We follow the U's throughout pre-season
Tour Diary Part Two
Chris Williams continues to follows the U’s on tour
Thursday 11th July: Recovery Day
It was a late night. Deane Smalley’s goal against Alloa was cancelled out in the last minute of a 1-1 draw, after which I was editing and uploading video until gone midnight. I am a bit weary as we wolf down breakfast and head for the team hotel. The players have been staying at the Kings Manor hotel in Edinburgh, a fifteen minute drive from our base at the Laird and Dog in Lasswade. The squad are having breakfast when we arrive and the mood is surprisingly sombre. Then I remember: players play to win.
In my match report last night I wrote that the result was largely immaterial in a pre-season friendly, but here in the breakfast room the only sound is the crunch of cornflakes. I was wrong; the result did matter. Conceding a sloppy late goal, drawing a game they should have won, has irritated the players and the mood is down for the first time on what has so far been a very upbeat tour.
Deane Smalley, always positive, sits with me for an interview for Yellow Player, Jake Wright and Michael Raynes come for a chat. David Hunt, who has made a strong first impression, talks about the tour so far. All of them tell me how well the team has gelled together but that the aim has to be to win every game you play. There was no shouting or recrimination last night, and now you move on to the next game. Players don’t really sleep after any midweek game when the adrenaline is still pumping and the game replays in their heads so they are all glad to be down to breakfast early and ready for the day ahead.
Several players came through 90 minutes for the first time in pre-season at Alloa and they go to the pool for a swim and warm down. Those who were on the pitch for shorter periods take the minibuses down to the Peffermill training pitches for a hard session with Alasdair Lane, Andy Melville and Mickey Lewis.
I work through the morning and while I wait for Pritchard of the Mail to finish his musings I have a coffee in the hotel bar where Ashton Agar has just come in to bat for Australia. “It’s nearly all over” I tell Chris Wilder as he joins me to watch the end of the innings. The Manager loves his cricket; fellow Yorkshireman Michael Vaughan is a friend, and for an hour or so we chat freely while watching England toil to get the teenage number 11 out.
People often ask me what the manager is like, which is a slightly unfair question. Throughout the season he is consumed by a passion to win games. It is a hectic, frenzied weekly schedule and winning football matches is what drives him on. He is meticulous in his planning, thorough in his preparations and the hardest working manager I have worked with over the last decade. There is precious little time for us to waste once the season proper starts but when we do get to spend a bit of down time together he is good company. A committed family man, Chris has a dry sense of humour and as he sips a blackcurrant and lemonade he talks about the game last night, training, the season ahead, and the division we are in. He also chats freely about life outside football. Alloa annoyed him, obviously, but he has come to terms with the result and when Mickey comes to join us they spend an hour comparing notes, talking training and plotting and planning for the week ahead. Yesterday is gone.‘Win the Next game’ remains the mantra.
I leave them to their own devices and as I leave the hotel the players are jumping into taxis to go into the city itself. They have the afternoon off, their first chance to truly relax and go to explore. I must give special praise to Video Analyst Dan Bond. He and some of the coaching staff walk up to the magnificent castle. With stunning views across Edinburgh and a historic castle, he somehow chooses to have his photo taken with the blue plastic seats of the tattoo as the background. He may as well have stayed at the Kassam Stadium!
Friday 12th The Heat is On.
Back to Peffermill we go to watch and film another training session. I take the High Road, Pritchard takes the low road. The sun is unrelenting. The locals have been mystified by this . “I don’t think anyone in my street owns a pair of shorts” says one of the training ground staff, melting in his black jeans.
I find some shade and sit with Jon Meades who rolled his ankle yesterday and is sitting things out today as a precaution. Bright and easy going, Jon is great company and will be a major asset this season based on attitude and what I have seen in training and games.
The squad train hard in the sunshine in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat. Young defender Sam Long scores a worldy, which will shut his roommate Scott Davies up for all of ten minutes. Everyone looks relaxed and there are plenty of smiles as Mickey and Andy Melville draw events to a conclusion.
By mid-afternoon, work concluded, I venture into the city myself and mooch around among the tourists. I can handle about an hour of this before my capacity for stone walls and men dressed as William Wallace for tourists is exceeded. With time to kill we go to the Melville golf course, next to where we are staying and show off our skills. It is eventful. I surprise myself by driving on to the green on a 270 yard par four, scattering seagulls and the group ahead who wave merrily back down the fairway. (The golfers, not the seagulls, stupid). They look surprised, but not as startled as the gentleman in a Ford Mondeo on the A7 two minutes later. His trip home is interrupted by a bouncing golf ball narrowly missing his windshield as I slice a drive so badly that it clears a wire fence, several trees, a ditch and the central reservation. I am a natural sportsman.
Saturday 13th July: Matchday two
We drive south of the border again, enjoying the coastal views as we cover the 50 miles from Edinburgh to Berwick. With a population of around 15,000 Berwick is never going to house a huge football Stadium but Shielfields Park is just fine for their standing in the Scottish League. With a good sized main stand, several covered terraces which never quite match any of the others and very helpful friendly staff it is another welcoming club.
The pitch is a lush sea of green cast adrift in the middle of the speedway track, which will be in use this evening as Berwick take on Redcar. Oxford fans start to arrive: John Morris on his scooter, those that have stayed up for the week, those who have made the trip today. I talk to friends and family (my brother in law has made the trip) then settle into the press box for a rare game of commentary.
The game could not start much worse as United concede in the second minute. Even Berwick seem surprised to be winning but the U’s, again in their new-look kit, come back strong and should really be level at the break. Instead it takes a Sean Rigg strike and an Asa Hall penalty to give them a 2-1 win under the stubbornly grey Berwick skies. The rest of the nation scorched. We were not envious.
After the game we take our leave. The players will stay in Edinburgh until Monday, when they have a daunting trip to the dunes for one final fitness session. As usual there will be no complaints. “That’s one thing we learnt from watching Wigan Warriors and the Marine Camp” Jake Wright told me on Thursday. “There was no moaning, you just get on with it and stick together.” That attitude, allied to the fitness regime that now exists, is a great foundation for any successful side.
By 11pm I am home. To an empty house because they have all gone out. Hail the returning hero. Tired and slightly sunburnt I go straight to bed. It has been hard work this week but I am privileged to have been there and to be part of what I am convinced will be a successful season. My thanks to David Pritchard of the Oxford Mail. We covered over 1,000 miles, boiled and toiled in a car with no air con, fought against time and strived for communication connectivity but never once had a cross word or argument. Anyone who has spent any prolonged time with me will know that Dave therefore has the patience of a saint. Thanks also to Jennifer and everyone at the Laird and Dog in Lasswade, and to the staff and fans of Alloa Athletic and Berwick Rangers: good luck for the season ahead.
Follow Oxford United ‘On the Road’ throughout the season with Chris Williams’s away day reports in the Matchday Magazine.