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Brit Will Thompson dreams of Europa League after rocking up in Armenia as a tourist, founding a team… and reaching top division

Friday, 21 June, 2019, 02:35
Brit Will Thompson dreams of Europa League after rocking up in Armenia as a tourist, founding a team… and reaching top division

Will Thompson's greatest achievement in the game had been to take Preston to the Champions League final on computer smash-hit Football Manager.

But after pitching up in Armenia as a tourist last summer and falling in love, he now dreams of a real-life European fairytale.

Having set up a youth team for fun, the country’s FA fast-tracked the club he founded out of nothing, Dilijan FC, into the country’s second tier next season.

And with a guaranteed spot in their Premier League the following year thanks to the Armenian FA’s vice-president, Crystal Palace fan Thompson sees no reason why they cannot soon be taking on Europe’s big guns.
The Londoner, 31, said: “I left a recruitment job to go travelling. I had been in Costa Rica for six months and wanted to go somewhere off the beaten track before backpacking around Asia.

“I thought Armenia was going to be Arabic and surrounded by desert — I didn’t really have a clue where it was.

“When I arrived, the country was gripped by revolution where the government was overthrown.

“But living was crazy cheap — you can live off just £75-a-month — and I met a local girl who worked in the Peace Corps helping kids, so I decided to stay a bit.”
Thompson’s new love was based in Dilijan, an old Soviet town of 17,000 in the mountainous north known as ‘Little Switzerland’ for its stunning scenery and hiking trails.

An avid football fan, before long he set up a youth side. He added: “If I had £100,000 in the bank I’m sure I would have gone straight to Thailand.
“It’s lovely here but an English person would think it’s the Third World.

“People sell raw meat out of their car boots, horses walk freely down the street. It’s what you imagine life was like 100 years ago.”

On the youth team’s first day just eight kids turned up for a kickabout, some wearing slippers to play in.

But after putting up posters in local schools and community centres, around 40 came for the second session.

To give these poor kids the enjoyment of winning a medal, Thompson fruitlessly searched high and wide for a tournament.

He was eventually put in touch with the Armenian FA, where many staff had been purged following the revolution.

Thompson said: “They’d heard about what we were doing and the vice-president wanted to meet me.

“He showed me his plans of how they are investing millions. They only had nine teams in the men’s first division and wanted to emulate other European leagues with 20.

“He loves English football and is a huge Arsenal fan. He loves Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who is a god out here, and asked if we wanted to join the league.

“Teams usually have to have seven youth teams and a minimum of three A-level Uefa coaches to meet the criteria.

“We just had the children who had come off the street and I hadn’t done any coaching before — but after one quick call he said we were straight in!”

Faced with starting a team from scratch and getting them up to speed to compete over a season, Thompson put the feelers out locally and immediately had six ex-pros who had played in the Armenian league sign up.

Working with numerous agents — one brought flop Jaroslaw Jach to Crystal Palace from Poland in 2018 — they sifted through countless videos of players around the world.

And before long they had footballers from Nigeria, Portugal, Russia and Belarus jetting in for pre-season.

Dilijan FC work alongside the town’s United World College — one of 17 globally — and they provided a stadium.

Thompson hopes for gates of around 700 in their first campaign, which begins in August.

He added: “A lot of them have played professional football and I have been taken back by their quality, which I’d say is about League One level.

"We have had £100,000 invested in us through sponsors, which is a big deal considering a squad of 22 costs around £50,000.

“The average salary in Dilijan is around £150-a-month, so that’s what we are paying the players.

“The average budget in the First League is £500,000, which is what we are hoping to get next season.

“We’re recruiting up to seven full-time coaches and the players will get housing. They are all here as professionals to create something serious.”

Thompson is the owner-manager and also plans on making cameo appearances throughout the season.

His Armenian is patchy and he struggles to communicate with players and coaches, often relying on hand gestures and the few English speakers translating.

He still has another job working remotely as a recruitment manager for an online teaching company based in China, but hopes to quit soon.