It is surely a dream of many non-league supporters. To wake up one day and have their little-known team stuffed full of bright young prospects from one of the most acclaimed academies in the world. It might not happen often, or almost never. And I say almost, because it happened once. In Lourinhã, a small town near Lisbon.
Sporting Clube Lourinhanense was founded in 1926 and spent most of its history in Lisbon’s District Non-League Championship. In the 1990’s, Lourinhanense clawed their way up to the national league, competing in the Segunda and Terceira Divisão (the Portuguese equivalents of League One and League Two). It was a project initiated by a group of men who tried to put their town’s team on the map, benefiting from the local Mayor’s help.
In the 1995/96 season, Lourinhanense played in the Segunda Divisão, with a squad of veteran and journeyman players. Some of them had even had spells in the Primeira Liga, but their combined abilities weren’t enough to avoid relegation. “The group maintained their professional behavior until the end of the season”, says Luís Esteves, one of the few players who would keep his place in Lourinhanense’s team.
The rumor had already started during the season. Sporting Clube de Portugal, one of the Portuguese três grandes, planned to send their youngsters to gain experience with Lourinhã, thus making Lourinhanense their satellite team. The Portuguese Federation has a rule that allows Primeira Liga teams to have satellite clubs in lower divisions, and the fact that Lourinhanense was near to Lisbon and also a ‘son’ of Sporting (having taken their name in 1926) put them on top of the Lions’ list.
For Luís Esteves it was the opportunity of a lifetime. “I was 23 years old, I felt I needed more experience to work on my limitations, and having this chance to have good coaches and play for a big team was great for me”. The veterans in the team had to look elsewhere to continue playing, as Sporting planned to have their players as the starting eleven.
Marco Almeida, who would later join Southampton, was one of the players who arrived in Lourinhã. Having enjoyed a successful youth career, he was seen as one of the top prospects in Sporting’s academy. “For us it was an acceptable decision. The administration made a communication, and we prepared ourselves to feel at home.” Jean Paul Castro was the designated coach, as he worked at Sporting’s youth teams and knew every player.
In just some months, football in Lourinhã underwent a substantial change. From a small team in the Segunda Divisão, they were now seen as the team to beat in Terceira. There were obvious reasons for this. In their starting eleven, they had a lot of international youth players, such as Luís Boa Morte (who would go on to play for Arsenal, Southampton, Fulham and West Ham), Marco Caneira (Benfica, Sporting, Bordeaux, Valencia) and Nuno Assis (Sporting, Benfica, Vitória de Guimarães), all future Selecção players.
These were fantastic days at Lourinhanense. “Journalists were a constant presence, at games and training sessions; and fans, lots of fans, were at all our games”, says Esteves. “We were a group of friends, and I felt no distinctions between those who played for Sporting and those who didn’t. We were just young lads trying to play football and to win”.
In the first season, Lourinhanense were promoted to the Segunda Divisão, missing out on the Terceira’s title only in the final penalty shootout, against Dragões Sandinenses. In subsequent campaigns, Lourinhanense was always a contender in the Segunda Divisão, even if they never managed to seal a place in the professional leagues. But the prospect of seeing a group of fantastic young players remained a constant presence.
The Lourinhã dream ended in 1999, when Sporting, along with a number of other clubs, were permitted to field their own ‘B’ team in the Segunda Divisão. For Lourinhanense, the absence of their youthful stars precipitated a swift return to non-league football. A lot of the other players had good professional careers, with Luís Esteves, the hometown boy, representing historical teams like Torreense, Barreirense and Fátima.
It might not happen often, or almost never. And I say almost, because at each corner of the world, there are still people dreaming of having their own small non-league team full of bright, fantastic young players. And that’s what football is made of.