An inside look at a return to training
Digital Content Manager Ross Jeavons reports from the opening day of pre-season
Whether it’s a quick glance at our social media outlets, or witnessing the hubbub of the ticket office – it’s not hard to see that excitement is building amongst supporters ahead of the new campaign. That buzz is certainly shared by staff behind the scenes.
Madejski Stadium has been a hive of activity in recent weeks, with pre-season preparations now in full swing, and our curtain raiser with Ipswich seemed a step closer for me as I took a trip to the squad’s Midlands training camp on Friday morning. Unfortunately a beautiful weekend of weather hadn’t quite kicked in at that stage, so waterproofs were the order of the day for club photographer Jason Dawson and I as we arrived at what was clearly a top drawer facility.
With new signings Danny Williams and Royston Drenthe involved for the first time, it was a perfect opportunity to capture them in action – whilst of course catching up with some more familiar faces. First to greet us is Nick Blackman, who is as friendly as ever as he discusses his recent venture into the world of Twitter, before heading into ‘prehab’ with the rest of the squad – limbering up in the gym prior to two intense training sessions out on the grass. This gives us ten minutes to set up tripods and get the cameras rolling, before that familiar sound of stud on concrete emerges from the changing room. You’ve got to know where your video gold is coming from on these occasions; media shy Jimmy Kebe flashes a knowing smile before covering his face, whilst Sean Morrison puts on a show as usual - giving a brief glimpse into his seemingly endless repertoire of questionable dance moves.
I’ve covered training many, many times over the years – yet it never ceases to be a privilege to see professional football in such close proximity, and to take a glimpse into coaching methods which are clearly perfected at the highest level. The outfield players begin with cardiovascular work, with some initial jogging leading into some more intensive shuttle runs. Drenthe chats with Head of Sports Science Karl Halabi as he is put through his paces, pausing only to exchange a joke with Pavel Pogrebnyak in the giant striker’s native Russian tongue – the odd phrase clearly picked up during his time with Alania Vladikavkaz.
Nigel Adkins and Assistant Andy Crosby are heavily involved, and players are urged to exhibit meticulous body language to match their core fitness; heads are constantly up and as ever positivity is a thread that runs all the way through the day. Professionals from years gone by will tell you that footballs were not a familiar site in the early stages of pre-season preparations, but times have moved on – and soon the players are given a chance to showcase their skills with the ball at their feet.
Many football fans will already be aware of Adkins' easy-on-the-eye footballing philosophy, and this is where it all stems from – as four separate drills are implemented. The players now split into groups, rotating around the various exercises – focussing on first touch, movement, passing and finishing. Everyone is hugely vocal, the noise echoes around the nearby fields and every cycle seems to be more intense than the last. A pass to the left, three deft touches, an intricate clip down the wing, a first time cross and a first time finish. Over and over again it’s repeated, centre backs and centre forwards required to perform each duty – nobody’s technique going untested.
During a well-earned period of respite the attention unfortunately switches to myself – and more specifically my waterproof jacket, which although highly practical is admittedly not threatening to crash the world of high fashion. Jobi McAnuff enquires if a fishing trip was planned this afternoon, whilst Messrs Karacan and D’Ath are equally scathing about what I initially felt to be a rather fetching blue number. As ever, smiles seem to be on everyone’s faces – and as the session draws to a close there’s a chance to grab more of an in depth catch up. The manager, of course, is at the forefront of this friendly ethos – as he talks us through the facility.
He’s clearly delighted with the set-up; pitches, beds, mattresses, food….it’s all important to him, and it would seem all boxes have been ticked on this occasion. There’s a chance for players to recuperate in the pool and grab some lunch ahead of the day’s second session, but for us it’s time to edit the videos and photos collated earlier – a task that is proving difficult in the bustling hotel lobby. As ever the club captain is alert to any issue, and throws us his room key. “Take as long as you want.”
When people ask what the players are like at Reading Football Club, sometimes it’s tough to get across that in singing their praises - you’re not just towing the party line. In our recent documentary “Build Evolve Succeed”, currently rapidly gathering hits on YouTube, there’s a typically frank interview with young midfielder Hope Akpan – as he reflects on his initial few months at Hogwood Park.
“In interviews that’s what you expect us to say - ‘everyone’s a good lad’,” he muses. “But here, I’ve never seen anything like it. The lads are top notch. Just honest, down to earth hard working players.”
I guess you have to be involved to see it first hand, and to realise that no spin doctoring is needed. As Jason and I spend an afternoon splicing, chopping and shaping the digital story of the day – Jobi and his roommate Mikele Leigertwood are as engaging as ever. Both have recently become fathers, the Jamaican for the first time and ‘Ledge’ enjoying the joys of his second child. The pride is clear to see as they swap stories, though as ever Reading’s number 11 has his metaphorical captain’s armband on – as he vows to investigate childcare facilities for the squad on a matchday. With Adam Federici having also joined the baby boom this summer, the future could be bright for the Royals side of 2030…
These two pretty much epitomise what the squad has been about over the last few years. Both have clearly had an impact on the pitch, but off it, they can be relied upon to represent the club with pride. Whether it be Christmas hospital visits, contributing to charity or fulfilling a media request - I can’t really wrack my brains for a favour declined, or a responsibility shirked. For now though, their immediate obligation is to head back outside to the training field – putting all thoughts of aching muscles to one side.
From the media point of view, the day is over. With windscreen wipers in overdrive, we head back to the office to continue our own preparations ahead of the new campaign. There are season tickets to be sold, kits to be unveiled, programmes to plan…Football is back – and none of us can wait.