Chris Williams looks behind the scenes as United start their Spanish training camp
Sunday 10th July
I am very privileged to have travelled the world with Oxford United. Austria, Boston (both versions), Solihull: you name it I’ve misspelt things there.
Pre-season follows a familiar pattern. New faces, plenty of running, plenty of team bonding and for the last few years some warm weather training camps. Here I am at Birmingham International Airport waiting to board a Monarch flight for Malaga. We are heading for the rather splendid La Cala resort and two games backed by the brilliant Yellow Army.
Here are a few of them now, staring slightly wide-eyed at the players who are boarding the same flight. Only one of the fans with us went to Austria last year, his three travelling companions are new to this sort of away day but they sit behind me on the plane and chat excitedly about the season just gone- one of the best ever for Oxford fans- and what lies ahead.
I am not a very good flyer but I hide it well by gripping the handrest on one side and Miles Welch-Hayes on the other. As a first year pro he probably thinks this is how it always is. Once we are airborne I regale him with some classic press officer bantz. He sticks earphones on and falls asleep. Two rows in front, the rest of the media team are doing a spot of bonding with the other players. Friendships are made and bridges built on this sort of trip, not just between the players.
Towards the front sits Jonty Castle, Head of Football Operation, taking charge of the logistics of transporting a football club across half a continent. He won’t relax until the last of us has our room keys and is safely counted in. I say a whole club but not all of the party are travelling with us. Kit man Mark Jarrett is somewhere off Santander on a ferry with the kit and equipment. He set off 36 hours ago and still has another 12 to go. Luckily he has Joe Nicholls with him for bantz and entertainment. Both have been terribly sea sick. The miles must just fly past.
Our plane touches down and we form an orderly queue at passport control. This takes forever and means we are going to miss at least the first half of the Euro 2016 final. Phones beep and people check the scores. Andy Murray has won Wimbledon while we were in the air. He is British for another year.
A short coach drive brings us up the steep slope to La Cala where we all nod approvingly in Jonty’s direction. Modern, spacious and posh, this is going to do us nicely. Birmingham were here last week, Kilmarnock before, Benji has been here with Lichtenstein, Aaron Martin with Palace. They are used to dealing with football clubs, have the staff and facilities to make it truly work and this promises much for the week ahead.
I’m sharing with John ‘Spike’ Elliott tonight so we throw our bags in to the room and rush for the dining room for sandwiches and extra time as Ronaldo wins the Euros topless. It is thirsty work so after dinner the staff have a quiet beer by the fountains in the heart of the resort. Chairman Darryl Eales has arrived and there is a real togetherness as plans are finalised for the week ahead. The scene is punctuated by updates on the missing kit van. It’s all about solidarity so we resolve to stay up until Mark gets here. It’s 3am when we give the travellers a well-deserved guard of honour – the bar closed two hours ago but we don’t need beer to enjoy ourselves. Much.
In bed at 3.30, the entire crew are up and set for the day by 7.30. Nobody moans, everyone knows their roles and Mark and Spike have already set the kit out for the first training session of the day. In sweltering heat, even at 9am, the players toil and perspire as they get the journey out of their legs. It looks hard work from under this tree, I can tell you. But even the youngest pros know they are in for a far tougher session when the sun sets this evening and the running really starts to push them.
The media posse are relocating to a house a mile up the hill this afternoon so we write, edit, file reports and act busy in the shade while the players rest by the pool. Michael Appleton has booked individual time slots for each of them to discuss the season and what he expects, and those carry on while others sip water and try and find some shade. Ryan Taylor and John Lundstram do their very best to avoid any sunshine at all but others lap it up and all is well with the world.
After a nutritious tea of Doritos and toast I settle in reception to write this. A day and a half in and the new players are settling nicely. There are no cliques, just a group of young men getting ready for a new start and a new era. Tomorrow we play our first game, with a new kit, new tans, and a new captain. But more of that in our next instalment. Head burnt. Game face on. #positivevibez.