Matchday and Fan day as the U's continue pre-season training camp
Austrian Diary Part Two
Tuesday 14th July
Head shaved, game face on. There is a different vibe around the training camp this morning. Nothing you can put your finger on but everyone is maybe one per cent quieter because it is matchday and they need to gear up in the right way. Steve the Kit Man is organising training kit and then match kit, Derek Fazackerley is quietly cursing a malfunctioning marker pen as he sets out the set plays, video analyst Dan Bond is checking equipment and plotting what needs to be clipped.
Michael Appleton oversees the process and is very much the man in charge. His job becomes harder with each pre-season game; the expectations grow, the season draws closer and those carefully drawn up plans edge ever closer to reality. His opposite number, Gunther, is in the same hotel as us and is going through the same process. His season starts on Friday with a cup game so for him tonight is a last chance to fine tune his new squad. Fourteen players left this summer after relegation from the top division, so he has a young team to work with.
Mid-morning sees a light training session for the U’s and a media team tennis tournament in which Jerome Sale of BBC Oxford proves unbeatable. Chairman Darryl Eales and Chief Exec Mark Ashton arrive and before you know it I am in the first car to the stadium. Russ Bradbury, Oxford fan and Wiener Neustadt coach, ferries the media and the huge bags of kit to the ground, where Steve and Bondy start setting up the blue-and-white-striped changing room. I dump my own bags and jump back into the car for the short drive to the town centre, where the fun really begins…
We go to Clumsy’s English bar and set things up then Joe Nicholls, one of the Yellow Army and the palest man in Austria, and I grab armfuls of the yellow t-shirts that are being given to every fan out here. As we turn into the square I can’t help a massive grin spreading across my face. The Oxford fans are here in force, packing the town square and soaking up the sun outside the Elit bar. They spot us coming and I get a chorus of ‘he’s one of our own’ which makes me blush but also very proud because I AM part of this barmy army; in this group alone I spot neighbours, friends, former colleagues, people I stood on the terraces with, my brother-in-law and my son (who sensibly tries to hide under the table after I give him a huge hug).
We dish out shirts and lead people to Clumsy’s where the Milk Cup final is on the TV and the singing is under way. I stand outside for a while and wave fans in to the bar. The faces of the locals are a picture as their quiet town becomes a sea of yellow. Bars don’t usually open on a Tuesday so this is something extraordinary.
Kick-off is approaching and I need to go back to the ground so I leave the fun and make the 20-minute walk. Darryl and Mark are coming the other way, ready to join the fans for a pre-match beer. Back at Stadium SC Wiener Neustadt the players are out on the pitch. Didcot on Saturday saw everyone get 45 minutes. Tonight the changes will be at the hour mark so competition for places becomes that bit tougher. I leave them to it and set my own equipment before chatting to the fans as they start to filter in. Flags are tied, t-shirts are pulled on, smiles are obligatory.
The home fans are bemused. This is a pre-season friendly but they are outnumbered as the ground turns yellow. Imagine the surprise they get when the entire stand is filled with a billowing cloud of yellow smoke when the two teams appear. Flares are illegal at UK games and the fans who set them off tonight are fully aware of that, but this feels continental. Mind you, I’m on the pitch rather than coughing my guts up in the middle of it. I run round the pitch to get back to the stand and pass the Chairman and Chief Exec right in the middle of the fans!
The game itself is tough, competitive and an excellent work out, but is almost secondary because this is all about the fans. They sing, they chant, they munch fantastic hot dogs and drink lovely cold beer. And when the game ends the players run to them, throw shirts into the crowd and there are SCENES. The stand is awash with smiles, flags and flashing cameras. Danny Hylton has a bucket hat on, Johnny Mullins looks astonished, George Baldock is taking selfies to show his family.
I find myself next to Wiener boss Gunther. “I think in all of Europe this behaviour is not normal in pre-season,” he says with a smile. Two of his team go to the English fans and applaud their efforts. Oxford fans linger near the bar and talk to players from both sides for half an hour.
Light fades and everyone heads for Clumsy’s. The entire Oxford contingent join as one: players, staff, management and supporters laughing and joking. Kemar Roofe leads his own song while Danny Hylton tries to persuade fans to change the words to 'The Hylts is on fire'. Young Robbie Cundy gets a song of his own. Videos go viral and the party lasts long into the night.
Meanwhile, back at the ground I am among the last to leave. The lights went out long ago and I type by torchlight as interviews go up and pictures are downloaded from local photographer Gerhard Seeger, who has done a great job in capturing the day. Finally finished I slip away into the darkness after a night nobody here will ever forget.
It’s a morning off for the players who have worked very hard and deserved a beer or two after the game last night. By lunch time there are fans starting to arrive for an open training session that starts at 2pm. Gradually taxis become more frequent. Oh wow. Again. I was expecting maybe 20 fans and there are over 50 here. Unbelievable.
They sit against a wire mesh fence and watch a full training session. There are a few sore heads after the night before. Among the fans too. It’s another hot day and the session is only a light one but it ends with players and fans mixed once more. Callum O’Dowda organises a penalty shoot-out between players and fans. He doesn’t save a single one but somehow his team win. Go figure.
I have somehow been designated as tour leader and so the fans follow me on a 15-minute walk to a nearby lake where we are to have a barbecue. We arrive 35 minutes later and I manage to lead the entire tour into the hotel kitchen. It’s like Spinal Tap trying to find the stage. With a swift reverse and a lot of trying of handles we finally emerge into the sunshine to become reunited with the rest of the group who got lifts here. Or walked the right way.
We paddle in the crystal-clear water, relax on the jetty or sit in the shade. It is a beautiful location and we are soon joined by the players and staff. The food is fantastic and there is yet another brilliant gesture when the Chairman and Yellow Army combine to pay for the whole thing for the fans. There is a game of cricket in which Patrick Hoban turns into Eoin Morgan until he slices a drive into a gorse bush off the hostile bowling of Johnny Mullins. Hitting the ball in the lake is out, everyone knows that, but the lost ball rule is not applied here and the game continues with me giving a wonderful display of clean hitting that has the crowd enthralled. Probably. Most of them took no notice.
A group picture, then people start to book taxis. There are handshakes and hugs. “Made me so proud of the club,” one long-time supporter tells me. I imagine he is talking about my batting. I wave my son off and he wobbles away with a beer in his hand. I am so proud. Not just of him, but also of what has happened over the last 24 hours. #Together has never been better illustrated.
Night falls and the management staff enjoy a quiet beer on the restaurant balcony. The lake fades to black, the stars shine above and there are still two fans in the middle of our group. It has been that sort of day.