“No one defends the badge of Sporting better than the products of the youth academy”.

David Villa would say that, he is along with the great Quini and Luis Enrique the most famous product of Sporting Gijon’s academy, after all.

His words have held strong this term too, as Sporting embarked on something of a miracle across the course of the season. With no signings in the summer or winter transfer windows due to a ban for failed payments, and a debt spiralling to €30m, trust would be placed in-house. In turn it has brought about a story to rival that of Eibar’s last year; one of a city unified, and an unprecedented promotion against all the odds.

In 42 games, Sporting lost just twice. A squad with an average age of just 23-years-old, and built on the foundations of Mareo. 18 of the squad are products of the cantera, several born within Gijon’s city walls, the rest hailing from little towns in Asturias. Abelardo, the Gijon-born manager, is also a product of the cantera. He instilled the values that he learned, into the new generation. The pride and determination you could see on the players faces every week, was down to him. Criticism has been essentially absent from the local press, or coaching staff. It’s a bizarre notion, but one that has been keenly felt. There has been an understanding that these are still, for the most part, kids. Every week Abelardo says he told them “go out there and enjoy it.” It’s become known as “Abelardismo”. They did enjoy it, and in response, the fans have too.

Gijon’s a city unlike many in Spain, given there is just one club. It’s like Bilbao in that sense, that the majority of the city walks around in the shirt of the club. Most places you go there will be children and teenagers in the shirt of their idols at Real Madrid or Barcelona. In the north there is more semblance of pride with the clubs. You go into school or college with a shirt of either of the ‘big two’ and you’re more likely to get a kicking. Gijon, like Bilbao, is about values, local pride and family. The stadium, El Molinon, remains the oldest in Spain and is in the heart of the city.

The training complex, Mareo, packs its own history. Located just 7 km away from the city center and covering 112,000 m2, icons such as Villa, Quini, Luis Enrique and Juanele all trained there before going on to great things elsewhere. It’s not hidden away, and like the stadium, it looms over the city.

It’s a diamond in the green emerald that is Asturias with its swathing hills, rivers and deep meadows. It’s a unique part of Spain; the people, the food, the drink, and so are the clubs that reside there like Sporting and rival Real Oviedo. The latter have also achieved promotion this season, and we’ll have yet another year without what could well be the most anticipated derby in Spain. Both teams’ fans were out in typically strong numbers to celebrate their respective promotions, each in the back of their mind hopeful the day will come soon they will meet again. Segunda B or Segunda simply isn’t the stage for it. Nor the Copa del Rey. It has to be Primera.

Sporting, are already there. The manner of how they got their is nothing short of incredible. On the last day they needed to beat Real Betis by two or more goals, and Girona, sitting in 2nd, needed to draw or lose. It all went the way of Sporting somehow. This, even despite the game between Girona and Lugo being blown for full-time, then restarted again for 40 seconds. Sporting’s players sat on the field at Villamarin in Seville and waited for news, before celebrating with the masses that had travelled north to south. Betis fans joined in too, the two clubs share a special brotherly relationship, “Together in Primera, brothers” read a banner in the away end.

There were tears of joy, and smiles, on and off the field. Quini, recently recovered from illness, was one of them. Luis Enrique was on the top of Barcelona’s celebration bus when he heard the news. David Villa had to pull the car over in New York because he wasn’t in a fit state to drive. The fans meanwhile had a giant screen set up in the middle of Gijon, and exploded in unison.

The promotion had been a fight from day one and was built on raw emotion and passion. Playing for your local club. The one you went to as a kid to train, and the one you went and saw play on a weekend. Imagine then, restoring the name of that club to the highest possible level in Spain. The squad, average of 23, youngest being Jorge Mere of just 17-years-old when he debuted, did exactly that.

The message to all the players from Abelardo has been clear all season, he said so in nearly every press conference. “We have the opportunity to live a dream”. That opportunity has been taken, that dream is now reality.

By David Cartlidge

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona