Thursday, 17 July 2008

Why does it always rain on me?

I SHOULD be high in the Alps right now, looking out across Austria.

I should be excited about exploring ice and mammoth caves inside the Dachstein mountains, visiting the famous Ice Palace and King Artus’ Cathedral where the preserved bones of a cave bear were apparently once discovered.

Instead, I am sat alone in a cold reception area inside the Magpies’ training-base with rain beating heavily against the window.

Why today? Of all days, why today? Yesterday was a gloriously sunny day. The sky was a beautiful blue. Today, it’s typically damp and miserable.

Having spent the week at the foot of the magnificent mountains that surround the National Sports Centre in Obertraun, I was looking forward to taking a ride on the Dachstein World Heritage Cable Car and standing at its peak.

Some were nervous. I won’t name names, but some of the players were uneasy about being lifted high into the mountains in a small metal cage suspended only by a piece of wire, but not me (I still only had a light breakfast, just in case).

But then the rain came and put paid to the trip.

I am feeling so sorry for myself I can almost hear Travis singing their hit single ‘Why Does It Always Rain On Me’.

Actually, it could just be Motherwell boss Mark McGhee, who has brought his side here for pre-season training, stood talking to one of his players or coaches outside.

I am going for a coffee.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Water torture for Magpies' players

IT LOOKED ice cold from where I was stood overlooking on a wooden bridge, with the tide of the River Traun rushing beneath me, impatiently towards Lake Hallstatt.

And from the faces of the Notts County players it was.

Some sat on rocks on the water’s edge while others dared to wade out further, almost into the eye of the tide’s purposeful path, and stood immersed to waist-height, shivering.

It looked like a five-minute form of water torture for them all.

And the reason? Apparently, and I am no expert, it’s all about getting lactic acid, whatever that is, out of the players’ legs and invigorating their muscles with new blood and oxygen in order to help them stay fresh and, crucially, avoid injury.

I prefer to think there is no science involved at all, and it is just an elaborate joke to get a group of footballers to stand in freezing cold water, until their legs go numb.

Afterwards, I was asked if I was going to have a dip, so I was forced to explain with regret I had underwent a lactic acid examination before flying out to Austria and my legs were just fine, otherwise I would have joined them; I would have been the first one in; I would have even stood there for ten minutes, not just five.

I still fear I might have to take the plunge if they do it again before we leave Obertraun.

If I do, the Austrian hills will be alive, but not with the sound of music.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Fantasy footballer

I LOOKED ridiculous if I am being honest. The extra-large Notts County tracksuit was far, far too big for me. I looked like I had been very recently ill.

But I didn’t care one bit because I was indulging in a boyhood fantasy of being a professional footballer when I stepped off the Magpies’ team bus in Bad Reichenhall, Germany.

My day as a fantasy professional footballer had started about three hours earlier, when I sat down for a pre-match meal with the players before they set off for their opening pre-season friendly against Slovenian outfit Olympia Ljubljana.

I then travelled with the squad to the game, and when we arrived in Germany I walked through the players’ entrance, yes, the entrance for players towards the dressing-room.

How I hoped someone would ask for my autograph!

Okay, so I was given the tracksuit to avoid any difficulty accessing all areas, rather than the club’s need for a new striker.

But just for a short while, I indulged in the fantasy that I could be thrown on as a substitute for the world’s oldest league club. Maybe, even that I would score the winning goal in the final minute, win a playing contract and fire the Magpies to promotion next season.

My imagination was running wild.

I had to settle for a seat alongside Russell Hoult, Jay Smith, Adam Nowland and Neil MacKenzie in the end, underneath a huge pub umbrella that Hoult found in an asbestos shed at the side of the pitch.

It was a shelter from the torrential rain that poured down for the entire game. But in my mind, it was the substitutes’ bench.

Smith, Nowland and MacKenzie all entered the fray in the second half, but I never got the call. And when the final whistle went, I got back on the coach, turned my laptop on and wrote my report on the trip back across the border to Obertraun.

My tracksuit was sodden and heavy, but I didn’t want to take it off.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Mountain air takes breath away

IT IS difficult, almost impossible in fact, to imagine a more beautiful place to be in the world than high in the mountains of Austria – except maybe being sat opposite supermodel Gisele Bundchen in a jacuzzi sipping champagne that is!

I know the air is thinner at 1,677 feet elevation, where the clouds are almost in touching distance (even for me!), but it quite simply takes your breath away – unless your name is Russell Hoult.

While his new team-mates were sat in silent awe as the coach carried the Magpies’ squad away from Salzburg airport, steadily east through the Dachstein Mountains, past Lake Halstatt and towards Obertraun, Hoult was jokingly trying to find out where the nearest bar is to the club’s training-base from the tour guide.

It was all lost in translation, however. Comically so.

It was raining, just like it had been before we boarded the plane back in Birmingham a few hours before. But that, together with the cloud mist, just made the short journey into the mountains even more exciting, even more a journey into the unknown.

There are days when covering Notts County feels like work – like on a wet and windy Saturday afternoon in Morecambe in January, for instance. And then there are days like this, when it isn’t work at all. Quite the opposite in fact.

There was a delay to the flight, an awful in-flight chicken meal (at least, I think it was chicken) and an eternal wait for baggage to come off the plane in Salzburg. But it suddenly didn’t matter when we arrived at our delightful destination.

It took seven long hours to get to the National Sports Centre, in Obertraun, from Meadow Lane. But it didn’t matter.

I have even got to sleep on a settee bed for the week, having lost a coin toss for a double bed to Tom Loakes. That doesn’t matter either, because I have an outstandingly beautiful part of the world as my office.

There is even a jacuzzi on site. All I need is Gisele to make the place even more beautiful than it already is.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

No need for hot-pants

I HAVE to start with a confession. I feel it is only right.

I knew nothing about women’s football before I was told I would be covering its biggest domestic showpiece at the City Ground, the FA Cup final.

The only time it had come under my radar was when FIFA president Sepp Blatter ridiculously suggested a few years ago that the players should wear tighter shorts to raise the pules of viewers – and its popularity.

Oh yeah, and I saw a bit of the World Cup in China last year when England reached the quarter-finals stage.

But that was the extent of my knowledge, if that’s the right word for ignorance.

I knew I would need to know more then, well, nothing so I set about my task.

A crash-course taught me that Arsenal are the superpower of the domestic game, having won the Premier League title ten times and the FA Cup eight times.

I learnt that cup glory for a ninth time in their history would put them in the record books.

Leeds, in complete contrast, were a young side aiming to lift the cup for the very first time in their history.

Armed with that, I expected it to be a one-sided affair. And I was right.

But it was still an absorbing, exciting and truly entertaining game to the very end – made even more so, by the crowd of 24,582 that created a festival atmosphere inside the stadium.

Critics of the women’s game have labelled it, well, rubbish to put it bluntly.

I can only suspect those same critics have never been to see a game in their lives because it was quite the opposite.

I have seen some poor FA Cup finals in my time, but this wasn’t one of them. Far from it.

Arsenal were, quite simply, outstanding. They were solid at the back and stylish in attack, with the likes of Kelly Smith and Lianne Sanderson.

And then there was Leeds keeper Carly Telford. The game’s outstanding player.

She produced a string of world-class saves to deny the Gunners in the first half, and was rightly named the Player of the Match despite conceding four goals in the second half.

There was pride, passion and great technical skill on show. And, unlike the men’s game, there was no diving.

I still know very little about the women’s game.

But I do know that it isn’t rubbish – and there is certainly no need for hot-pants.