City's new under-18s coach - The economics graduate who turned down Adrian Heath
If things had turned out differently, Carlos Vicens may have spent this summer preparing for his 18th season as a midfielder in Spain’s lower leagues.
Instead, the 37-year-old found himself in charge of Manchester City’s under-18s and planning for his most high-profile role since he arrived at the Academy three years ago.
For the past two seasons, Vicens worked as Gareth Taylor’s assistant with the age group he now leads, but compared to his predecessor – one of the heroes of our 1999 promotion-winning campaign - his name and story are considerably less familiar to City fans.
But like Taylor, who played for 14 clubs in a 20-year professional career, the Spaniard can call on a wealth of experience at various levels within the game as he aims to develop the next generation of talent at the City Football Academy (CFA).
Indeed, the under-18s, who are unbeaten after their first four games of the 2020/21 season, are the fifth team Vicens has managed since he started out as a coach a decade ago.
It has been quite the journey.
One which has seen him combine his football career with a high school teaching job, earn three degrees and turn down the chance to play for former City striker Adrian Heath…
Having enjoyed a promising youth career, there is no danger of Vicens being unable to appreciate the challenges facing his players.
A Balearic Islands native, he was an Under-18 Copa Del Rey finalist with the region’s most prominent team, Real Mallorca, where he spent six years in the academy after joining at under-14 level.
Vicens’ progress ended with the third team in 2002 and he embarked on a successful semi-professional career, playing for five teams and winning promotion on two occasions.
He combined this with higher education, studying for an economics degree at the University of the Balearic Islands, which inadvertently led him to work with Heath in the United States.
“I got the opportunity to go and do the final year of my degree in economics in the US, at the University of Texas in Austin,” Vicens explains.
“The university had a team and I started playing for them. I was lucky because at that time they were creating a new franchise in Austin, called the Austin Aztex. They saw me playing and signed me.
“We were in the third or fourth tier at the time. You have to buy a spot in a league in America, so initially they bought a spot in a lower league, but they had decided to go into the USL 1, the league below the MLS.
“Adrian Heath was deciding who was going to be in the team to compete in USL 1. He wasn’t the coach that season, he was just running the morning session and watching the games.
“Before coming back to Spain I had an interview with him and he offered me one year for the following season in USL 1, with an opportunity of a second year.
“I came back to Mallorca and said I needed to think about it. It was another year really far away from my family and after a period of time back home, I decided not to go back.”
Two years later, at the age of 27, Vicens had retired from playing, accepting a coaching job at eighth-tier CD Ses Salines after he was unable to fully recover from a knee injury.
It was a baptism of fire at ‘a club in a bad moment’, but the rookie manager led the team to back to back league titles before achieving a third promotion in his final season in charge.
Having proven himself in the technical area, Vicens was given the opportunity to jump up the Spanish football pyramid with fourth tier outfit, CE Santanyí.
Located in the south west of Mallorca, it was a club he knew well, having spent three years there as a player.
He had been successful, finishing second in the 2003/04 campaign and just four years later they lost out in a playoff to gain promotion to Segunda Division B – Spain’s third tier.
Times had changed, however, and Vicens entered a vastly different environment and one that would test even the most experienced of managers.
“The first thing I was given was a list of the players that were in the club the previous season, their phone number and how much we were paying them,” he recalls.
“I knew they were struggling financially but I didn’t know to what extent.
“The desire to be successful and be around a fourth-tier team attracted me so much that I didn’t care about that situation, but it was a nightmare.
“All the players that were involved the previous year were owed money for at least half the season, so nobody wanted to talk about the following season without getting paid. Only the captain renewed because he was from the town.
“I had to bring in players that were not at the level because we didn’t have too much money and there was also a concern that we would not be able to participate in the league because of the money we owed.
“We ended up having a really young team, players with no experience in that league and we struggled. In February we were almost relegated with 12 or 13 games to go. It was really tough.
“We managed to improve a lot and in the second part of the season, even when we knew we would be relegated, we competed really well.
“That’s why I got an offer to renew my contract for another season, in the league below, with the objective to come back up.”
With no other offers forthcoming Vicens decided to stay and set about overhauling the team that had been relegated.
He fell short of winning promotion at the first attempt – losing in the first round of the playoffs – and in his third season, he suffered the agonising fate of finishing second and losing in the playoff final.
But whilst CE Santanyí were not moving up, Vicens certainly was.
He had acquired his UEFA Pro Licence – the highest coaching qualification in professional football – whilst playing and impressed the course leader so much that prior to the 2015/16 season, he was recommended for a role in Segunda Division B.
Enticed by the opportunity of working with a higher calibre of player, Vicens took an assistant manager’s position at CD Llosetense – another underdog – who were preparing for their debut season in the third tier.
“In that league we faced Barcelona B, Espanyol B and Valencia B,” he explains. “It was a great experience, but we got relegated at the end.
“There are four regional groups at this level in Spain and out of the 80 teams in that league I think we had the lowest budget. But it was a really good experience and good exposure.
“The town was really involved so we had a really good crowd in every game. We had some players in the squad who had played occasionally in the first division, a lot in the second division and a lot in Segunda B, so the quality of the players I was coaching was really important.
“The head coach gave me a lot of responsibility. He was an old school coach who wanted me to do the daily work whilst he was in a more observational position making all the decisions.
“We got relegated but got renewed for the following season to try and get promoted, but we didn’t make it to the playoffs.”
It was there that Vicens’ journey through the Spanish lower leagues ended.
Throughout that period, he had had been required to supplement his salary by working as a high school economics teacher, but he longed to work in a more professional environment, where both he and his players could devote themselves to football.
“I got to the point before my last two seasons in Spain, where me and the players had to have an extra job to make a living and in my mind I had to get to an environment where it was almost fully professional.
“It’s hard to develop or to implement what you are trying to achieve because of schedules, because people are busy and can’t eat at the facilities. All these things are frustrating. I wanted to find a more professional environment.”
He found it with City in the summer of 2017.
A departure within the Academy set-up allowed him to begin a work experience role and he was later appointed assistant coach to the under-12s and under-13s.
But whilst he may have turned his back on education as a means of earning a living, it remained at the forefront of Vicens’ coaching plans.
The UEFA Pro Licence holder has added two further qualifications to his CV since 2018; a post-graduate degree in high performance football coaching from the University of Lisbon and a professional master’s degree from the education arm of FC Barcelona, the Barca Innovation Hub.
“The education for a coach never finishes and I’ve always been really interested in developing and learning,” he says.
It is an attitude which will serve him will in the under-18s, where developing players is his primary objective and so far, it has been a fruitful experience for the coach.
Vicens enjoyed a successful two-years as Taylor’s assistant, winning two Premier League Cups and the 2019/20 national title, but more importantly, seven of the players to have progressed through the under-18s in that time have gone on to make first team debuts.
Adrian Bernabe, Liam Delap, Tommy Doyle, Eric Garcia, Taylor Harwood-Bellis, Felix Nmecha and Cole Palmer were all coached by Vicens as scholars.
Now, in his new role as lead coach, he will look to develop the Club’s next generation of talent.