With the game at Wrexham being our fifth in fifteen days and on the cusp of a travelling distance that can be achieved on the same day, we took the decision that our preparation would be best served by staying overnight. I thought that it might be interesting to give you an insight into exactly what that preparation entails.
At the same time, our youngest academy players sampled a similar experience by travelling north on Saturday, staying overnight and then facing Manchester City on Sunday morning at U8’s, U9’s, U10’s & U11’s. It is crucial to their overall development, not just as footballers, that we educate them on what they need to do off the pitch and how important preparation is to their performance. They grow by being taken outside their comfort zone and being forced to handle new and tough challenges. A trip of this nature and opposition of the quality we have faced in the last two fixtures (the previous weekend we faced Chelsea), is just one part of this process.
Having beaten Nuneaton last Tuesday with the players leaving the pitch to the raucous applause of such a fantastic crowd (both in terms of number and noise), Richard and our staff were immediately focusing on the next task at hand, Wrexham away. The players went through their usual post match recovery strategies – protein shakes, energy drinks, cool down, stretch, ice bath – then put on their recovery skins and ate a high carbohydrate and protein meal, usually pasta and chicken, in the director’s lounge. The players who didn’t feature in the starting XI did their extra running as prescribed by Matt Walker to maintain their fitness levels and then started the same process as the other players. It is quite an operation that is overseen by our two Sport Science interns, under Matt’s supervision. Martin Davies took Will Norris for some extra goalkeeping work, Greg Reid treated the players with knocks and once Richard finished speaking to the players, he then did his press interviews with the various media outlets.
The players took advantage of the brilliant facilities that we have available to us at David Lloyd Cambridge on Wednesday with a swim recovery session in their pool, while the players returning to fitness did extra physical work and those with injuries, however minor, received treatment. Richard’s day is spent analysing our performance from the previous night, by watching the DVD, and scouring our Wyscout for footage of Wrexham. We have added this scouting software to our armory this season, which means that we have access to every game that is played in any league and therefore clips of every player. It is a fantastic tool and one that Richard, with his meticulous preparation, fully utilises. Ben Strang, our Chief Scout, had watched our opponents the night before against Braintree, so had a full report with Richard detailing their system, individual & collective strengths and weaknesses, set plays and any other observations from the game. He is very thorough and detailed.
Training on Thursday was the beginning of that preparation work. All the football staff meets every morning before training to plan the sessions, decide the content of work for those players that are injured or returning to fitness and ensure all the logistics are nailed down. Our training ground is on Bentley Road but we also use the facilities at David Lloyd Cambridge for cardio work in their gym and pool as well as swim recovery sessions plus our gym at the club for weights and strength work. Richard obviously takes responsibility for the football content and the overall workload of the “fit” players but all the staff has a role in organising and implementing the work for the players each day. That involves the player’s injury prevention work before each session, the warm up, the physical content of each session, the goalkeeping work, the rehabilitation work for injured players, the extra work for those coming back from injury or not playing regularly, gym work and the pool recovery session. We also start every day with the Sports Science department in full swing with every player tested for hydration and weighed before they start their foam rolling regime, with precedes and concludes every training session. Every player is given their own foam roller, which they bring religiously to every training session and game, and they literally do what it says on the tin! They use it to loosen any tight muscles and it gives them the equivalent of a massage.
We need to eat around three and a half hours before kick-off on match day, so if we had travelled up on Saturday, it would have meant leaving Cambridge at 8am. That would have meant some of the players leaving their houses before 7am, which is far from ideal. By going up the day before there is no rush, no disruption to the player’s sleeping patterns and no compromise for the preparation of the team.
We had planned the overnight stop well in advance and we chose a hotel that we’ve used before to eat our pre-match meal. It has all the facilities we needed and the location, half an hour from Wrexham, was ideal. We also sourced a training venue in the midlands, so the players could train on the way to break up the journey, minimise any stiffness in their legs and avoid the worst time for traffic on the M6. Another improvement we have made this season is employing a full-time kit & equipment manager, Dan Crompton. That means the players are now given their training kit each morning. It is collected and washed at the end of each day and then laid out at the training ground the following morning in pristine condition. It adds to our professionalism and how we look after the players. Dan’s value on away trips is even more evident. You’d never guess we were just playing a football match with the amount of kit we pack! Then there are copious amounts of water, plus energy drinks and energy foods for immediately before the game and half-time, protein shakes for afterwards, fruit and pizzas to order for the journey home. Everything is doubled when we train en route.
Nothing is left to chance. We decide the options given to the players for evening meal in advance, we give the hotel exactly what is required for our pre-match meal and the players are educated to such an extent that we know they bring exactly the right snacks themselves to eat between meals. With the hotel having a pool, the players could do a recovery session on arrival late Friday afternoon, and with the gym facilities, Matt was able to do an extra fitness session on Friday and Saturday with Tom Bonner and Tom Elliott. We also have a room provided by the hotel for physio or where the players can use their foam rollers, a team meeting room where Richard can brief the players and our private dining room. The players are really well looked after.
I am not sure how many players watched Kidderminster v Aldershot on BT Sport but I took advantage of its close proximity to watch it live at the stadium. I have spoken previously about the vagaries of fixtures in the Football Conference but I do find it bizarre that we can play one of these teams twice by November and the other twice in a three week period in February and March.
On Saturday morning Richard gave the players a thorough briefing on our opponents, showing them video clips on Wrexham from Wyscout. The next development to our football operation around the first team will be to recruit a performance analyst and purchasing the software to enable all of our games to be tagged and clipped. That means we can immediately have access to every set piece, or every time a certain player touches the ball, or every time one team enters the attacking third, or anything that Richard wants to highlight to the group collectively or any player individually. At present, what could be a simple and quick process is complicated and time consuming. Richard’s attention to detail is superb and we use the system that everyone in this league can access, to its absolute maximum. We need the IT support around him to make these processes easier and we are close to finding a solution that will take our analysis on the opposition and our own performances to the next level.
Having eaten our pre-match meal and the team being named, everyone boarded the bus and we arrived at the stadium at 1.30pm, ready for our usual warm up routines, as prepared as possible for the players to perform to their optimum. There are always uncontrollables – the pitch, the weather, the match officials etc – but all we can do is control the controllables to the best of our ability, within our financial constraints. And players are human beings so they may not always perform at their best and may make mistakes but our job is to give them the best chance to perform at their best and that is what we always strive to do. The whole process starts again at 4.45pm! We have already planned Grimsby, Chester and Southport away. Our routines are well rehearsed for home games. There is the old adage you will all know about preparation – “fail to prepare, prepare to fail” – but I prefer another saying – “everyone has the will to win, few have the will to prepare to win”. As everyone asks why we have started well and comes up with the lazy assumption that it’s because we are spending loads of money, we just smile and know that it’s because we do everything we can to be the best we can be and we work hard to make every one per cent gain that we can. That encompasses the first team, the medical department, the sports science department, recruitment, the scholars, the academy and the development pyramid that creates an excellence pathway for the most gifted and talented local youngsters and underpins everything that we do for the future. That is our philosophy. It is my job to implement this philosophy and to oversee and develop this entire football operation. No-one can guarantee success but our structure gives us the best possible chance of success.
That’s why the Under 8’s have the same principles drummed into them as our first team players, why they learn to cope with an overnight stay and tours at such a young age, why we play against top opposition and why they are taught to be self motivated, self thinking and hard working at such a young age. They will always receive plaudits for their football because we have such talented players but they also conduct themselves properly. They are confident, enthusiastic and humble. Those qualities will stand them in good stead for the demands of professional football, should they be successful in progressing through our development pyramid into the first team, or in any walk of life. It is also why we leave venues such as Chelsea and Manchester City with praise ringing in our ears and the promise of future games. And disbelief that we can achieve what we do without any funding. Sound familiar!?!
Enjoy the game.