Newcastle United fans will soon get the chance to sample a day in the life of their heroes with the Ultimate St James’ Experience. Luke Edwards gave it a try
THERE is something which really annoys professional footballers and it is not a dressing room rollicking from an irate manager, a double training session on a Sunday and an ice bath after a heavy home defeat to Liverpool.
It is the prospect of having to explain themselves to – let alone be judged by – a bunch of unfit and overweight football journalists who have never played the game to the same standard as themselves.
As a member of the journalists’ trade, I have always dismissed their grievances as the bitter complaints of men so self-absorbed and pampered they cannot take any sort of criticism from those outside their exclusive little world.
However, considering the sweating, panting and technically limited displays offered by a group of North-East football writers yesterday, as we were put through our paces by former Magpies stars John Beresford and Warren Barton at Newcastle’s Academy in Longbenton, they could have a point.
While these pictures may appear to show a slim, dedicated and capable footballer flying down the wing from right-back, the reality was different.
Like every professional sportsman playing at the top of their sport, Premier League footballers not only enjoy a lifestyle most of us can only dream of, they also have considerably more talent than those of us who tried and failed to make the grade.
Not that this means we should not be able to pretend and, thanks to a new scheme from Newcastle United, we can.
The club has decided to offer fans the opportunity to sample the life of a professional footballer in a full scale training session with former United legends providing the entertainment, as well as the coaching expertise. It is a fantastic idea and, while the legs may have seized up and my knees are grazed and sore, I will be dining out on the memory of my four goals in the end-of-session game yesterday for a long time to come – and I am not even a Newcastle United fan.
“It’s about offering fans an insight into what the Newcastle United players get up to in training, what they are put through and what they work on,” said Barton, who will be one of a group of former players who share the coaching duties. “More importantly it is about having fun.
“I think it’s a great idea, it gives former players like myself a chance to stay involved with Newcastle United, share some of our stories, meet the fans and get back out on the training pitch, which is what I really miss now I’m retired. Of course we will push you in the sessions, that’s the whole idea. We will make you run and exercise in a way that a lot of people probably aren’t used to now they’re a little bit older.
“But we’ll also, hopefully, show you a bit of insight into what goes on in a training session. And there is a game to enjoy at the end of it as well.”
Enjoy was not a word I would have used during the warm-up run. After a few light stretches, Beresford led us on a circuit of the pitch which required you to run in segments which were roughly half the length of the pitch.
You jogged the first – simple enough – but then sprinted the next segment. This was followed by another segment at jog speed and then two segments sprinted, another segment jogged and then three sprinted.
The plan was to work our way up to six segments (a full circuit of the pitch), but as I slipped further and further behind the main group along with a handful of other heavy-breathing stragglers, our coach took pity on us and ended the test after the five segments sprint. Gulping down water, struggling for breath and sweating as though someone had just thrown me, fully-clothed, into a sauna, things did not look good.
Then again, I should probably have realised I was going to struggle to relive former mediocre memories on the football field when I realised I’d lost my football boots on Monday night, only to discover they had, in fact, been borrowed by my primary school teacher girlfriend more than a year ago and were covered in cobwebs. I am no longer a regular on the football field these days and my fitness has suffered accordingly.
Thankfully, the running was followed by dribbling and shooting exercises and although my ball juggling skills were an embarrassment (who needs a show pony on the pitch when you’ve got a racehorse, as one of my old managers used to say), I could still just about run and turn with the ball at a reasonable speed without losing control.
A small victory which was almost completely ruined when my first shot, with my considerably weaker left foot, was scuffed so badly it trickled off for a thrown-in, much to the amusement of everyone else.
My next shot, again with the left, was of more threat to the windows than the goalkeeper.
At least things improved with my right foot, a cheeky chip over the goalkeeper brought praise and a rasping drive which clipped the top of the crossbar was applauded and then it was on to the game.
I will not bore you with the details, other than to say one of my four goals was a lob from the (six-a-side) halfway line, à la David Beckham and I was thrilled to be praised for my “magnificent” defending by Beresford.
The laughter, smiles and stories at lunchtime said it all.
This might not be the ultimate experience, but it comes pretty close for anyone who has dreamed of running out at St James’s Park with the black-and-white stripes on their backs..
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Luke's day at a glance
The Ultimate St James’ Experience begins with a footballer’s style breakfast at the stadium which includes:
fruit, cereal, ham, turkey, salami, a variety of breads, eggs, low-fat turkey sausages, tomatoes, mushrooms, baked beans, fruit juice, water, tea and coffee.
A team coach takes you in style to the Academy in Longbenton.
A unique training session and game with the Legend coaches.
Return coach journey to St James’s Park.
A three course lunch in one of the club’s luxurious hospitality suites, prepared by award-winning catering staff. During lunch, the former players will also recall their favourite Newcastle United moments and stories before a question and answer session.
Guided tour of St James’s Park, including the dressing room, boot room, pitchside and players’ tunnel.
Visit to the NUFC museum.
Depart with gift, certificate and pictures to commemorate the day.
THE Ultimate St James’ Experience costs £295 per person and can be reserved at www.nufc.co.uk or by calling (0191) 201 8525.