Manchester City and NAC Breda: A long-distance relationship

NAC Breda have been average, reaching the highs and lows of Dutch football. However, a player-loan partnership with the Premier League champions, Manchester City could reshape the club’s destiny.

NAC Breda Illustration

On the black mirror of a television screen resides the promise of a blank slate. Thousands of miniscule pixels ready to light up according to a coded program, ready to inject life into a seemingly barren wasteland of a TV screen. As I started up EA Sport’s FIFA 14 nearly five years ago, a younger Lionel Messi greeted me, draped in Barcelona’s old Qatar-sponsored kit. This was me in the beginning stages of my football fandom. But the aggressive, flashy playing style of the Ultimate Team game mode did not attract me. Instead, it was Career Mode: the ability to build a team mirroring real life from the ground up, out of little to nothing.

To loan or not to loan

In the 2014 edition of one of the world’s most popular sports games, the money-laden Manchester City were a phenomenally built team in the 2014 edition of one of the most popular sports games. Sergio Agüero, David Silva, and Yaya Touré headlined the squad, but an emerging class of multi-national youngsters also featured. The physically gifted John Guidetti was touted to possibly replace Zlatan Ibrahimović in the Swedish national team. A 17-year-old Rony Lopes brought a Portuguese flair to the midfield of City’s youth squad. Karim Rekik was brought forth as the next great Dutch defender. I relished the opportunity to weave these youngsters into my fictitious squad. However, none of these players ever had a shot at winning a first-team spot at the Etihad in real life.

Their promising careers quickly turned into a grueling time in Manchester. Rekik was loaned to PSV Eindhoven for two seasons, winning the league with them once. The Dutchman’s successful stint wasn’t enough to garner a place in Manchester, though, and he was sold on to Marseille. Rony Lopes was also sent out on loan, to French club Lille, before Monaco decided to splash €12 million on the youth star in 2015. John Guidetti was loaned out to Stoke City and Celtic before Celta Vigo signed the ageing Swede on a free transfer. The hope of a blank slate quickly evaporated due to a lack of chances in Manuel Pellegrini’s first team.

Before these once-promising young men were sold, they were lollygagging between success and failure. This is the unspectacular purgatory of young footballers: not quite the heaven of the City first team, but not yet the hell of a castaway, failed wonderkid. The only options for these players were to rot away in the reserve team or to find a temporary club to call home: a loan spell in an unfamiliar tactical system, a new country, and a dent to their reputation.

Manchester City needed some sort of outlet to coax these players into high-level first team football. Sending them off to France for a year or watching them bide time at the City Academy wasn’t cutting it. Luckily for City, a partnership with an unassuming, historically defiant European club began to take place.

Dutch connections

NAC Breda

Manchester City first announced a partnership with NAC Breda in April of 2016 as a way to provide youth players a chance to gain experience in a professional setting. After the announcement of the partnership, Simon Bajkowski offered an explanation as to why City felt it necessary to send upwards of four players to the Dutch club each season. “The failure to bring through any talent in the last year has created a bottleneck in the academy,” penned Simon, “and that will be exacerbated by the new plans for the age groups.” To this point, NAC have operated successfully as an outlet for young City players.

There are very few doubts that City’s decision to bind themselves to a Dutch club wasn’t in any way influenced by Premier League rivals, Chelsea. The London club’s partnership with Vitesse has made headlines for its shadiness and ineffectiveness, but Sheikh Mansour clearly felt that a sporting relationship across the English channel would pay off in the future.

Young Turkish striker Enes Ünal joined NAC on loan in 2016, before the partnership’s official commencement. Despite joining in January, Ünal managed to tally 11 goal contributions in only 14 appearances, with nine goals to his name. The second division of Dutch football clearly helped the young forward grow in confidence. Already possessing talent to finish his shots from acute angles, the space granted to him by poor defending made it easier to score goals from everywhere in the box.

The successful trip in the Eerste Divisie convinced the City decision-makers, presumably led by Director of Football Txiki Begiristain, that this whole Dutch loan system wasn’t such a bad idea. The partnership was confirmed between the two clubs for the next season, guaranteeing a constant flow of academy talent from Manchester to Breda. Ünal joined Twente on loan for the next season, quickly adapting to the Eredivisie with the misguided FC Twente. The Turk propelled his side to seventh in the table, scoring 18 league goals during the best campaign of his career to date. When Pep Guardiola couldn’t assure Enes a spot in the first team, he was sold to Villarreal for €14 million: triple what the club paid for Ünal only two years prior.

A collection of six players joined NAC on loan for the 16/17 season, with two arriving in January. Ashley Smith-Brown proved a reliable full-back option throughout the season, while the arrival of Spanish creator Manu García in the winter window added the final ingredient for Breda’s promotion push. Behind a large fan base, they finished in fifth place to clinch a promotion playoff berth.

After defeating Eredivisie side NEC Nijmegen in the playoffs, Breda were promoted back to the top flight. You may be of the mindset that this club seemingly very reliant on youth players, both loaned and developed, would stand little chance against the likes of Feyenoord and PSV in the top flight. If you did think that, you’d be severely underestimating the power of Breda’s fandom and the club’s will to win.

Never give up, always persevere

What we now refer to as NAC Breda was, like many other Dutch clubs, granted its beginnings by virtue of a club merger. NOAD — short for “Never give up, always persevere” — formed with ADVENDO — “pleasant for its entertainment and useful for its relaxation”. If you couldn’t tell, the Dutch were straight-forward with their organizational names back then.

The Combinatie of the two clubs in 1912 would be the building block for one of Holland’s most significant clubs. Most would say that the merger took the great qualities of both clubs, in an ethereal sense. NAC have not been blessed with phenomenal riches and success, but they retain some of the most passionate support in the country. The perseverance of the club through World War II meant they were granted professional status, but many key figures from NAC’s history passed away in the sixties. The club was relegated for the first time during this period, adding to the despair.

Ever since the 1970s, NAC supporters have been renowned as some of the most vocal in the nation. An Avondje NAC, an evening NAC, have supported the club through thick and thin, relegation struggles and European successes. The Rat Verlegh Stadium — named after one of NAC’s most promising historical figures — is often found bustling with energy under the most lamentable circumstances. When Ajax downed NAC 0-8 last year, the supporters were still singing proudly for the boys in black and yellow.

NAC, who added “Breda” to their title after the city purchased the stadium to ease the financial shortcomings of the club, have facilitated lots of success on the pitch. According to worldfootball.net, NAC are the tenth most successful club in the history of the Eredivisie with over 500 victories. In 2009, before a wave of more financial backlash was about to envelope the club, NAC Breda qualified for the Europa League.

Crippling debt and mismanagement saw the southern Dutch organization relegated in 2015. The first season Breda spent outside of the Eredivisie since the dawn of the millennium was 2015/16, but they had more in mind than just regaining their spot in the top league. The spring of that season was the emergence of a new partnership with Manchester City; the dominating, oil-funded Englishmen were coming together with the financially stripped and unexceptionally languid Dutchmen.

The start of a beautiful partnership?

When receiving a ground pass, an intelligent player will shape his or her body to control the ball in stride. NAC’s plan of action was very much synonymous to this action, with the muscles of the club pivoting in a 180 degree direction last season. According to Transfermarkt, no less than 26 new players joined the club in a mass advent of dynamic, young players. Conglomerated in the haystack of arrivals was Cyriel Dessers – the striker who’d score 29 goals – ever-present attacker Giovanni Korte, and a plethora of loaned teens from Manchester. The revolution was very much on, with loanees like Manu García and Thomas Agyepong combining with the star players to push for promotion.

By virtue of a high finish and successful playoff campaign, Stijn Vreven’s squad was promoted to the Eredivisie after only two seasons in football limbo. Not only was the Belgian manager’s team out of purgatory, but the players from Manchester City’s youth setup were granted opportunities following the successful season. James Horsfield joined NAC on a permanent basis, while Agyepong and García were enlisted to rejoin Breda for their top-flight adventure.

However, it wasn’t all positive news for the graduates of City’s “Elite Development Squad”. Promising defender Ashley Smith-Brown was cast back into a viscous loan cycle in the home nations, spending time in Scotland and League 1 since returning to the UK. Brandon Barker, once touted as a future first-team player at the Etihad, was also cast away to Scotland after an unsuccessful time in Breda. French striker David Faupala was released by City after another unsuccessful loan spell in England.

Is this a sign of things to come? No player has touched the City first team after spells at NAC, not even Enes Ünal. It has only been a season-and-a-half since the partnership’s inception, though; it is a futile effort to try and draw conclusions regarding the effectiveness of the partnership on the players. However, Man City obviously feel satisfied with the results, loaning some of their prized possessions to Breda this year.

García has made himself known among the common City fan with his dazzling performances in the Eredivisie this season. Thierry Ambrose, often mentioned as a possible backup striker for the Mancunians in the future, is NAC’s leading scorer. The two players in their very early 20s have flourished when the black and blue shirts run at opposing teams with pace. NAC are not a particularly “negative” team in terms of sitting back, but chances are often created when counter-attacking. García’s knack for threading a pass through the lines and Ambrose’s smart runs and speed help the two youngsters form a deadly combination.

Yet, the success story of the season to this point is perhaps that of Spanish full-back Angeliño. The attack-minded left-back is well-known to fans of FIFA as a (formerly) highly-touted prospect in the City setup. After going back-and-forth between England, America, and Spain, the tattooed 21-year-old donning the #69 on his back has finally found his footing in the Netherlands.

Quick bursts of speed to recover on defense, piercing runs through the center of the pitch, and intelligent, skillful play have garnered Angeliño the reputation of NAC’s best, and possibly most important, asset this season. He’s in contention to claim the left-back position in the Eredivisie Team of the Season. Undoubtedly, City will be happy to see that the loan partnership has at least revived the career of a once highly-touted prospect. To make matters even more joyous, the Spaniard still has time on his side; don’t count him out as a future star just yet.

NAC Breda have hovered around the relegation playoff zone for most of the season, but more and more seem to be favoring the newly-promoted side to retain their status by the season’s end. Vitesse — the partner of Chelsea with mirroring terms — are fighting for a European spot once again, and there’s actually not much stopping Breda from reaching that level over the next half decade. The drop off in quality is not drastic between the upper-middle-class Eredivisie sides and those meddling around the bottom half. A successful relationship with the rich English club could prove vital in achieving this dream.

Man City, Money, and Modern Football

Manchester City-NAC Breda

How was this excursion funded in the first place? Manchester City have a good youth academy, but the EDS did not produce the likes of García, Angeliño, or Ünal. Unless you live under a rock, you are probably aware that the once middle-of-the-road Premier League side has risen up the table due in large part to the funding of Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan: the Deputy Prime Minister of the UAE, commonly referred to as Sheikh Mansour.

Much has been written about Manchester City’s phenomenal Premier League campaign to this point. Yet, for years, football writing has failed to tread heavily on the subject of City’s financial backing. In a piece for The Guardian, Nick Cohen took the step that many writers (including myself) have failed to make. “Manchester City’s success is built on the labour extracted by the rulers of a modern feudal state,” penned the Mancunian back in December. Chelsea’s success may have been built upon the corruption of post-Soviet Russian wealth allotment, but Manchester City’s success has been forged in the steel of a socio-economic system compared to South African apartheid.

Just like Chelsea fans should not feel guilty for Roman Abramovich’s shady dealings, City supporters should not feel ashamed of their club’s funding either. Cohen even writes that “it is as miserablist to talk about Manchester City’s owners on Match of the Day as to talk about the factory farming of turkeys at the Christmas lunch table.” I often struggle to find words to defend the exploitative nature of Manchester City’s sugar-daddy backing, but as a supporter of the Citizens I feel it is necessary to both critique the UAE as a state while still finding enjoyment in the sport as a separate entity (although, politics and sports shan’t ever be separate).

I know what you’re asking: What the hell do slave-like practices in the Middle East have to do with the success of a small club in Holland? A lot, actually. The nature of rapid globalization has allowed for this exact relationship to occur. This isn’t to say that NAC Breda’s survival over FC Twente or Roda JC is due to oil-money, but it’s one of the many factors that go into the final league table.

Football fans in Holland, even those associated with larger clubs like AFC Ajax, are very much against “modern football”. Manchester City is regularly figure-heading these topical arguments, but now the enemy has extended a helping hand to a struggling comrade. Four regular starters for NAC are on loan from Pep Guardiola and co., so it’s not difficult to draw a roadmap from North Brabant to northwest England to Dubai.

My first foray into the world of football was when my TV screen lit up, displaying FIFA 14. My passion for learning about the game’s intricacies, tactics, and young prospects has grown ever since. To the players projected on the screen, though, football is no video game. One false performance could see you loaned out of the country or have your contract terminated. With an outlet in the Netherlands, Manchester City have a way to blood some select youngsters into a style similar to that of Guardiola’s current setup, while giving them a chance to spread their wings in a division crippled with poor defending.

Manchester City’s former badge dons the Latin phrase Superbia in Proelio — Pride in Battle. Bloodshed, fighting, and surviving against the odds in any way possible is the preferred motto of the English champions-elect. So fitting is the phrase to the club’s source of monetary backing, considering the bloodshed inflicted by the United Arab Emirates on immigrant workers. Aversely, the mottos Never give up, always persevere and pleasant for its entertainment and useful for its relaxation form a stark contrast when comparing NAC Breda to their partners in England.

Manchester City - Superbia In Proelio

NAC are a club built upon perseverance, but the tides of modern football require a club to swim in a peculiar way in order to thrive. Manchester City found their swimming stride earlier than most, but it will be some time before most clubs around the world achieve equal financial footing (if ever). For the clubs pushed to the sidewalks of European football, in Holland most notably, the virtue of youth development has been the only micro-solution to the problem of financial lagging.

Perhaps clubs like Vitesse and NAC Breda have discovered a second solution: partnerships with European (cough, cough…Russian & Emirati…cough) royalty.

Alex Dieker

Alex is an American college student studying marketing, but his passion lies in football writing. A fan of the quirkiness and underappreciated aspects of the game, it comes as no surprise that he loves Dutch football.