Chris Williams follows the U's on the road to Scotland
Tour Diary Part One
Monday 8th July: Departures
After two weeks of pre-season, a trip to Wigan Warriors, a Marine Camp and many days of intensive training, today the squad set off for Scotland. A 2-1 win at Ardley on Saturday was a good start to the matches and the U’s now face games at Alloa and Berwick. I have been labelling it a tour of Scotland but Berwick is on the southern side of Hadrian’s Wall so my fledgling career in cartography looks to be over. Shame as I had it all mapped out.
Some of the squad have flown up to Edinburgh but at the Kassam Stadium there is a flurry of activity this morning as bags are hoisted into the two minibuses. Blue and black Nike holdalls burst at the seams with cones, bibs, balls, kit, boots and other essential equipment. Physio Andy Lord loads a cottage hospital’s worth of medical equipment into one minibus and then they are off. Mickey Lewis waves merrily as he leads the small convoy out of the car park. Six hours later I call him to check their progress. “We’re going well. Another hour and three quarters,” he tells me. Oh the glamour of professional football.
Striker Ty Marsh had a small accident on the way home to Bedford on Saturday; nothing to worry about, just someone running into the back of his car at a roundabout, but enough for him to need to stay behind to be assessed. He trains with the youth team and is fine, so we make arrangements for him to travel with us tomorrow. Lucky old him.
Tuesday 9th: The Long and Winding Road
Dave ‘Scoop’ Pritchard of the Mail is my chauffeur (that’s ‘scoop’ in the dog-walking sense rather than his nose for a story). I wave goodbye to my loved ones, then the wife, and we set off at 9.30am. Ty is at Cherwell Services thanks to Chris Allen’s minibus delivery service. He graciously allows me to load his bags into our car and we are off.
By Birmingham we are in good spirits. Stoke potters past in the summer sun, and it is only when the air con stops working around Manchester that we start to wilt. It is 30 degrees outside, or 130 degrees in our car. We are melting, fortified only by a bag of wine gums and my merry banter. They both want to kill me by the time we reach Lancaster.
After four hours we stop at the services in the Lake District. “I have been looking at my phone,” says Ty. “STOP. Please don’t tell me how much longer we have to spend in the Four-Wheeled Sauna,” I plead. “Okay,” says a smiling Ty. “But it’s still three hours.”
Our striking sensation falls asleep as we cross the border, missing stunning scenery and the last of the wine gums. He wakes just as we pull in to the hotel where the players are staying, near Portobello. It is a nice place and they all seem in good spirits. “They have been great,” says the receptionist, “although I feel a bit sorry for the lad on crutches.” I usher Pritchard away hoping that he didn’t hear.
We stay at a superb B&B in Lasswade, a few miles from Edinburgh. It has been a long day and I sleep the sleep of the dead.
Wednesday 10th Alloa Allo, Oxford are back
Game face on. We join up with the squad at Peffermill in the morning, a fantastic sports complex which once served Hearts and Hibs as training grounds. Not at the same time we hope. There are 3G pitches aplenty, teams training for football and hockey and, out on a pitch in the milky sunshine, we find the mighty U’s.
While we were travelling yesterday the squad went through two very hard sessions here in the scorching heat. It was gruelling but today they train beneath grey Scottish skies. An hour of short, sharp work is enough to loosen legs ahead of tonight’s game. Matt Heath, on trial, sits it out with his ankle iced. Terrible timing for any player but especially for our very likeable triallist.
The players rest up for the afternoon, many watching the Ashes or having a snooze. Hyper-active Scott Davies is now officially deputy press officer and entertains the world with tweets throughout the day. Poor Sam Long, his room-mate, is having a tough introduction to life as a pro.
At 4.30 we head for Alloa, an hour’s drive north west of the capital. ‘The Wasps’ have won two promotions in a row and have a reputation as a good footballing side under manager Paul Hartley. We cross the Forth Bridge and drive through the rolling hills to reach Recreation Park. It is a neat ground packed full with character. And characters. The staff are extremely welcoming and seem surprised when the first of around 30 travelling Oxford fans emerge from the KFC next door.
I am always amazed at the lengths that our fans will go to follow the U’s. I chat to them, take pictures and discuss their journeys. Most are staying until the Berwick game. That’s dedication.
The game itself is tactical rather than thrilling. United take the lead through Deane Smalley’s second goal of pre-season and then hold the Wasps at arm’s length. They swarm around in front of the seemingly
impregnable Raynes/Wright combination playing good passing football on the 3G pitch but rarely testing Ryan Clarke. Ironically, after all the pass-and-move football it is a simple long ball in the 90th minute that gets them an equaliser as Eddie Fearns rounds Clarke and taps the ball home.
No great drama in an away draw and some excellent performances to look back at. This is a very together United squad where firm friendships have been formed already. They are clearly disappointed to have conceded a goal and not to win the match but come May the result will be immaterial. (I think this thought but don’t dare say it around the players who are natural-born winners and play to win every time. Intimidated? Me? Yep).
They pile into minibuses and head for their hotel while we use the wi-fi at a 24-hour McDonalds next to the ground to file reports and videos. A long day ends at midnight. Tomorrow will be a combination of training for those who didn’t play for long tonight and a recovery day for those who played most of the game. Half-way through the tour and nothing but positive signs so far.
Earlier I spoke to captain Jake Wright and he was full of enthusiasm for the way the new lads have fitted in and the younger players have adjusted to life as pros. It is not just lip service either. Being around the squad you sense a togetherness. Players like David Hunt and Tom Newey are seasoned pros but also top men to have around. Dave Kitson has impressed in both games so far; Danny Rose and Jon Meades are intelligent young men who just happen to be very good footballers. There is a long way to go but ‘United We Stand’ seems very apt . It is not just me in my Alloa McDonalds who has a hunger.
COMING NEXT: Part two of the tour diary will look at two training sessions and the preparations for Saturday’s game at Berwick.