Thursday and Friday encapsulated in the final instalment from Austria
For the last two days the main stories coming out of this Austrian training camp have revolved around the players and fans being united at both Tuesday’s game and Wednesday’s open training session and barbecue. Today is different. Today is all about the players.
Breakfast is at 8.30 and the United players take in plenty of fuel for the day ahead. We have been sharing the training camp with the Austrian national men’s volleyball squad and they are giants. Very polite giants, admittedly, but they tower over the footballers as both squads queue for food. The staff table is depleted because coaches Derek Fazackerley and Chris Allen are already out on the pitches marking their territory for training. Fitness guru Scott Daly has a coned-off area for the warm up and keeper coach Wayne Brown is watering the goalmouth (with a hose, rather than a euphemism).
Browny has been exceptional this week. Because Max Crocombe was with the New Zealand squad and missed this trip, Browny has stood in for every training session. Today he supervises Sam Slocombe’s workout and is then in goal at one end when needed. He still looks as though he could play on but is adamant that his match gloves are now hung up for good. “I got up from one save and everything was spinning,” he jokes later.
The morning session is a gruelling 90 minutes by anyone’s standard. As with Monday’s very first session, this one sees plenty of running but also plenty of ball work. There are brief respites for water breaks – essential as the sun beats down on the lush Austrian turf – but the chirp and banter of breakfast has long gone and the players toil away, with Michael Appleton watching every move like a hawk.
Lunch is a simple one again, plenty of carbs and flagons of iced water gratefully gulped. The sessions have been carefully thought through and are early morning and late afternoon to avoid the midday sun. The players head for the calm of their rooms for a siesta while the media team take on the physio team at tennis. Played indoors in a tin shed we seem to have invented Sauna Tennis. We hunt for the air-con controls but only manage to turn on piped music so the game is played to the tune of Taylor Swift. The media team are thrashed, something we will find hard to shake off.
Tennis bandit Andrew Proctor is happy because so far, touch wood, there have been no injuries for him to deal with. The massive array of medical supplies he brought with him has gone largely untouched, with only George Baldock nursing a slight ankle injury after Tuesday’s 0-0 draw with Wiener Neustadt.
Baldock is OK to join in some of the exercises at the afternoon session, but sits out some of the more strenuous ones as the players gurn and grimace in another 90 minutes' work out. I’m knackered and I’m only sitting to watch. With a Cornetto, just to annoy them.
I do a couple of interviews and then fail to get the Austrian volleyball team to take us on at head tennis on the nearby beach volleyball court. ‘Procs’ uses the sandpit to put on a strange warm-down session, with the players hopping in the sand like eight-year-olds trying to walk back up a pebble beach.
It has been physically draining and dinner is a quiet affair. Callum O’Dowda and Danny Rose pop in to our room to start putting together ‘Rosie’s Diary’ for Yellow Player. He has got some great clips and we piece it together into a rough order. It will take a couple of days to complete but looks great so far.
We then have dinner before the much-anticipated Dan Bond Quiz Night. Our video analyst enters to his own theme tune, even if he is singing it himself, and then starts firing out three rounds of questions. The general ratio is one question from Bond to three volleys of abuse from the audience. Our team of Williams, Pritchard, Mullins, Dunkley, Roberts and Hoban is storming the leader board. “Mercury,” whispers a beaming Mullins to an astronomy question “I’ve been helping my girls with their homework,” he confides. Dunkley throws in some shrewd answers, Hoban is an expert in the football round, even if he does whisper ‘Andy Cole’ to every question, while Roberts knows the capital of Uruguay is Montevideo. Another team write down Suarez…
Bond is struggling. He is shouted down over the oldest motorway in the UK with three Prestonians in one team furious with his southern bias. But there is worse to come. Our team are streets ahead when the final round comes. It is a Question of Sport style Captain’s Challenge where the rest of the team guess a sports word from the Captain’s clues. This is fine and with eight needed to win we are cruising until Mullins starts giving curiously familiar clues. The room is in uproar as Bond’s Powerpoint presentation goes round for the second time that night! Not enough questions have been prepared and it is a farce. Nobody seems to care, everyone is in hysterics and we retire to the dining room for one last get together. Bond comes in with no theme tune this time.
The players refuel with huge bowls of cereal while the staff have a cold beer and darkly mutter ‘M6’ at every opportunity. Unbelievably, at 10.30pm everyone goes to bed. It may be the last night here but they are all so drained that they need their beds. I raise a glass to their efforts and retire to the media room to sleep like a log.
The wi-fi is so poor when the players are all on it that I need to get up before them to upload videos. This morning I am up at 5.45 to put up interviews recorded last night. At 10am there is one final training session for the players, who are remarkably revived as they trot out into the sun for the hottest day of the entire week. They are a resilient bunch and have forged a fierce work ethic this week. New boys have been welcomed and have slotted in seamlessly. Skipper Jake Wright is integral to this, ensuring that the young lads and the new signings are all OK. Alex MacDonald is another who buzzes around the place and pulls the whole thing together, while Mullins is always on hand for a wind up, usually of Hylton or Hoban. Joe Skarz, Austrian by descent, seems right at home but he is not the only one.
At lunchtime the coach returns and we are off. We have two hours in Vienna before we fly back to the UK, arriving back in Oxford around midnight. It’s a weekend off to recharge the batteries and the players are going to need it. They have worked amazingly hard and done so knowing that it is miles in the bank for the challenges that lie ahead. Next week we swap Austria and Vienna for Woking and Eastleigh but we do so after an extraordinary week for the fans, the players and the staff. To have been in the epicentre of it all has been unforgettable and a privilege. Let’s get on that plane and back to the real stuff. Upwards and onwards.