship, we play Leganes – whose first-team are in La Liga and then we get Atletico Madrid!"
"It's absolutely fantastic and the boys are excited. We knew it was going to be Real or Atletico and it's turned out to be Atletico and - to be honest - I'm pleased with that because there are similarities between their academy and our academy and I know that their academy is really strong as well, as they have to bring through their own players. It's something we'd never be able to do, as it's been fully paid for.
"It's funded by the Football League every year and it's called 'Erasmus+' and it's an educational tour as well as the football. It's awarded to four clubs and they take them on tour – sending two to Holland and two to Spain.
"You have to send in an application as to why you think you should go, in terms of what you're going to do as an Academy, what you are going to add to the tour as well as what you are going to get out of it. We filled in an application – myself, Head of Academy Jeremy Sauer and Head of Coaching Michael Hamilton – and we're pleased to say we got awarded the tour! We go to Madrid for twelve days. We go at the end of the month and it takes us through into the new season."
Mark Robinson spoke to Rob Cornell about how pre-season has gone so far and the challenges and culture he is trying to build in charge of the under-18s again this season, in an interview available via our official club YouTube channel below.
The Youth team prepare for their adventure in Europe with another eye-catching friendly at Birmingham City tomorrow and then entertain Woking on Monday. They then have two final training sessions next Thursday and Friday and head off to sunnier climes at the weekend.
"We've got a fantastic programme lined up," explained Mark "The boys get double sessions. In the morning, when they are out in Spain, they get coached by either our host club Alcorcon - so they get coached by one of their coaches or an actual Spanish FA coach and I've been able to send them topics of what I would like them to coach.
"Then in the evening, with my assistant James Oliver-Pearce, we're able to do a session as well and that happens right throughout the whole tour – they get two sessions. It will be great for us to watch those guys coach and – fingers crossed – they'll see something when we coach."
While it's sure to be an unforgettable experience for all involved, no one in the tour party will be putting their feet up at any stage and the boys will be working hard and learning more about their surroundings, which is organised by League Football Education and Imoving Sports.
"We're staying at their equivalent of St George's Park (Hotelsefutbol)," added Mark. "It's not quite as plush apparently, but it's authentic and very Spanish and we've got to make sure the boys get that bonding and that they don't think they are going on holiday – that certainly won't be the case – but we are going to visit the Bernabeu (home of Real Madrid) .
"We're also visiting Atletico Madrid's old ground (Vicente Calderon Stadium) and they'll get one day where they go to a water park, which will be fantastic and we'll have a good time there.
"There will also be other things going on like language classes and we've spoken to them about having an open mind and again doing things that are a little bit out of their comfort zone and making them realise they'll gain massive rewards from it."