This opportunity was definitely not going to be missed. A once-in-a-red-moon chance to see our Manchester United Team in training – in the flesh! Time to perhaps experience our Club at work, rather than the fine veneer ‘on show’ in a match. Tickets sold quickly, ours had been bought four weeks ago on the first morning of sales. My nephews Matt have been asking “are we there yet?” ever since we left the ticket sales office. I have been walking-on-air, day-dreaming inventively about the moment when Sir Alex grins at me, or Rio flings a nonchalant “wots up, bruv?” in my direction. We are so ready for this!
The DHL team bus arrived past us as we were walking into Durban’s Moses Mabhida Stadium, with their much needed police escort just about keeping us rampant Reds at bay. We rushed in to the stadium, where 11,000 expectant fans had gathered excitedly.
As players and coaches sporadically came out of the tunnel and onto the pitch, each and every one was cheered loudly. Even the young, unrecognisable players seemed to be known personally by nearly all the spectators. I struggled to work out who a couple of them are, but hey – if they haven’t yet featured for the First Team on Match Day, they’re off most fans radar in this far-flung corner of Africa. The loudest cheers were for Chicharito and TonyV, and of course Sir Alex brought the house down.
The players stretched individually for five minutes, and then jogged a few laps around the oval pitch. They then gathered together, and for ten minutes were put through series of intense, close-knit drills. Short, sharp bursts of speed, combined with various contortions such as knees up by their chins while running sideways or backwards.
Footballs were then introduced to the training. Grouped in circles, the players enjoyed a ten minute bout of one-touch man-in-the-middle. Starting at a leisurely pace, they quickly upped the tempo until balls were flying around at high-speed. The clear masters here were Scholes, Carrick, Kagawa, Berbatov and Anderson. Next the players were divided into groups of defenders and attackers. Each small group of attackers performed combination passing drills, while two or three defenders tried to keep them at bay. It was actually exciting, especially as the groups were sharing the same space, seamlessly avoiding the other sets of players. The goalkeepers were busy, and definitely ruled the roost. In this twenty minute stage, the best goals were scored by Kagawa, Chicharito, Scholes, Ando and Bebe.
The final training exercise consisted of a 9-a-side game played on half a pitch. Cramped for space, the players had no time on the ball. The passing was slick, quick and accurate. Control of the football was instant, and telepathy already seems most evident despite it being the beginning of pre-season. The better of the two sides had Ferdinand, Petrucci, Tunnicliffe, Scholes, Carrick, Berbatov, Macheda, Hernandez, and Amos. Interplay between Scholes, Carrick and Berbatov was sublime, with Chicharito scoring a couple of great goals. Their opponents had Shinji, Anderson, Valencia, Powell, Lingard, Bebe, Blackett, Wootton and Lindegaard. Good goals were scored by Powell (ghosting in!), Anderson and Kagawa. Ando’s beaming smile and high tempo was always evident, Shinji was determined and focussed. Together they seem already to have connected very well, and were almost too much to handle. Fiery Paul Scholes put that right with a couple of hard challenges, to the great merriment of the crowd.
The hour of training ended for all the players, bar Valencia and Bebe, who ran fartleks together for another ten minutes. The squad stayed on the pitch, signing autographs. Despite the unruly, demanding mob’s best efforts, the players each happily signed hundreds of the caps and shirts thrust desperately in their faces. Scholes was an absolute Trojan. Long after most had wilted he continued to sign apparel, and was only outlasted by Berbatov and Kagawa.
And then, they were gone. Tomorrow night (Wednesday 18 July) they return here, to Amazulu’s home ground. The first pre-season match of 2012/13 kicks off in front of 51,000 Reds at 19h00 RoM Standard Time.