Friday, March 23, 2012

Day 12

My final day here began just like many of the ones before it.  As usual, I spent some time working with the goalkeepers before being sent to play in a small sided game.  The goalkeepers than reconvened to work on some kicking (goal kicks and punts) before training officially ended.  I then had a gym session followed by lunch and that was it. 

I was picked up at "Clayton Wood" by Ken and Janet who took me out to see Trentham Gardens, which they said was a very nice spot.  They were correct.  I took pictures.  Here they are:

There was a lake...

...and daffodils for days (again, for all you daffodil people)...

...and chickens

They tell me that Trentham Gardens is much more aesthetically pleasing in the summer when all of the multi-colored plants (also known as flowers) are in bloom.  I am sure this is true, but I found it plenty aethetically pleasing as it was. 

After our journey to the gardens, Ken and Janet took me to "tea" (where nobody actually drank tea) at an American restaurant.  After that it was back to the Tollgate for the night where I will pack up and prepare for my 5:55 AM departure from Manchester tomorrow morning. 

This has been an amazing trip.  The time has absolutely flown by.  I can't believe I am done and will be coming back home tomorrow.  I don't know how to thank everyone who helped make it happen.  Thank you Mike and Ray for putting it together.  I would like to thank everyone at Stoke City for allowing me to come and for treating me just like anyone else at the club.  I would also like to thank Ken and Janet for being complete saints and helping me with essentially anything I needed.  You guys were amazing. 

From a soccer perspective, the trip has been extraordinary.  I have learned a ton, I have had a blast, and I have gotten to test myself against some excellent competition.  I have gotten to go to a number of games in some excellent environments.  I got a chance to meet Gordan Banks.  I have worked out alongside some of the world's best players.  However, most importantly, I have been able to really determine what I need to work on as a player.  I came over here sort of unsure of what my weaknesses were.  I knew I had them but I wasn't sure what they truly were and I hoped they would become clearer over these two weeks.  Playing against this kind of competition on a daily basis has pointed me in the right direction in terms of what I need to do to improve and hopefully reach that next level. 

Outside of soccer, the trip has been awesome as well.  I have been able to travel all over what really is a very pretty country.  I was able to visit one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities in London.  I have gotten to meet all sorts of wonderful people who have all been very, very nice.  Additionally, unlike when Whitman came as a team, (which was very fun and doing that trip with my teammates and schoolmates was great) I have been able to completely immerse myself in the English culture.

I would also like to thank you guys for reading this.  I hope you have enjoyed following along with my journey.   

I am sad my trip is ending, but all good things must come to an end and I am looking forward to seeing everyone back home.  And with that, for the final time on this blog, I say goodbye. 


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Day 11

I was back to training today.  As usual on a training day I woke up early for breakfast and was taken to the beautiful "Clayton Wood" for training.  For the goalkeepers training began with some simple stuff to get us used to seeing the ball into our hands and to get us hitting the ground (in other words diving).  We then spent the rest of the time working on dealing with deflected shots, which is both fun (because it provides you with many opportunities to make really awesome looking saves) and not fun (because there is the potential for you to look like an idiot).  The goalkeeper coach (who has a name, and it is Danny) set up an interesting contraption made up of those mannequins you see people use to make walls when they practice free kicks.  He then just struck balls towards said contraption and we had to do our best.  He varied the service so we had to deal with balls struck from the ground (both moving and not moving), volleys, and half-volleys.  We each did a couple of sets of each of these.  He then finished by smashing both volleys and half-volleys at us as hard as humanly possible.  Our job was to make the save.  If it hit the mannequin contraption we just had to react as best as possible.  For a portion of this, us goalkeepers also rotated in pairs going to work with the rest of the team while they did patterns to goal and played small-sided games. 

After training we had our gym session where, just like last Thursday, us keepers were put through a series of exercises on the TRX.  If you are not familiar with the TRX, look it up on the Google machine.  It is a diabolical contraption that some evil person developed to torture the athletes that use it.  That is the only way one could explain it.  That might be a little harsh actually.  Not all of the exercises are that bad, but some of them certainly will make you, "feel the burn," as they say, and I wouldn't describe any of them as a truly exquisite experience. 

In other news, congratulations are in order for a couple of other Whitman athletes.  I don't really know any of them and I am sure they are not reading this blog, but if those of you who are reading this blog and you do know them, congratulate them for me.  First, congratulations to David Michaels for recieving All-America honors and for a job well done at the NABC All-Star Game.  Second, congrats to both Galen Sollom-Brotheron and Karl Mering for qualifying for the NCAA Div. III swim meet and for a successful first day.  Best of luck for the rest of the meet. 

Sadly, tomorrow is my last day.  Until then...  

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Day 10

Just like last Wednesday, there was no training today.  The academy was, "at college" again the the first team is in London for a game tonight so there was again nobody for me to train with.  Despite this, today was still very exciting. 

I didn't really do anything you would find interesting in the morning so I shall not talk about it.  The tale of today begins in the afternoon.  First, I recieved a tour of the Britannia Stadium (by a very nice man named Alan), which is where Stoke City plays their home games.  I had been to the stadium a couple of times before, but I had never gone inside.  It is a very nice stadium that holds about 28,000-29,000 people.  It is known for being very, very loud on gamedays.  Since I knew you all would be just dying to see it, I took many pictures.  Here are some of them:

The Britannia

The away team dressing room

The Stoke City dressing room.  The person in the picture was another very nice man named Fred.  Fred is a janitor at the Britannia.  As you can see by the spotless dressing room, he is very good at his job. 

That would be me politely and eloquently answering the press' questions in the interview room

The view from the tunnel where the players enter

The benches

The pitch-side view from the Stoke City bench.

The Britannia as seen from the TV galley.  This is where the TV cameras are located for any game you might watch at the Britannia.  This was possibly my favorite location in the stadium.  The view was amazing. 

The door that leads back to the land of mere mortals as seen from the inside of the Director's Box.
After the Britannia, I stopped by Keele University, which is not too far outside of Stoke.  Ken, who used to work there, wanted me to see it so we stoped by on our way to the next activity of the afternoon (which I will get to in a minute).  It was your typical university.  It had some parts of the campus that were beautiful and other parts that look like it was made in the '50s in the span of a week.  It did have one building in particular that I was quite enamored with: Keele Hall.  This building was the second edition of the hall as the first one burned down and was subsequently rebuilt in the 1700s. 

Keele Hall

Keele Hall Library

Keele Hall from the rear.  Right behind the fountain there were some very nice gardens that had been restored to exactly how they were in the 1800s.
 The afternoon finished with a little drive through the countryside.  Ken had an errand he needed to run in Warrington, which is about 37 miles north of Stoke.  He said he would be driving through some beautiful countryside and asked if I wanted to come...oh, he also mentioned that, if I wanted, we could stop by his friend Gordon Banks' house on the way and I could meet him.  Naturally, I said I would love to go.  If you are not familiar with Gordon Banks, he is arguably the greatest goalkeeper of all time.  He was the goalkeeper for England when they won their only World Cup in 1966.  Unfortunately his career was interuppted in his prime after a car accident left him blind in his right eye, forcing him to retire.  Banks did later come back and play for a few years in the old NASL for Fort Lauderdale, but wasn't really the same player.  The fact of the matter is, he is a legend.  In fact, he is more than an legend.  He is a LEGEND.  Meeting him was an amazing, extraordinary, and humbling experience.  He was a very nice man and he even had some words of wisdom for me.  I truly appreciate that he was willing to take a couple minutes out of his day to talk with me.  

Gordon Banks and myself
As for the rest of the drive, it really was some beautiful countryside.  The route took us through the Staffordshire and Cheshire country.  We drove through a number of quaint English villages that looked like they belonged on a postcard.  Cheshire is known for being a very wealthy area and as a result, there were a number of impressive traditional English mansions along the way.  Fun fact, apparently David Beckham has a house in Cheshire.  Additionally, for all you daffodil people out there, it would appear that daffodils grow "out in the wild" in England.  On our journey today, I saw about a million and a half of them.  So, if you are into daffodils, like my mom, you would have been pleased.

Back to training tomorrow.  Until then...  

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Day 9

Today I was back at training.  It was a slightly shorter day than usual and there was no gym session today because the academy had a game against Manchester United this afternoon, which I watched.  I spent only about 20 minutes with the goalkeepers this morning before I was sent to work with the rest of the team.  We played that same game that I was talking about last Friday on the little field with the little goals.  On Friday, I recall writing that I did not particularly enjoy this game.  Well today I did enjoy it.  I don't know what the difference was between the two days, but there you go.  I now think it is fun.  Not much else to report.  After our brief goalkeeper session, we played this game for a little over an hour and that was it for today. 

After training I hung around the mysteriously named "Clayton Wood" so I could watch the Stoke City U-18s play the Manchester United U-18s.  It was kind of like your typical U-18 club match in the United States..except for the fact that it was nothing like it at all.  Again, the game was much faster, much more physical, and involved much more skill than any U-18 game I had ever seen.  Stoke ended up winning 3-2 and they probably deserved it.  As a team, they were better.  With that being said, Manchester United had the better individual players.  However they were not as deep as Stoke and they did not seem to click as a unit.  They had this one guy from the Netherlands named Gyliano van Velzen.  It was silly how good he was.  He could do whatever he wanted whenever he wanted to.  I don't doubt that he will be gracing Premier League fields in the near future.

I also went to my third, and final, professional game tonight.  It was a League 2 match between Crewe Alexandia and Bradford City.  League 2 is the fourth division of professional soccer in England.  While I don't have a ton of prior experience watching it, I have seen some games and watched some FA Cup games on TV that have involved League 2 teams and I have always thought that it is a pretty good level of play.  This was not the case tonight.  As with the Blackpool game, I went with Ken (Stoke City employee Ken) as he is friends with one of the coaches for Crewe Alexandria and was able to get complementary tickets from him.  He described this game as, "a comedy of errors," which seems very accurate to me.  It might have been the sloppiest game of soccer I have ever seen.  To be honest, it almost looked like something I could have watched in the United States: a bunch of people wearing soccer equipment running into each other for 90 minutes with a ball bouncing around among them.  I think everytime someone got the ball one of the following dialogues went on in their head:

"I have the ball.  What should I do with it?  I know, I'll kick it.......there!"

"But there isn't anyone within 35 yards of 'there.'"

"Doesn't matter."


"I have the ball.  What should I do with it?  I know, I'll kick it......there!"

"But there is someone from the other team standing right 'there.'"

"Doesn't matter."


"I have the ball.  What should I do with it?  I know, I'll kick it......there!"

"But that's the car park (translation: parking lot)."

"Doesn't matter."

Similarly, when a goalkeeper was lining up for a goal kick they must have been thinking the following:

"Hmmm, who should I hit it to?  How about that nice looking man in the fifth row eating that wonderful looking meat pie?  Yes, I think I will hit it to him."

It truly was comical.  By the end of the game (which Crewe ended up winning 1-0) I was laughing nearly constantly.  I did take some pictures though before the game.  This was a much smaller stadium than the others I had been to and it was not completely full.

Gresty Road (the name of the stadium) prior to the match.  The stand I was sitting in was much bigger than all the other ones.  The stand across the way filled up more shortly after this picture was taken.
Until tomorrow...

Monday, March 19, 2012

Day 8

Today was just a typical day of training.  Wake up early, get picked up by the van, get to "Clayton Wood," change, go do "pre-hab," go to training, go to lunch, and then go to the gym.  My complaint about today was that we did the gym session after lunch which meant that after training ended we had to sit in the changing room for 45 minutes before lunch and then go back and sit in the changing room for 45 minutes after lunch before going to the gym.  This is a long time to sit around and do nothing.  Anyway, training went similar to before.  I spent the first 45 minutes or so doing goalkeeper work (Stu and Niko, I will have some new things for us when I get back).  After joining the rest of the team, we did some small sided games and some finishing.  For the finishing drill, a ball was played in to a player who set the ball up for someone else to come and shoot it.  The shots were coming from about 12 yards out.  One of them literally almost took my head off.  I got my head out of the way and my hands into the way in just the knick of time.  A number of the other shots have left my wrists rather sore and I think from now on I will be taping them up before training because I am clearly a wuss.  In short, apart from the waiting in between activities, today was a lot of fun.   

In other news, another American goalkeeper showed up today.  He will be here for this week and part of next week.  Slowly, we are taking over.  That makes three American goalkeepers here right now.

I don't really have too much else for today.  No pictures, sorry and nothing for you non-soccer people. 

Until tomorrow... 

Day 7

Sorry I am a day late.  Yesterday I trekked to Liverpool to watch the FA Cup Quarterfinal between Liverpool and Stoke City.  I travelled up on one of the Stoke City supporters coaches and sat in the Stoke City supporters section for the match.  Stoke fans are totally and completely out of control.  I have had multiple people tell me since I got here that they are the loudest fans in all of England and I would find it hard to disagree after my experience yesterday.  I can't really tell you what the rest of the stadium sounded like, including the famous Kop end at Anfield, because I couldn't even hear myself think thanks to the Stoke fans.  It was awesome.  I wasn't even able to hear the famous "You'll Never Walk Alone" sang by the Liverpool fans because the Stoke fans were chanting and singing their own version of the song (if you want to know the title of that one you can come talk to me personally).  The Stoke supporters had their fair share of songs and chants in support of their team, but they also spent a great deal of time directing their venom towards the single most misrable, awful, and disgusting figure in all of professional sports, Luis Suarez (my favorite went "he cheats, he dives, he hates the Jackson 5, Suarez, Suarez," which is funny because Luis Suarez is a racist) and the people of Liverpool (my favorite being "where's my car stereo" repeated over and over.  This is funny because Liverpudians have a reputation for being thugs).  There were some people in the crowd who, in my opionion, spent more time yelling at individual Liverpool fans who were at least 50 yards away and couldn't hear them anyway.  There was one guy, and his five year old son, in particular who spent almost the entire game giving death stares to the Liverpool fans and mouthing threats using the most colorful language.  I bet he was glad he spent the money on his ticket.  If he wanted to fight he could have just gone to the pub for the game...

Beyond the atmosphere, the game was great as well.  The speed, phsyicality, and skill of those games does not completely translate to TV.  Liverpool ended up winning 2-1 and they deserved it.  Stoke was every bit as good in the first half and probably should have gone into halftime up 2-1 had Jon Walters been able to hit the goal from 10 yards with nobody in front of him.  But alas, he was not and it was 1-1 at halftime.  The second half was a different story.  Liverpool bossed possession and looked the better team.  They deserved to go ahead and ultimately win.  Anyway, I am sure everyone is tired of listening to me so time for pictures:

The Stoke City supporters coaches.  There were about 20 of them.


The commotion around the stadium prior to the game

The entrance to the legenday Kop

The Paisley Gateway

View from my seat before the game.

Its me!


The Kop minutes before kickoff.

Stoke City supporters section

Liverpool fans during "You'll Never Walk Alone," which I couldn't hear


Saturday, March 17, 2012

Day 6

As promised, today I took a little trip to Blackpool to watch the Blackpool v. Brighton & Hove game.  I went with Ken Walshaw (the same Ken Walshaw who picked me up from the airport in Manchester and who works for Stoke City) who was given two media tickets to the game.  Thinking I would enjoy going, he invited me and I was all to happy to accompany him.  So, this morning, myself, Ken, Ken's wife, and Ken's wife's sister (Ken's wife and her sister didn't go to the game, they just came along to have a day out in Blackpool) set out for Blackpool. 

Blackpool is a seaside town about 90 miles north of Stoke.  Apparently back in its day it was the spot for the English to go on "holiday."  However, over time it fell out of favor with the "holidaying" English, who now tend to go abroad to continental Europe, and is now reminiscent of somthing you would see in a tacky vacation town on the Jersey shore.  There were nice areas of Blackpool, but the main promenade that goes along the shore was filled with arcades, strip clubs, and small theme parks that seemed a little dated. 

The game, however, was excellent.  As I mentioned at some point, Blackpool and Brighton play in the Championship, which is the second highest division in England and, despite what some stupid people might tell you, a much higher level of play than what we have in MLS.  This was a fairly big game as, at the start of the day, Brighton was in a playoff position and Blackpool was just two points back, putting them barely out of a playoff position (For those of you who are not familiar with how the system works abroad, the bottom three teams in the Premier League at the end of the season are relgated to the Championship.  The top two teams from the Championship recieve automatic promotion to the Premier League.  There is then a playoff between the next four highest placing teams to determine who gets the final promotion spot.).  If they could win today they would overtake Brighton and put themselves in a playoff position. 

The atmosphere was incredible.  The MLS has come a long way in terms of creating an atmosphere more comparable with those abroad but it still cannot even come close to touching the atmosphere of the games over here.  There were only 12,800+ fans at the game today, but it was electric.  There were times when I literally had chills.  I can't wait for tomorrow at Anfield where there will be 40,000+ fans with a trip to play at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final at stake.  Anyway, Blackpool ended up winning 3-1.  It was well deserved as after the first 15-20 minutes, they dominated the game.  Since our tickets were media seats, they were awesome.  There was a whole section of the stadium that was blocked off for both scouts from other teams and the media which meant we essentially got to pick where we wanted to sit, which was cool.  Enough talking.  Here are pictures from the day:

The Tower of Blackpool

The coast at low tide

Yours Truly and Ken

Bloomfield Road (the Blackpool stadium)

The stadium right before kickoff

The coast at sunset
    Off to Liverpool tomorrow.  On a scale of "one" to "awesome", it should be "awesome".