Think it's all over?
I’m standing, clammy-palmed, in what looks like your typical modern gym. Except the view out its long glassed wall is a sea of football pitches and the man in front of me explaining how to do a plank is Tony Strudwick, Head of Athletic Development at Manchester United and the man who built Cristiano Ronaldo. No biggie. I’m at St George’s Park, the multi-million-pound training facility for the England team and I’m about to find out if I have what it takes to make it as a pro by spending 48 hours training like they do.
This football HQ is a 330-acre glossy complex, spread like an airport terminal among the green goose bumps of the English countryside. Open since 2012, it’s heralded as one of the most significant developments in the country’s football history. Run by the FA, the centre houses world-leading facilities and is tasked with placing England’s national side up with the game’s best, as well as being used as a training and sports rehab centre for Premiership players. It’s also the base for the Nike Academy, a full-time football factory initiative by Nike to discover and nurture talent at youth level. With its “turn dream into reality” mantra, Nike holds competitions and scouts players for spaces on their squad, offering a potential in-road for those who may have slipped through the system. With this formidable crop of hungry youngsters and decorated ex-professionals dotted around the campus I feel like an imposter, which, as a journalist on assignment rather than one of the nation’s most promising talents, is pretty much what I am.
The day begins with a full body analysis. There is all manner of equipment, from zero-gravity treadmills to low oxygen exercise bikes, which scrutinises every muscle of an athlete’s body. Considering top-level football bodies today are worth millions it’s a relatively small investment to keep them tuned. I score 70 on a reaction testing machine, which is higher than former Premiership veteran Danny Murphy according to their leaderboard, but way off Didier Drogba’s 101. Next, a balance test reveals that I’m sportingly symmetrical — a good trait to keep free of leg-muscle pulls and injuries — while a standing jump assessment reveals an even distribution of weight and clean landing. I’m ready for action.
“Football is an athlete’s game,” Strudwick energetically explains as we gather round in the gym. “It’s all about explosive movement.” A circuit of twelve exercises mimic the movements you’d use on the pitch. Cable twists here, speed squats there, chin-ups and rapid shoulder thrusts are designed to keep defenders off or give you the edge in the air. With two-minute bursts on each I’m halfway through a set of box jumps when my leg muscles decide to shut up shop. Bearing in mind that this routine is a mere hors d’oeuvre of what professionals do and you can understand why the game has evolved so rapidly in recent years into fast-paced action where fat-free athletes have replaced builder bodies. For anyone to compete at the highest level these days, this is where the hard work starts.
“Just as boxing is much deeper than two men punching each other, here you realise football is more a thinking game than you’d appreciate as a spectator”
Next up comes the ball work. Four drills work on fundamentals of the game: shooting, defending passing, possession play. These structured exercises mean fighting your amateur instincts of flocking after the ball; you have a job and you stick to it. It’s during the positional exercises that football dyslexia comes over me. A confusing spread of cones, playing areas and coaching directions leaves me not knowing whether I’m coming or going, passing or moving. The terminology being bellowed at us by the coaches might as well be in another language.
It’s in these sessions where you learn so much about the intricacies of football. Players master the art of manipulating opponents, sniffing out weaknesses and preying on them; turning them on the weaker foot or implementing rehearsed passing strategies to exploit space against a defender they know is a yard slower. Just as boxing is much deeper than two men punching each other in the face, here you realise that football is far more a thinking game than you could ever appreciate as a spectator.
At this point I’m aching pretty much from my chin downwards but I still have an actual match to play in the evening. Our team is composed of a mixture of abilities from fantasy-football journos like me to freestylers and Sunday-league stalwarts. We’re mostly overweight, underweight, unfit or a bit rusty. In front of a room full of our blank expressions the coach shuffles markers on a whiteboard, passionately instructing match tactics. These are drilled into the pros to the point where it becomes second nature; to the average person it’s a lot to absorb.
We play on a pristine pitch that’s an exact size replica of Wembley. Teams like Barcelona make areas like this seem like tennis courts but it feels to me like a horizonless expanse. Howard Webb, who has officiated at a World Cup final, referees a game that is fuelled by the excitement of feeling like a professional for this brief moment. But against a fellow team of wannabes who are equally jaded from the two-day experience it inevitably turns to molasses after about twenty minutes and tactics go out the window. Still, it ends in a respectable 2-0 victory. How the pros can maintain full tilt for 90-minutes and still have the lung power to do interviews afterwards is a staggering achievement.
We trudge, exhausted, back to the sidelines where coaches study clipboards under the floodlights. It hits me how, even in a training match, things are done properly, professionally and passionately at this level. We can comfortably sit and watch football for entertainment, but for those involved the game it’s not a game at all. It’s a hard, unforgiving living where
few enter through its exclusive doors, let alone taste success. It’s a workplace that demands an extreme level of commitment, co-ordination and talent. For average Joes to flippantly think they can do it too is an insult to those that do.
A coach once put it simply to me: “Somebody could possess all the physicality of Usain Bolt but they have to be gifted with a footballing brain”. He spoke of a “rare ability” to make spilt-second decisions, comprehend tactics and let extreme pressure from thousands of snarling opposition fans, the cameras and tabloids not affect them. This person is not me; it probably isn’t you either, despite your designer haircut and fancy boots.
I leave the premises exhausted. I’m happy to hang up the pipe dream of being a pro, put up my aching legs and stick on a game of FIFA, comforted by the knowledge that even the best athletes often never get a look-in. Today’s game requires so many different skillsets and that’s something to remember next time you give Rooney stick over his paunch.
Esquire was a guest of Nike at St. George’s Park for the unveiling of Nike Football’s latest colourways now available for its famous four line-up: the Mercurial, Tiempo, Hypervenom and Magista.
Words by James Billington