And so it ends. A week in Portugal boils to a climax at the Ferreiras Stadium where we take on Championship side the Hull City Tigers.
We are part mediamobile, part kit van as we arrive at the ground around 4pm and set everything up. It’s slightly odd to be back so quickly at the same ground where we drew with Boro but nice to be familiar with the set up and an English guy called Gary who is brilliantly helpful, as have been all the organisers out here.
Hull arrive a little later and have brought along more fans than Boro did but they are still well under ten percent of the crowd. A handful in the main stand are very vocal when the teams come out, but are then drowned out by the yellow army who flourish from having someone to out-sing. It’s the best atmosphere of any of our European games since the #scenes at the end of a game in Wiener Neustadt. Pumped up by Luis the PA announcer who is a ball of Europop energy (and a thoroughly nice guy- he knows he is sending himself up) this is a great day.
The game does precisely what it says on the tin. United give those who didn’t start the other night a chance to impress today and they grasp their chance and play as though their lives depended on it. The report is HERE but is some ways the game itself is irrelevant.
There is a fine line on these European tours. Pep Clotet told me earlier in the week that the focus of everything has to be August 5th and the first game, away at Oldham. He is correct. To that end the week has been nothing but positive. I have seen every training session and the pace, intensity and work ethic have been incredible. I may have mentioned a couple of times that it is hot out here: to be working at this level in this heat is quite something.
But I think there are two other key elements that we needed to get right this week.
Firstly it was a chance for players, staff, directors and sponsors who have been staying with us and, most crucially, the fans to get to know the new Manager. I’ll let you in on a secret. A couple of days before we came away I had a quiet drink with Michael Appleton. We had worked closely together and we live three doors apart so it was just a chance to say cheers and good luck. I can categorically tell you that Michael only wants the best for the U’s and is willing the new man to do well. He is loving his time at Leicester and will be a massive success there, but wants United to build on his legacy.
Michael will always be welcome but he has moved on and after this week in Portugal it feels as though the club has too.
I had a quiet drink with Pep this week as well (I know, I know, I like a quiet beer. Deal with it). He is friendly, open, informative and astute. After the game tonight I asked him how he felt about the week and his reply was simple. “It has been unbelievable. The players, the staff: everyone has been so welcoming and I can’t thank them enough, especially the fans. It has been a great week and now I truly feel as though I belong to this very special club.”
Those fans have been a credit to the club. Each year we take more people on these trips and the locals seem astonished. I won’t embarrass them, but another club out here had FOUR fans at a game this week. We had more than that in our taxi home.
Purely my personal view, but for me this has been the best of all the pre-season tours; Boston, Scotland, Austria, Spain. There have been golf tournaments, five a sides, quizzes and untold bottles of cold Super Bock. Families have had holidays built around our fixtures, lifetime friendships have begun. What started by a lake in Austria has grown and flourished and achieved everything it set out to do. Great facilities, excellent training, happy fans and a golden yellow bond forged in the Algarve sun. Brilliant.
It has been a pleasure to be on this trip and I wanted to end with a few thank yous. Firstly to Paul Nagle and everyone at Colina Verde. We could not have asked for more helpful hosts. Secondly to the staff, players and rest of the touring party who created such memories. My thanks also to Simon Hathaway who has stood in as a photographer and baked behind the goal rather than sipping beer in the stand. Kath Faulkner has played a blinder, as have Dave Pritchard and Jerome Sale of the Oxford Mail and BBC Oxford who have let me sleep on their sofa and eat a lot of crisps.
One last time: this is NOT a holiday. We have worked 15 hour days every day, but that is the norm. Everyone on this trip has worked tirelessly for the greater good. We are Oxford United; that’s what we do, and we have loved every minute of it.
Thank you Portugal. Obrigado.