Before we had time to digest our Christmas lunches and recover from the Steeplechase, we found ourselves at Gatwick airport and onboard a flight to Valencia. We were greeted by Natalia, our Spanish Inspiresport representative and swiftly transferred to our hotel for a late arrival and check in.
There was much excitement at breakfast, not just for the all you can eat buffet but for the day of football that lay ahead. Tuesday morning provided the first opportunity to train at the impressive training facilities of Villarreal, a team currently sitting in third place in La Liga. The facilities were first-class with several 3G astroturf pitches at two different locations across the town, providing our boys with a taste of professionalism. Our coach for the week was Angel, a true character who was keen to point out the Anglo-Spanish cultural differences in style of play from the start and offered words of wisdom and wit throughout the week. Angel had the boys run through a series of possession drills with a real sense of purpose and we had a chance to admire the talents amongst this year’s playing squad. It was soon apparent that there will be healthy competition for places this season and both the 1st XI and 2nd XI will be strong and fluid squads.
After a productive first session, we were transferred back to the hotel for some down time before the first match of the tour in the early evening. A popular past time at the hotel proved to be the neighbouring crazy-golf course, which held a series of match play competitions and an opportunity for some off field team bonding. LPN proved to be a deadly finisher with the putter, earning the nickname Les “the pendulum” Newell from the boys.
The match against CD Alcora, a local club side, approached quickly and certainly provided an early challenge on the first day of tour. After a bright start, Alcora took the lead against the run of play. Admirably, we did not panic and worked ourselves back into the game and soon equalized through the boot of Jack Elvin tapping home after a period of sustained pressure. The second goal was an example of quality tik-taka football any Spanish team would be proud of, which was coolly slotted home by Orlando Russell, who impressed on tour down the left wing. The third was a classic English free-kick from just inside the half-way line. With the opposition box fully loaded with Radleians, Tom Ogilvie launched the ball into dangerous territory. The Alcora goalkeeper, who had previously looked so comfortable with his feet in open play, suddenly looked very vulnerable with the aerial bombadment and deflected the ball into his own net attempting to punch the ball clear. It was evident the Spaniards were far less comfortable with the direct approach and Jack Elvin epitomised our change to English tactics with a audacious “Beckham-esque” shot straight from a kick-off, which was on-target and dipping in until their keeper rushed back to tip the ball over the crossbar. Alcora managed to score just before the final whistle to make the final score 3-2 but despite the close score-line, this was a fairly convincing victory all in all. The mood in camp was high after our first win and after a recovery “ice bath” in the hotel outdoor pool, everyone was in high spirits at dinner before heading off to bed.
Wednesday morning provided an opportunity to stretch out the legs and assess some of the injuries from the night before. Angel put the boys through their paces with a series of shooting drills and small-sided games. After lunch, we headed to Villarreal for a behind the scenes tour of their impressive stadium. The highlights being an inside look into the home changing room, holding our own press conference and visiting the isolated and hostile enclosure the away fans are treated to, high up in the heavens of the north stand, an amazing view point of the city skyline but sadly not of any football below. After raiding the sale rack in the Club Shop and fully kitting ourselves out with Villarreal stash we headed back to the training ground for lunch and our second training session of the day. Upon arrival, we managed to catch the last 15 minutes of a match between Villarreal academy and Rivers United, a Nigerian Club side who were also staying in our hotel. The Nigerian Champions were worthy 1-0 winners and LPN was keen to challenge them to a game back at the hotel. After another productive session focusing on the art of press defense and possession we headed back to the hotel in the late afternoon. The hard-core golfers returned to the course for the Radley Masters, which was won on the last hole by LPN and Donaldson, who were pushed right to the wire with the final putt of the day by Bracken and SJAP. The evening activity involved sampling the local tapas and cervezas whilst watching the Everton v Arsenal match on TV before a relaxed evening back in the hotel.
The Thursday morning training session, included specialist goalkeeper training for Gent and Greville Williams, whilst LPN and SJAP prepared the team for the evening match by going through the chosen 3-4-3 formation and practicing our attacking and defensive shapes with and without possession respectfully. The starting XI looked sharp and we had prepared well for our second and final game on tour. After a buffet lunch and relaxing afternoon in the hotel, we were transferred to Valencia for our match against Paterna CF, another club side. It was clear from the opening exchanges that the quality of opposition had gone up a level. Paterna had the better chances in the opening stages, yet it was Radley who scored first. Jack Elvin’s pace allowed him to break down the right wing and get a shot away, which found Orlando Russell at the far post, who headed home. Our lead was short lived and Paterna soon equalized and then went on to take the lead in a few minutes. The tackles started to fly in from both sides and Tom Eden received a strong shoulder barge, which resulted in a deep cut to his tongue that ended his evening. This was an extremely physical encounter, which the referee allowed to escalate which was frustrating. An incident, which marred the match, was an injury to one of their players who headed Ogilvie’s solid cranium instead of the ball, which Tom clearly won fairly seconds before. This left the Paterna player with a nasty cut to his head, which required several stiches and perhaps an incident which could have been avoided. In the second half the game continued in it’s competitive manner and both Weldon and Rooth impressed immensely in the central midfield, two 6.1 boys who will no doubt feature in Bigside this year. Despite a second goal from a direct throw-in from Captain Agnew and a flick on from Rutherford, it was not enough, Paterna running out worthy 4-2 winners. Paterna deserved the win but nonetheless this match was an invaluable experience for us and will prepare us well for the upcoming physical fixture, against Oratory on the 7th January in the opening fixture of the season.
A bit battered and bruised we stopped for a late night morale boasting McDonalds on our way home. We had come up against a hard opposition that evening but not as hard as the glass door of McDonalds, which LPN found out to his cost when he obliviously took on the transparent door and came off second best! Luckily, he escaped any serious injury and succeeded in lifting the mood in camp.
Friday morning certainly proved the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain and training had to be cancelled due to some torrential flooding. Instead, the boys enjoyed a relaxed swim and gym session in the neighbouring hotel before we checked out of the hotel and headed to Valencia to be tourists for the day and soak up some Spanish culture. Starting off with the Serranos Towers, Natalia showed us all the main sights of this stunning city including the Plaza de la Virgen, the Valencia Club Shop and view from the top of the Cathedral spire. After some essential Christmas shopping, we had one final team meal in one of the best pizzerias in Valencia, before flying home- a real treat and perfect way to end the tour.
Overall, this was a hugely beneficial tour for all involved. The attitude and application of the players was impeccable throughout the week and was even commented upon by the tour company. Most importantly, there is a healthy rivalry for places in this very competitive and galvanized squad. As coaches, we are extremely optimistic for the upcoming season and hope this tour will allow Bigside and the 2nd XI an opportunity to really hit the ground running in the new year.