Being a footballer for two weeks only
3 May ~ We're up to 1993 in our look back at 25 years of WSC. In issue 71 Jamie Rainbow spent a fortnight training with second-tier Brentford
As a youngster I had a dream, no doubt shared by countless other pre-pubescent football obsessives, that one day I would play football with a professional club. Later, the dream was replaced by a fantasy that I would somehow be plucked from the obscurity of the South London Football Federation by an eagle-eyed scout walking his dog on Clapham Common. That eager eight-year-old boy still hoping to make it lurked in the back of my mind as I stood at the gates of Griffin Park, home of Brentford, who had agreed to let me train with them for two weeks.
I travelled to the training ground with youth team coach Joe Gadston and the apprentices, being eyed suspiciously by the youth players as I squeezed into the back of their minibus. Not a word was exchanged although their thoughts seemed clear: "What's he doing in our van with his kit? Surely he's too old to be an apprentice?" During the brief journey I began to worry that two weeks of solitary suffering might lie ahead.
Brentford train at London Transport's sports ground at Osterley, West London, the changing rooms housed in an old redbrick building reminiscent of the 1930s art deco underground stations that still survive. There are three full-sized pitches with a cricket square neatly sandwiched between them. At weekends the pitches are used for park football; closer inspection revealed that they were already showing signs of overuse.
The senior players' arrival was signalled by the appearance of some pretty flash cars. Conversation revolved around their Saturday night exploits at Bananas club in Croydon rather than their Saturday afternoon exploits at Barnsley, where a two-goal lead had been squandered.
Other than ability the essential component of a footballer's repertoire is his capacity to withstand the verbal knocks that form an integral part of all-male team sports. The most obvious manifestation is the player's nickname. At Brentford this seemed to consist of a 'y' being added to everyone's surname. Hence Keith Millen becomes Milly and Gary Blissett, Blissy. To expect anything beyond this, a player must have acquired mythical status among his peers: Chris Hughton, for example, is referred to as 'The Legend'. A surname like Rainbow offers plenty of scope for ridicule, 'Zippy' and 'Bungle' being the most likely candidates.
With this in mind, and fully expecting a repetition of the wariness and suppressed hostility encountered in the minibus, I introduced myself with a muffled cough. However, the players confounded my expectations: they seemed genuinely unperturbed by my presence and went out of their way to make me fee l at home.
Brentford train for two hours each day and will only move indoors to a local gym if the ground is frozen. As I was to discover, the pitch is technically playable even when it resembles a Mississippi swamp.
The first day began with a slow jog around the pitches, interspersed with stretching exercises and a series of sprints. This continued for about half an hour. I was reaching the point where extra oxygen would soon be required when first team coach, Graham Pearce, called the session to a halt. Further stretching followed by a series of more painful exercises; sit-ups and press-ups.
After forty-five minutes, manager Phil Holder turned up and footballs finally appeared. With the players split into two teams of eight, play commenced on a shortened pitch, divided into three zones, attack, midfield and defence. There were extremely complicated rules determining which zone a player could enter and how many touches of the ball he could have. Players are not required to play square passes or run with the ball; instead they are encouraged to deliver it swiftly and accurately to the front men, supporting them as quickly as possible. While not an advocate of the long ball game, Holder does favour a direct style of play, having studied the statistics which suggest that the majority of goals come from moves with one or two touches. The overall standard was disappointing with passes frequently misdirected and shots seldom hitting the target.
Later in the week, though, during the first full-scale practice match, the technique of the players finally began to impress me. Every time I looked up to make a pass the ball was whipped away. Their ability to consistently find players in space whilst the game was being played at such a hectic pace was frankly amazing.
The accompanying barrage of criticism and encouragement delivered by both manager and coach remained constant throughout and serves to speed up the play even further. I was left wondering why there are not more injuries in training. God only knows what they get up to at Liverpool. However, as Graham Pearce later explained, "There is point expecting players to compete on a Saturday if they are just going through the motions during the week... there has to be a strong element of realism."
Play was continually broken up to allow the first team to work on set-pieces. A club like Brentford, which may not possess the individual talents of West Ham or Newcastle, have to maximise the potential of their free-kicks and corners to be able to compete at First Division level. There seemed to be two types of move. Firstly, the two central defenders join the strikers in the penalty area. One of the players, usually Gary Blissett, makes a run towards the goal but is ignored by the taker of the free-kick. Blissett loudly remonstrates with the taker, turns around and begins to walk away, before turning sharply. The ball will then be delivered whilst the defence is momentarily relaxing; a vital split-second advantage has been gained.
The success of the move depends largely upon the acting abilities of Blissett. He certainly fooled me. Only after about eight attempts did I realise that the confusion was planned.
The second move is much the same as the first but without the acting, involving a ball swung in to the big players hurtling toward the far post. The moves employ little in terms of tactical sophistication and even though Holder conceded that they are well known by other teams, they have been effective in the past. That day's attempts were not too successful. Even with the defenders removed, they had difficulty scoring. It didn't bode well for tomorrow's game.
The following day, Brentford beat Bristol City 5- 1, four of the goals coming from set-pieces, which proves something, though I'm not sure what.
Three days later, Phil Holder kindly allowed me to travel on the team coach to the Tuesday evening match at Swindon. At 4.00pm, we pulled into a hotel for a pre-match meal.
The players' choice seemed to be evenly split between eggs, chicken and pasta, their eating habits having changed somewhat since Holder's playing days: "In those days it was always steak and chips, now we give them what they want so that there can be no excuses for a poor performance."
The mood around the table was relaxed rather than anticipatory. Indeed if it hadn't been for their brightly-coloured tracksuits they could have been mistaken for the salesmen attending a seminar in an adjacent suite.
After the meal the players had three hours to kill. Rather than watch TV or join the card school (which you'll be pleased to know is still a big part of the football scene) I travelled to the ground with the physio, who had a mental list of the players' requirements, ranging from extra strapping to a variety of healing balms. Even a packet of indigestion tablets was available for those who had overdone it on the pre-match pasta.
Having carefully laid out his extensive array of treatments, he then methodically folded the players' kits, placing a single piece of chewing gum on top of each shirt. The quest for perfection became apparent when near hysteria set in after a towel went missing.
Before the game the manager had outlined his strategy: press forward and prevent Swindon playing from the back. It seemed a fairly simplistic approach against a team of Swindon's passing strengths, but it worked. Two excellent goals from Lee Luscombe and Gary Blissett (the kind he'd taken on the training field with such nonchalance) and a courageous defensive performance in the second half secured a first away win of the season.
Victory was celebrated with pie and chips and a few beers on the way home. The return journey was notable not for the boisterous singing which I'd expected, but for the excellent rapport between the players and management reflecting satisfaction in a job well done.
However, it was noticeable that the players and particularly the management were not getting carried away. There was still work to be done. When the manager asked the coach what he was doing the following night, I naively assumed he was going to invite him round to watch the Leeds v Rangers game over a few celebratory beers. Perhaps the coach hoped that, too; instead he was being sent to see a reserve match between Crystal Palace and Ipswich.
In the changing rooms after the first day's training, the previous Saturday's defeat had been discussed. Defensive shortcomings were being offered as an excuse for conceding three goals, when one of the senior players put the situation into perspective: "Win or lose, always booze."
I was reminded of this comment later in the week when all the senior players were weighed. The manager was alarmed at the weight of certain players, one of whom had put on a stone since the season started. Several questioned the accuracy of the scales, but Holder was in no mood to joke. The previous evening the reserves had defeated what was basically an Orient youth team 5-4, this after being 4-1 up at half-time. For the first and only time during my two weeks with the club all the players receive a stern warning from the manager about their attitude and future with the club.
The next training session after the Swindon game was supervised by the assistant manager, Wilf Rostron. Injuries and a reserve team call-up reduce the numbers to twelve so we were split into two group of six for a series of games ranging from two-touch six-a-side to shooting practice. Our team managed a paltry three out of twenty in the latter discipline, two of them coming from me. After Tuesday's performance, the session was taken quite lightheartedly, particularly by our team who lost most of the games.
The penalty for losing was chosen by the victors, although unknown to Wilf a prior arrangement between the two teams had ensured that any punishment would be lenient. Much more effective was the verbal abuse we receive from Rostron. Gary Blissett used as his excuse the fact that he had played twenty games so far this season. My excuse was that I am crap. The prize for the winning team was a Mars bar each, which may shed some light on the weight problems of certain players.
My final day at Brentford was one I'd like to forget. The players were split into groups, competing with each other in a series of races with the ball. With the emphasis upon touch and control, my limitations were finally exposed. The ability to control the ball on your chest and volley it back thirty yards may come naturally if you are Brian Statham and can ally experience to a decent set of pectoral muscles. But my chest is concave, so repeated attempts to control the ball resulted in nothing more than a dirty training top and a broken spirit.
Needless to say we finished last and duly performed our sit-ups and press-ups. Perhaps it was just as well that this was my last day. Throughout the two weeks, whichever team I was in always trailed in last. I sensed the players' patience wearing thin, although, to be fair, no-one ever placed the blame on me.
An awful lot can happen to a football team in the space of a fortnight. During my time there, Brentford underwent a minor resurgence, winning four games in row, but their commitment on the training pitch never wavered.
My initial scepticism at their capabilities was gradually replaced by a growing admiration for their technical aptitude. The ability of the likes of Neil Smillie or Billy Manuel to stroke the ball about with either foot whilst under severe pressure removed any delusions I may have had about my own ability.
My only disappointment was their choice of nickname: 'Hodgey', apparently I bore a resemblance to Leeds' Steve Hodge. Personally I think that 'Bungle' would have been much more suited to my performance over the two weeks.
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