For many of us, including myself, we think we know our football club pretty well. In reality, we actually know very little. All we see are the results of the signings, the training and all the elements that knit together on a matchday. We judge them from result to result, for good or for bad.
The fortunate season-ticket holders who sold their souls in time for this opening training session, who were available on this sunny day in August and were not required to go to school, were lucky enough to witness a very rare thing indeed. Maybe this will be a thing going forward; it certainly seems like a mutual winner on paper. What’s not to love?
And it’s that love which has been sorely missing of late. With the off-field shenanigans taking more of a centre stage than we would want, and a disconnect between the players and the fans that has had several shades of ugliness about it, we’ve needed to build on the more adult bonding sessions of the evening at the Purple Turtle and so here we are.
On a matchday we are used to seeing the first team and substitutes run out in their numbers. For this training session it seemed like we had twice as many take to the field at once. A horde of red (still feels weird) shirts ran towards the SJM Stand. As per usual, the fans applauded en masse.
The first thing to note was that right up front in the throng were Andy Carroll and Nesta Guinness-Walker. Accidental? Deliberate? Who’s to tell? Tom Holmes was also there but not so prominent.
The main group took to jogging on the hallowed turf, followed by some light stretches that would kill us mere mortals. Aside from that group, the goalkeepers did their own thing. David Button, Coniah Boyce-Clarke, Dean Bouzanis and… Joel Pereira? A name that we thought was long gone but is still around. Maybe he’s just here to get fitness? Maybe we’re waiting to offload Bouzanis first? We shall see.
Next came the most eye-opening, jaw-dropping section of training. The press: the one key element of SellesBall. Imagine if you will, a triangle of players, six or so in each. The ball was launched towards one of the groups, three players from an adjacent triangle pressed towards the ball at pace. When the ball was won or played out of bounds the ball was then launched to another group. Three players from the group which had previously had the ball pressed towards the next group.
Rinse and repeat for about seven or eight minutes at speed, continuously with Selles barking “FASTER, FASTER” at each introduction of a phase and rotation of players. If you looked at this from a drone, top down, all you would see is a blur of players frantically chasing the ball as if it were prey. Some were amazing at it (Amadou Mbengue), some (Andy Carroll) not so much, but the effort was there. Nobody phoned it in, nobody said “nah, not for me, that’s for the young lads to do”.
In a strange way, watching it reminded me of when I played football in the park with my mates: everyone going for the ball at the same time, structureless and free! Now it’s one of the main tactics in obtaining possession deep into the opposition half in the professional game! Except that, in the park, it could end with a bit of a punch-up or someone taking the ball home to go for their tea.
At this point I felt I had a better appreciation of what was meant by being “weeks behind” in training. The press training requires a lot of energy for players to continually keep going, keep pressing, to the next group, then the next, and so on. These little sessions of short sprints, in essence, were sure to build up the required strength in time, but when that intensity isn’t there to start with it will take a long time to build up. If this group isn’t ready now then I cannot imagine what being “fully fit” looks like. Seeing these men homing in at a frightening pace was a heck of a sight.
After that the pace slowed a little when they played more passing drills, but closing down was still the order of the day. Nobody sat off or was allowed to; the man with the ball had to pass it off quickly to a neighbour or be snaffled by a marauding bib. This is where the precious commodity of a “good first touch” came in. Whether by instruction or design, it was hard to tell: when the ball was with a player they rarely had more than one or two touches before offloading the ball elsewhere. Again, the speed at which this happened was not something we usually see on any given Saturday.
Another break followed with yet more water taken on board. They must get through a phenomenal amount of water in a week, let me tell you, cases of the stuff! Meanwhile, Harvey Knibbs signed a neverending stream of autographs. His eye injury inflicted at the weekend still must be a bother.
The last eye-catching session took place between the two 18-yard boxes but with three mini-sized goals, no higher than your knee, placed at each end of this shortened zone. The aim was to pass the ball around and to try and score in these mini-goals. Way easier said than done. At this point it seemed to be 10-a-side - it was difficult to tell in such a small area!
Lastly, the mini-goals were removed for the usual-sized goals and the lonely goalkeepers were brought back into the fold. The teams went a little something like this (maybe, don’t come for me!).
Button (Pereira), Yiadom, Bindon, Dean, Carson, Savage, Mukairu, Elliott, Vickers, Carroll
Boyce-Clarke (Bouzanis), Mbengue, Guinness-Walker, Hutchinson, Dorsett, Rushesha, Senga, Azeez, Ehibatiomhan
I might have missed one or two there as it was all a bit of a scrum! Taking notes and watching at the same time is not one of my strong suits!
And that was that. Training was over. By this time, other players came into view that did not train: Lewis Wing, Sam Smith and… Ovie Ejaria!
They all gravitated to the Eamonn Dolan/SJM corner and proceeded to have selfies and sign autographs with fans. Seeing Ovie on the pitch again excited me and the fans. He seemed to be a very happy participant, no moods and no (obvious) injuries. In a very brief moment I asked him how he was, he said he was “feeling good” and that he’d be “back soon”.
The remaining players that had trained started their duties at the Club 1871/SJM corner, while Ruben cheated and started in the middle. He signed my shirt. Happy birthday (in two days’ time) to me!
Overall, this was a very worthwhile experience. The fans felt closer to their heroes, the younger contingent had new favourites who signed their books or shirts, had selfies taken, or all three. For the older fans it was good to see everyone fit and able (only Nelson Abbey seemed to be missing by my count, but he was there at the end for the pleasantries (I have a selfie, I am living proof!)).
And for the more tactically minded, it provided a valuable insight into what Selles demands from his players, what they have to do, how fit they have to be and what it takes to build this pressing monster of a machine, from the defenders to the strikers.
The players seemed happy, even the likes of Ejaria, Carroll and Holmes. The group seemed entirely united and have bought into the new ideas that Selles has introduced, to a man.
The togetherness we all want is coming back. Events like this can only help that bond grow, especially with the future generation of fans, both boys and girls. Everyone was… impressed. Everyone loved that.