There’s a change in mood around the Oxford United camp as we wake up to our third day here in Portugal. Today is Game Day and everything we do is geared towards 6.30pm and kick off.
Breakfast is later than usual and then there is a team meeting where plans are laid out for tonight’s game against Middlesbrough. The two sides enjoyed a tremendous FA Cup game last season and this will be a big test for the U’s against a side dropping down into the Championship from the Premier League. The players head for the training pitch where they work on set pieces and team shape. Manager Pep Clotet wants some players to get 60 minutes tonight and then make changes for half an hour, then reverse the process on Saturday when we play Hull City.
While they train I lurk in reception waiting for James Henry to arrive from Gatwick. The former Wolves winger completed his transfer before flying out so all we are waiting for is pictures and interviews. He left home at 5am and hasn’t even taken his case to his room before we have him posing by the palm trees and announced to the world.
At 3pm we act as skirmishers when the media crew head for the Ferreiras Stadium with Mark The Kit Man. We have the warm up kit in the boot of our Fiat Punto alongside all the technical nonsense that we need to report on the game. The rest of the kit will come with the team bus in an hour’s time.
We lug the bags into the dressing room and set up both press box and changing area. There are already plenty of yellow shirts in the bars and cafes around the town as the fans start to filter out of Albufeira. There is a bit of a panic when no water is delivered to the dressing room but we make an emergency trolley dash to a nearby supermarket and all is set fair when the players arrive. One of the main things you want is a proper surface for these games and there are approving nods as both teams take a stroll around the excellent pitch. Pep Clotet chats happily with old friend Garry Monk and there are similar conversations between several players on both sides who have been teammates before.
It’s the same in the sweltering press box where I catch up with Paul Dews, Boro press officer. Football is a bubble and we have both been doing this a long time so arrangements and formalities don’t take too long and soon we are both out taking pictures of fans as they arrive. I have the more difficult task because yellow shirts outnumber red ones by about 10 to 1. Each year the numbers rise for this trip. I run into veterans of Austria including organiser Russ Bradbury who worked so hard to make that first European excursion a success and really laid the foundations for what has happened since. There are a lot more people here than went to Spain last year and everyone is loving their time in the Algarve.
I am in the sweat box press area by kick off, a greenhouse atop the third floor, and the players defy the heat to play at breakneck pace in an open game that ebbs and flows nicely. I wish I could get the video streaming back to the UK to either ebb or indeed flow because it’s not working and my twitter feed is full of angry non-viewers. Paul and I descend to express our displeasure with the production team and I think it’s fair to say we get our point across. The producer is a Swedish man in chinos and to be fair he IS trying hard to solve the problem so I feel a little sympathy for his situation, if not his choice of trouser.
I stomp back up the stairs just in time for the drinks break where the slightly bonkers PA announcer is pumping up the crowd with some bangers (as I believe the youth of today say). I ask if he’s got any Wedding Present but sadly not. Brexit can’t come quick enough.
Half time means pictures from stand-in photographer Simon Hathaway who does a great job with the pictures and I upload those during the second half while tweeting and writing the match report. This is by far my favourite part of the job and I am concentrating hard throughout the second period where the U’s are excellent. Young Malachi Napa is tearing past full backs and underlining the potential that saw him, sub Shandon Batiste and keeper Manny Agboola all offered their first professional contracts this summer. Aaron Martin does well on his return, Jon Obika impresses, Kane Hemmings never stops running
Sadly there are no goals for the fans to enjoy but the atmosphere is brilliant and at the final whistle the supporters, players and staff mingle on the pitch, laughing and forming bonds that will last all season. I am reunited with my son who has excelled. When asked by a street vendor if he would like a shirt he said yes, but insisted it had to be the one the vendor was wearing. And the trousers. He looks rather splendid in his floral garb, I must say, as we sit with my brother in law in the stand and lord it over the scenes below. The 50 or so Boro fans are bemused by what they are seeing. Their players mingle and chat to them briefly but other teams don’t do what we are doing here tonight.
It means I am neglecting my video editing duties though and by the time I finish it is gone ten and I have gone past the point of hungry. Dinner is crisps and beer back at the training base: the diet of kings. Another long day in the sun but Oxford United have something special out here, something that has grown almost organically and can’t be engineered. It’s a heady mix of sun cream and deep heat, a combination of holiday, serious football and team/ fan bonding. It is brilliant and a pleasure to be part of.