Guillem Balague’s face has become synonymous with football over the past two decades and more.
From being the leading LaLiga pundit for Sky Sports, to coverage of the Champions League, the World Cup and everything in between, the Spanish journalist is regularly seen casting his analysis on the biggest games and the most high-profile superstars on the grandest stages.
But perhaps where you would least expect to find him, is amongst the muck and nettles of English football’s non-league.
Yet there’s nowhere else he’d rather be.
“It’s the best thing I do,” he tells Mirror Football of his role as chairman of step five non-league club Biggleswade United, speaking from Tbilisi in Georgia.
When I call him, he’s just finished filming for an interview piece with the family of Napoli’s man of the moment, Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, including a look at his family home and where the winger goes back to when he’s not lighting up Serie A or the Champions League.
This is one side of life for Balague, who despite living in Barcelona since returning to his birthplace during the pandemic, spends every week travelling out on the road. But his attentions will soon turn to the night’s big match - not Manchester City ’s clash with RB Leipzig, but Biggleswade’s meeting at home to Tring Athletic.
Balague has been involved with the club, based in Bedfordshire, since 2014, before taking on the role of chairman in 2019, and still gets back to watch matches at least once a month. In that time he has helped build on the foundations already in place to what the club is now, two senior men’s and two senior women’s teams, as well as youth teams at various age groups and around 250 people - from parents to players to volunteers - now part of the fabric which keeps the club thriving.
But there have been some notable challenges along the way, and surviving in the lower rungs of the football pyramid does not get any easier.
“I’ve seen people crying, have insomnia because of it, stop eating," he reveals. "We all went through a really difficult patch. We all got closer as a consequence, but I’ve seen the love that people have for those clubs, it’s just huge.”
From a lack of facilities to being forced to change leagues, which resulted in a mass exodus of players and almost relegation - avoided only in the final 50 minutes on the final day, it’s been a testing time for Balague and Biggleswade United, not least through his duty of raising cash so the club can keep going.
“It’s the hardest job,” he admits. “I must raise money for a men’s side - there is quite a lot of people doing that - and it’s quite a lot of money you have to raise. It’s hard. At the moment it’s relatively easier, and that’s a credit to so many companies who are willing to help. I’ve struggled but so far it’s been very good.”
Naturally it helps to have a book of contacts like Balague’s, who has used his to great advantage.
“I do this thing which is partly naive but partly intentional of taking the shirt everywhere and if you go to the Hall of Fame in the clubhouse, you’ve got Pep Guardiola, Maradona, Messi, Ronaldinho, Xabi Alonso, Xavi, like 250 people of the highest calibre holding the Biggleswade United shirt.”
“We’ve been lucky from day one since when I first started,” he adds. “[Thanks to] my relationship with Messi, we got two years of free kit from Adidas including boots. Obviously that finished after two years but it was very generous of them. Every year we’ve managed to get people to back us up, and we’ve got to go out again and try to get budget for both teams for next season.”
Balague has ensured the club has been influenced heavily by the Spanish style of play, led by senior men’s head coach Cristian Colas, while a number of talented players have donned the club’s colours, including Braima Fati - the brother of Barcelona star Ansu - as well as ex-Rangers striker Nacho Novo and former Chelsea and Espanyol midfield Quique de Lucas.
The men’s first team are currently chasing promotion in the Spartan South Midlands Premier Division and enjoyed a run to the fourth round of the FA Vase this season, while the women’s first team are on course to go up this season, where they would be just one division from the National League.
But success on the pitch is not Balague’s sole ambition. “I’ve got an idea where we want to go,” he explains. “It’s not about how many divisions we can go up, it’s about finding a way to give the club 100 years more. Creating some kind of business around it, or maybe just having a new clubhouse, 3G pitch - that allows us to grow that way.
"We’ll never get to the [men’s] National League or anything like that - we’re volunteers, it requires professionalism. We approach everything very professionally but I don’t want to dedicate my life to raise money to pay players, but it means the club can go on for another 100 years.”
Doing so is not something he takes lightly, either, given how the cost-of-living crisis is impacting clubs all over the country after a Covid pandemic which put a number of them on the brink.
“We survived through it, like many others, but now it seems like it’s going to be a natural selection of clubs - if they're run well, they don’t overspend, if they don’t depend on one source of money like the rich guy and then it disappears. If you don’t fall for any of that then you’ll survive, but there are many on the edge,” Balague says. “That’s the kind of conversations we have every Saturday with people telling you how much they’re struggling. Really difficult.”
Balague concedes the FA and Football Foundation helped the club weather the Covid-shaped storm, though is yet to see the same input from those at the top of the pile.
"Every time the discussion is ‘will the money from the Premier League continuing being as good as it is?’ Is that good? I don’t see money anywhere. But it will be a good thing that they actually share their riches, we can all benefit, it will be nice.”
Non-league day offers clubs the opportunity to try and entice some new fans and bring more through the door without the distraction of many of the bigger clubs playing on the same day.
“For me it’s like Valentines Day - can it be non-league football day every day? That’s what I’m aiming for everybody to realise. We have to look after this community, clubs, whatever you want to call it.
“It’s not just money that I’m asking for but to protect them a little bit, to create conditions where we can continue doing this, to have enough facilities, to generally to understand - in a time when we’re individualising society - it’s a meeting place, a place to have collective joy and there is nothing like it.”
One of the obstacles facing Biggleswade United is the fact there are two other non-league clubs competing for the same supporters in Biggleswade Town and nearby Bedford-based side Biggleswade FC.
“I’ll say it, and if anybody wants to pick it up from there we’ll talk about it - it makes no sense having three teams in Biggleswade. It’s a place of about 30,000 people. Join forces. And I know there is a lot of bridges to build for that to happen.
"It would be a super club. But let’s say I’ve worked a bit in that direction but there doesn’t seem to be interest so we keep going and we just have to continue doing the things we’re doing and who knows in the future?”
For Balague, his aim is to convince people Biggleswade United can offer something different and is a club which “opens doors” for anyone to get involved.
“You see Pep Guardiola with the Biggleswade shirt or Maradona telling the story of Biggleswade - all that creates a feeling that’s special - and we’re not, we’re like other clubs but you create that aura and people want to be part of it.”
But for someone at the forefront of football on so many levels, it his passion for the people and community above all else that really shines through. “We all should be involved in grassroots clubs because the changing rooms are exactly the same wherever you look. Premier League, step five, men, women, there is the clever one, the jealous one, the funny one, amongst the players, you learn a lot.
"It’s just basically fulfilled that dream of learning, so much that can be applied to everything you do, you understand things much, much, much better, and I’ve been surprised by the love of the people for the clubs at this level.
“You don’t know about it so you don’t know they exist. I was an Espanyol fan, I still am. And Liverpool when I came to England in ’91. But honestly, I only have love for one club and that’s Biggleswade United. Nothing else matters on a match.”
Despite feeling every kick though, Balague admits it's not necessarily about the winning that draws him to Second Meadow on a Saturday afternoon. “I’ve never been in love with football - and I’ll never be in love with football," he continues. "It’s not football which makes me write books, or be in Biggleswade, or talk about ITV or CBS or whatever, it’s the people, it’s the stories. I’m a storyteller. And you cannot find as many stories as you find within football. The amount of people that get involved with us.
“Players can tell you 100 stories about who they are and where they come from, why they haven’t made it, why they stayed in these leagues, you learn from all of that. That’s what convinces me to keep going.
“It’s a project, it’s a labour of love, but there's nothing better than holding hands with a bunch of people, there’s nothing better.”