Newcastle United’s squad is in fine fettle according to Neil Cameron, who watched a gruelling training session in Portugal
IN the shadow of Braga’s AXA Stadium, which has been chiselled out of a quarry, a group of footballers are being asked to dig deep.
Those players who represent Newcastle United have, for the past few days, been worked hard at the Portuguese club’s picturesque training ground, all lush grass with an elevated position that offers a lovely view of this picturesque town.
Not that any of them have had any time to take in their surroundings. They are way too busy grafting.
Last season is gone. There isn’t anything anyone can do about it now. All that matters is what happens next.
New players will arrive and those who were injured are now fit and available. Maybe even one or two have had a quiet word with the man in the mirror during the summer break.
One thing is for sure, Alan Pardew and his coaching staff, John Carver and Steve Stone, are delighted with how things have gone both at home and now here in Portugal.
“Everybody is looking good. We’re just trying to push the boundaries a little bit,” said Pardew who, it must be said, looks more relaxed himself than he’s been for some time.
“It’s no use me saying we’re going to do the toughest pre-season and then get a load of injuries on the back of it. It’s got to be done in a controlled and educated manner.
“So far we’ve managed to push the players without picking up any injuries and hopefully that continues.”
Pardew can’t be doing with spending too many more match days when his best players are watching in the stand. You could call it intelligent graft.
He said: “We need everyone fit. We had a lot of injuries last year. We’ve focused a lot on hamstring prevention this year, strengthening that area to limit that problem we had.”
Intensity is the word that Pardew keeps returning to and it’s the perfect way to describe yesterday’s session, which the manager invited the media along to watch.
He said: “We have been intense. That’s the message to the players. Being resilient to injury, working a lot on strengthening Achilles, calves, hamstrings, so you can put the extra power in.”
Much of yesterday’s session was about working on ball retention and winning the ball back from the opposition.
The players, split into two groups worked in quick, sharp bursts. There is always a ball to pass or chase, and it’s all done with speed and energy.
It was tiring enough watching them on the sidelines. No wonder there were a lot of water breaks even in the cool temperatures.
Then came an 11-a-side game, played on a reduced pitch over 10-minute halves.
This is where you see the fruits of the past two weeks of hard labour. The ball is played to the wide areas as quickly and often as possible. There were always men in the middle looking for a cross, no pass was longer than 20 yards and everyone wanted a touch.
“Brilliant play, Gouff,” barks Carver after a clever touch from Yoan Gouffran, who incidentally looks in terrific nick.
And then “excellent Dummy, keeping showing,” as young Paul Dummett earns a pass mark for making himself available at left-back.
Pardew is the referee out in the middle and constantly talks to his charges.
Haris Vuckic is told that he doesn’t need to attempt to beat the world high jump record to win a high ball, rather be clever about his body position.
Hatem Ben Arfa gets a row for losing the ball in midfield. “That’s where we don’t want to lose it,” says Pardew.
Cheick Tiote is a bit short with a pass, which gets him a reprimand, although Tiotï¿½ was too busy shouting at his own carelessness to hear the gaffer.
Ben Arfa then takes a ball, skips past a few and ends the move with a clever pass. That gets a thumbs up.
Jonas Gutierrez scores a terrific goal, a right-foot drive that beats Rob Elliot from 20 yards, which draws praise for his manager.
It’s a fascinating session to watch. Even those who can’t even claim to be amateurs in such matters can see that Newcastle United are in good shape.
One problem for managers at this time of the year is keeping the players entertained when away from home for long periods. Pardew is keenly aware that his job doesn’t end when he blows his whistle to end the three-hour session. He said: “You have to make sure you fill the time enough that they’re constantly stimulated, that they don’t get stale and bored.
“I think there have been a couple of England parties when that definitely did happen and you don’t want that to happen when you’re away on these tours for a couple of weeks.
“You have to stimulate the players so that every day they’re looking forward to it.
“When I was a player, you always find something to do. Some go for walks and take in the local culture, some play video games. Whatever ticks your box.
“You can always fill the time. It’s great for us because you get a lot more time with the players to understand their personality. It’s all well and good being a footballer, but you need to find out what makes them tick. Sometimes this environment, going to the terminal, different situations, the games, having meals together constantly, you get to know them and how they work.”
The players all went out for dinner last night and at some stage will be allowed a proper evening out while here in Braga.
This could be seen as being old school, but Pardew is a great believer that it does not hurt if his players spend time in each other’s company away from the training ground. And a beer or two is not out of order.
Pardew said: “This is the sort of thing you do from time to time. There’s no alcohol involved tonight (last night), just purely going out for a meal with soft drinks.
“At some point we will, on this trip, have the so-called night out when alcohol loosens people up. I don’t think that’s a bad thing for people to let their hair down a little bit as long as they’ve worked very hard for it. We’ve always done that here.”