Training With The Toon
By by Bardia Khajenoor
Saturday 10 Dec 2011 08:43:00
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 Never before had a planned outing of mine included so much uncertainty. There were, in fact, only two details confirmed as I woke up early on Friday, 22 June: that the Newcastle squad had a “morning” training session, and that it would be held somewhere in the Greater Orlando area. Amazing as it was that my beloved team would be training in my hometown for the first time ever, I realized that if the location I had guessed turned out to be wrong, I was in for a disappointing day. There was essentially one shot, as the day’s heat would necessitate a fairly short session and because the travel time to a location other than the one I had planned would be too long. So with a fully charged camera and dressed in shorts, my favorite black and white kit, and an NUFC scarf (which felt ridiculous in temperatures of 35°C/95°F but looks great in the pictures), I picked up my girlfriend, Laura, and together we set off to face the unknown.

 

Luckily, no contingency plans – or excess dramatics – would be necessary. I assumed the team would be training somewhere near the Citrus Bowl stadium, which is close to Downtown Orlando and was to be the site of the next day’s friendly. Sure enough, a grassy field directly across the street seemed to be abuzz with activity. Any doubt that we were in the right place was eliminated upon the unmistakable sight of Fabricio Coloccini’s hair. I parked in a nicely shaded spot in the 70,000 seater venue’s main lot and paused for a deep breath. It’s really happening. I’m about to see the squad in person and be closer than most fans can ever dream of getting.

 

A small group of fans with similar ideas stood directly outside the field’s perimeter fence despite an open gate, and I presumed they weren’t outside the fence by choice. Hoping for a better vantage point, I had a quick discussion with a team official from Orlando City, who asked that fans stay outside. But before I had even made my way to join the other fans outside the fence, I was getting called back with the news that Alan Pardew insisted we be able to come inside and watch from up close.

 

I could not have thanked him enough. I don’t tend to use the word ‘hero’ very much as I fear using it too lightly, but standing in front of me were the footballers I knew, (mostly) loved, and read about every day in the news. Occasional misery such as losing a 3-0 lead at home to West Brom was forgotten; they were still the players I get up obscenely early on a Sunday morning to watch from an ocean away. They were my heroes. It was exhilarating to be in their presence.

 

The players seemed to have arrived a very short time before I did, as they seemed to have some degree of freedom in getting warmed up. Soon enough, though, the coaches took over, and Pardew kept a watchful eye over his troops through stretches, jogs, ball control drills, and eventually a practice game. He even came over at one point to explain some of the drills that were taking place and how they fit in with his intent to improve the team’s passing and possession next season.

 

After finishing with training, the players went inside the stadium for ice baths, and as they came back on their own or accompanied by a teammate or two to get back on the team bus, I accosted them on a first name basis. I tried to speak Spanish to José Enrique, who responded in English in an embarrassing indictment of my abilities (or lack thereof). They were all extremely gracious, posing for pictures and signing autographs not just for me but also for everyone who asked.

 

I must have gone back to my camera and looked at the pictures around ten or so times before the end of that day, just to ensure that the day had actually happened. It was an absolutely amazing experience, and Alan Pardew and the Newcastle coaching staff should be commended for their openness.



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