Ok, call me a weirdo, but I loved pre-season. Anyone who has played alongside me over the years knows it and if they’re reading this right now, there’s a good chance a lot them are thinking, ‘Yeah, and you were a busy bastard as well.’ I heard that a lot throughout my career, but I’m sure there’ll be a lot of players more than happy to see the back of these last few weeks of hard graft.

See, I don’t really understand that and I never did back then. Getting back to playing football, feeling as fit as you can possibly be in the anticipation of a new season and all that may bring – what’s not to love? My friend and ex-Dundee United teammate, Gary Bollan, wasn’t so much of a fan of those four to six weeks prior to the start of the new campaign. He still carries the mental scars from some of his pre-seasons, especially those inflicted under the management of Jim McLean and Paul Sturrock. He’s now a manager in his own right at Airdrieonians and when we met recently to catch up and chat about how he was putting his team through their paces, it was inevitable that we got talking about the beastings we took back then.

Bobo wasn’t the worst runner, but it’s fair to say that his robust frame meant that it didn’t come easy to him. With a shake of the head he ‘fondly’ recalls a particularly gruelling experience that’s still fresh in both our memories. One of the standard destinations during the first week of pre-season at Dundee United was Monikie Country Park; a punishing forest run followed by a figure of eight around two fairly large reservoirs that you had to complete in under 20 minutes. The wind almost blew you into the water as you ran exposed to the elements (Scotland in July is unpredictable at best) along the raised bank. He remembers emerging from the trees and lifting his head to see where everyone was… he could only just make out my group in the distance. We were halfway through our run around the second body of water and heading for the finish line. I think his quote to explain his feelings at that time was ‘mentally gone’, as he tried to get his head around the fact that he was just about to begin the loop around the first loch. I was in my element.

Dundee United always had fit teams and were notorious for having tough pre-seasons. It almost felt like the managers, coaches and experienced players steeped in the history of the club, like Billy Kirkwood, Paul Hegarty, Maurice Malpas, Paul Sturrock, Dave Bowman and Gordon Wallace thought it was their duty to carry on from where wee Jim had left off. ‘Heggy’ was a machine and led most of the runs even though he must have been easily touching 40 at the time. I remember legendary, veteran defender, Maurice Malpas giving me a wee bit of advice on my first day as I jovially lifted the pace to go past him during one of the many 20 minute fatlecks. ‘Easty’ he growled, ‘Run by me again and I’ll fucking hook ye!’. A few years later I remember goalkeeper Sieb Dijkstra struggling on what he thought was the first tough run of the day and having to stop to get his breath back; we were only in the warm-up!

Back then, pre-season for me was a time to really push myself to my limits, both physically and mentally (without getting injured) and in the process doing enough to ensure I was in the starting eleven on the opening day of the season. That’s all that mattered. I’m very lucky that I’m naturally fit, and it certainly helped in those early years where a fitness coach was a novelty, never mind a sports scientist. However, I struggle to understand professional footballers who moan and groan about hating pre-season, especially nowadays in the era where sports science and the physical needs of the individual is a priority. Players should embrace it. It’s a time to really drill down into your craft and work not only on your fitness, but also details of your game, without the pressure of a competitive match to prepare for.

It was probably my favourite time of the season and for many reasons. It wasn’t just because the physical challenges were something I could excel in. The close season got boring. Don’t get me wrong I love spending quality time with my wife (in case she’s reading) and I enjoy a bit of sun on my back and everything  else that goes along with a few weeks rest, but I could never totally switch off. So, by the time that first day back came around, I was quite literally ready to hit the ground running, filled with the renewed sense of hope and purpose that the anticipation of a new season imbues in players and fans alike.

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You almost feel invincible. Seriously. Yes there’s the spell where you don’t think there’s a hope in hell of getting your legs moving again for an afternoon session without a can of WD40 and those  evenings twitching in and out of sleep listening to the soothing sound of Wimbledon on the TV (pre-Sharapova obviously). But once you get through that first week, it’s genuinely the best feeling in the world. You’re eating healthily, getting ripped and starting to feel sharp, a level of physical wellbeing you don’t get to feel anywhere close to throughout the season as there’s always a knock or a niggle to deal with.

The whole approach to pre-season training has certainly changed and undoubtedly for the better. I feel fortunate to have straddled eras that saw the transition into the model that many clubs use today and I can now use these experiences as a coach.

Certainly in the latter part of my career the conditioning work became more progressive, and the ball used as it should be (we are footballers after all) from day one with the real tough sessions being intense possession based exercises or small sided games. Unbelievably, I actually remember myself and a few of the other older players at Leyton Orient complaining that we didn’t think we had worked hard enough because we didn’t feel that aching soreness in our legs before the start of the next day’s session. However, that period is probably the fittest I’ve been over a whole season.

I’m not saying I’d be adverse to a Monikie type run as a coach, but it wouldn’t be to measure fitness in the guise that I’ve been accustomed to. It could be thrown in to test attitude or even used  at a lower intensity as part of a recovery session to allow the players to enjoy a different environment. I watched a couple of Gary Bollan’s early pre-season sessions with Airdrieonians and apart from a fatleck run as part of the warm-up, it was very much a session that you would see mid season. The intensity was greater and the work/rest ratios very structured, but most of the hard work was done with the ball and in a realistic context, as it should be.

I’ve also studied a few of Bayern Munich’s early pre-season sessions on Youtube and apart from the facilities, the golf buggy for water breaks, the army of support staff, and the slightly better standard of play (sorry Bobo) the principles were the same. In fact I think Gary’s task is way tougher as his lads are part-time. He’s got the extremely difficult job of balancing and structuring the conditioning, technical and tactical work into two or three sessions a week with most of his squad also working their 9 to 5’s.

There are different things to consider in football at every level. For example, while Bobo works out the most effective way to get his side operating at peak physical fitness as well as embedding the style of play he wants them to adopt after a four to six week break, I wonder if clubs at the top of the game even need to give the players a pre-season in the traditional sense?

For instance how much conditioning does Arturo Vidal need to be ready for the start of the Bundesliga in two weeks time. His club football lasted as long as it could have with Juventus going all the way to the Champions League Final and then his involvement with Chile – winning the Copa America – has meant that he’s had three weeks rest at most before joining up with Pep at Bayern.

World Cups, European Championships and 50+ game domestic seasons ensure that elite players certainly don’t need a Dundee Unitedesque pre-season of old, but it would be fun to see how they’d get on. It’s probably no surprise that I’m pretty jealous of the lads getting put through their paces at this time of year. I might not be able to replicate the football sessions I loved so much, but I actually quite fancy a wee run around Monikie for old time’s sake. I wonder if Bobo would be up for it?

Recently I was asked to write a piece for issue 10 of the fantastic independent football magazine, Pickles. I was absolutely delighted as I’ve been a fan of their work for quite some time. Pickles always features interesting articles from an eclectic mix of writers and showcases work from artists and designers who create pieces that not only compliment the words, but make the whole thing look pretty damn cool.

This issue’s theme was gluttony and I enjoyed recounting some stories from my career where food has been the central character. Design duo, Quiet British Accent, have done an awesome job with the artwork (below) and it was great to find out that they’re Leyton Orient fans to boot.

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Aside from my article, there’s a veritable feast of incredible design, original artwork and tasty bits of writing including the sad tale of fallen captain, Agostino Di Bartolomei, the story of Ferenc Puskás quite literally eating a horse and a look at the best No.10’s to have played the beautiful game. You’ll also find out who made the Pickles Porkers first XI and I’m making no comment about any of my former teammates who should be in there – you know who you are!

If you want to buy a hard copy of the magazine, Issue 10 comes in four different covers that pay tribute to the greatest number 10 of all and the teams he represented during his controversial career. Maradona of course! Choose from Boca Juniors, Barcelona, Napoli and Argentina…

Click here to read my article and the issue in full online, or here to buy a copy which you can hold in your hands and love forever.

West Germany Home (Italia’90 World Cup)

England versus West Germany in the 1990 World Cup semi final and the campsite bar erupts in celebration as Chris Waddle skies his penalty.  Four boys resplendant in white West Germany shirts don’t hang about to listen to the post match analysis/post-mortem and rush outside hoping to take their chance of squeezing in a quick kick-a-bout in the last light of a beautiful Scottish summer’s evening before their parents can realise they’ve gone. That’s right, this isn’t a campsite on the Rhine or maybe somewhere in the mountains of Bavaria.  I was eleven and my family and our friends, the Edgars, were enjoying a few nights at a caravan site in St. Andrews.

As you can imagine, the support was pretty partisan, no doubt as it was throughout the rest of the country that night, but for myself, my brother Stewart and our pals, Ross and Andy, the relief that England weren’t going to feature in the final was second to the fact that we could look forward to watching another game involving the players that we had been imagining we were throughout the duration of the tournament – Scotland, unfortunately, only provided a limited span of interest. I was always Lothar Matthäus. To this day, he’s one of my all-time favourite players. I even had a wristband like the Germany flag that was pretty tight, but I used to try and squeeze over my sleeve further up my arm to complete the look of the captain. Stewart was Bodo Illgner, while Andy and Ross were Jurgen Klinsmann and Andreas Brehme respectively. Not that West Germany was an obvious choice to support, but the kit…well it was a thing of beauty and that’s what lured us in at the start of the tournament, but more about that later.

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The technicolour images of Mexico 1986 are the earliest clear World Cup memories I can recall. Maradonna was the protagonist, a swashbuckling, barrel chested hero (or villain depending how you look at it) cutting his way through defences in his fearless and successful mission to singlehandedly win the trophy for Argentina. Myself, my Dad, my little brother to some extent (he was only 4) and even my Mum, all marvelled at his incredible performance against England. White shirts littered the field and trailed in his wake almost every time he got the ball. Opposition players were made to look like they were running in slow motion while he was in fast forward, as he dribbled a ball which seemed to be glued to his feet. I can clearly recall him lifting that beautiful trophy and then being held aloft himself by his teammates in celebration after beating West Germany in the final.

And a Scottish memory too. Gordon Strachan’s in there, popping up with a worthy cameo, as much for his celebration as the quality finish against West Germany. I actually googled it to remember the goal as all I could picture was Strachan with a wrye smile and one leg on the advertising board.

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However, it was Italia’90 that really got under my skin. As an eleven year old, it was everything! It felt like the country, our town, my friends and my family were almost part of the whole celebration. Of course it helped that Scotland had qualified and I was just living, breathing football at the time. There were projects at school (our headmaster Mr. Brown was football daft) where we learned about all the countries taking part. Geography was devoured and every nation’s flag memorised. Even geopolitics was touched upon in primary 6 without us even realising – football used as the catalyst and diversion for some proper learning and we didn’t even know it – we couldn’t get enough. Our Mum would come home with mini Coca Cola Italia’90 footballs and beach towels from the supermarket. I loved drawing the mascot that looked like a Rubik’s Cube transformed with a ball on it’s head and my brother and I spent some pocket money on Italia’90 Subbuteo teams and goals with red, white and green nets. The rest of it was used to buy, in my mind, one of the most iconic and beautiful football tops ever.

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That silky white jersey with those three lines of colour; deep yellow and red under the serious black all dancing across the chest with the original (and best) Adidas trefoil opposite the imposing eagle encircled by DEUTSCHER FUSSBALL-BUND in a bold font wasn’t messing around. This was a serious statement of intent from Adidas and while it was the first of a line of many kits which followed a similar design, they never quite matched the coherency and simplistic brilliance of this one.

I don’t think my Dad should waste any time trying to dig this one out from the loft as, unfortunately, I don’t think I held onto it. It wouldn’t matter anyway as not only would it be too small, I won’t be willing the Germans to World Cup victory tonight. Not like I was in 1990 as I delighted in watching one of the best penalty takers of all time, left back Andy Brehme, dispatch a right footed spot kick that defeated Argentina in an act of revenge for the loss in the final four years previous.

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The Germans have undoubtedly been the team of the tournament and while I revel in watching players like Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Khedira and Kroos, they haven’t grabbed my attention the same way the team of Italia’90 did and it’s not their fault. Not many teams do that any more (Spain have been the exception in recent years) and I think that’s why I’ve been rooting for the underdogs. So I’m continuing with that theme tonight. This year’s competition has been fantastic, but you never enjoy them like you did when you were eleven, twelve, thirteen years old. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t still fancy a little kick-a-bout later, hopefully after watching Messi do his thing tonight.

 

In his book, “Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble“, Graham Hunter brilliantly and insightfully captures, amongst other things, the essence of what it takes to win and dominate international football’s major championships and basically create a legacy which will never be surpassed.  It is a true story of footballing immortality.  Sadly and maybe inevitably, that dominance ended on Wednesday evening in the Maracana at 6pm local time as Spain’s 2-0 defeat to an emphatic, energetic and utterly focused Chile side, consigned them to history as yet another holder of the World Cup not to make it past the group stage of the following competition.

Without taking anything away from Chile’s incredible performance in their own right (and hopefully paying the South Americans the highest of compliments) in a way, Spain were out-Spained, if you know what I mean?  Ok, Chile didn’t control the whole game with the metronomic quality possession game which we’ve become so accustomed to seeing from  Xavi and co. over the years, but their individual and collective work rate, intensity of their pressing, coupled with short sharp incisive and almost instinctive passes in the attacking third, are qualities Las Roja have trademarked over the last 12 years.

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I’m halfway through Graham Hunter’s book – a perfect literal companion to the televisual feast on offer three times a day over the next month – and it’s pages are already bookmarked with different coloured tabs for references and quotes on man management, team spirit, psychology and player development; inspiration that I intend to draw on as I make my own journey into coaching.  So, it’s an insult and misguided to think that these world class players and total professionals that make up the Spanish squad ‘just weren’t up for it’ or were unprepared.

These guys are champions.  Players so focused on maintaining a ridiculously high level of performance with a never-say-die attitude who, just before that glorious period of indestructibility from 2008 onwards, got together under the most difficult of circumstances  and turned the tide of a Spanish public who didn’t hold back in their voracious criticism of the national side.  Many of them are bitter rivals at club level, but are also best friends regardless of the divide, owing much to the fact that they’ve been in the same system at international level since they were 15 years old.  Historically, they are team spirit personified.

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So why has it not worked out in Brazil?  In their opening match against the Netherlands,  Dutch boss, Louis van Gaal got his tactics absolutely spot on.  Their 3-5-2 formation frustrated Spain, the back three/five diligently tracking runners and covering one another when required, while the midfield were solid and compact to allow Robben and Van Persie to make the most of any counter attacks initiated by the wing backs, particularly Blind who was tireless and precise with his passing on the left.

Even before Robin Van Persie flew through the air to loop that wonderful header over Iker Casillas just before half-time, you could see Spain were nowhere near playing with the confidence and fluidity we’ve come to expect.  It was almost as if playing with a focal point, in the considerable shape of Diego Costa, tempted the normally patient Xavi and Alonso and even more curiously, the back four, to force balls up to the Atlético Madrid striker when the pass wasn’t really on.

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Costa himself was disappointing in the opening exchanges.  Although he didn’t look anywhere close to being match sharp after recovering from an injury which forced him out of the Champions League final back in May, he continued to show the clever movement that gets him into goalscoring positions in the box.  But when he did receive the ball, the back three of Holland were switched on enough to recognise the threat and pick up his intelligent runs.  Vlaar did so on a couple of occasions and so did De Vrij, but the latter made the mistake of over committing himself for Spain’s penalty.

Apart from Xabi Alonso’s well placed spot kick, there wasn’t a whole lot more to get  excited about regarding Spain’s attacking play.  In both games, Iniesta seemed frustrated with his lack of involvement and it looked like he thought he needed to take on three or four players every time he got within sight of the opposition penalty area just for him to be effective.  David Silva too was notable for his lightweight attacking contribution and lack of care on the ball in the final third and, quite frankly, mostly looked lost.

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After their implosion in the second half against the Netherlands, Pique, Ramos and Casillas surely couldn’t all play so collectively badly again and we’ll never find that out as it was Gerrard Pique who made way for Javi Martinez in central defence against Chile.  Unfortunately for Spain there were more players underperforming individually, maybe even every one of them.  When this happens, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing against, never mind a team with the aggressive attacking mindset of Chile’s.  There’s no way you’ll get the desired result unless you’re very lucky or tactically astute, which Spain and Vicente del Bosque so clearly weren’t on this occasion.

David Villa  not kicking a ball in the opening two games of a World Cup mystifies.  For him not to feature at any point and Cesc Fàbregas being afforded minimal involvement are decisions which are criminal at worst and confusing at best.  Spain lacked movement in the attacking third and and also a clinical finish in the few instances a half chance was created, qualities these two players bring to the table in spades.  Hunter, an avid fan of Villa’s, will be more puzzled than most with “El Guaje’s” lack of involvement especially after noting his sharpness in training and tipping him to play a major role in his Paddy Power preview of the match.  He even went so far as to say that while “Villa is a man from La Roja’s past – he may need to also be their man of destiny”.  Sadly for  him and Spain, he never got the opportunity to attempt to fulfil that role and at 32, probably won’t get to do so in a World Cup again.

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Was Del Bosque attempting to make a seamless transition for the future Spain, a team that will have to cope without players like Xavi, Iniesta and Alonso, or was he just being stubborn, trying to prove that they could evolve into a team that can be more direct.  It’s quite obvious that counter-attacking football is in vogue, but this Spain have never been interested in following trends – they prefer to set them.  Maybe this was Del Bosque’s attempt at a sort of hybrid that didn’t get past the prototype stage with the players not too sure of the blueprint?

Too much expectation? Over confidence? Player selection? Bad luck and timing? Underachieving as individuals?  Probably all of these factors and more contributed to Spain’s downfall and the end of this magnificent team’s reign of world football that seemed to be all consuming and actually part of a never ending fairy tale.  If anyone knows how much this legendary group of players will be hurting right now, it’s Graham Hunter.  Spain’s sorry displays in Brazil won’t diminish their incredible achievement he’s described in his inimitable style.  I can’t wait to delve back into his addictive prose, however the context I’m now reading it in has slightly changed with the realisation that these players are human after all.

Denmark Euro’92

This kit has a link with #3 in the series, as it was also worn by Dortmund’s Flemming Povlsen, one of my favourite players and a key member of Denmark’s heroic Euro ’92 triumph.  So it makes sense to follow on with this fine example from quintessential Danish sportswear giants Hummel.  The shorts  (the perfect combination of length and bagginess) and socks were lovely, but like a lot of foreiegn kits you could never find them anywhere.  Looking back, the whole red, white and navy blue ensemble was, in my opinion, one of the best kits in the competition.

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I was 13 when Povlsen and co took the footballing world by surprise when they pitched up in Sweden at the last minute, ruffled a few feathers, spoiled their fellow scandinavian host’s Euro ’92 party and earned their place among the international footballing elite by  winning a major tournament they didn’t even qualify for!  They were only there in place of the group winners, Yugoslavia, who were ejected at the last minute by UEFA with their country in the throes of civil war.  Dave Farrar does far more justice to Denmark’s incredible triumph in his insightful and compelling in-depth account in Issue One of The Blizzard, but for me at such an impressionable age, it was what football was all about.; the ultimate underdog story.  I replayed every moment of Denmark’s victory up the park and in the street outside my house, that red and white shirt (with the smart, almost oversized badge) getting put through it’s paces, hoping my Mum had it washed and dried nearly as fast as Danish goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel could race from his line to thwart an attack.  Forget Denmark’s most recent exports, the superbly gripping TV thrillers shown on BBC Three – Borgen, The Bridge, and The Killing – this was real life drama, and for that summer I was hooked on the excitement generated by an unassuming group of players in a really cool kit.

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Michael Laudrup had been a favourite of mine ever since he showed up on my radar during the Danes’ daring exploits at Mexico ’86.  But five years later, their best player had walked away from International football because of disagreements with manager Richard Møller Nielsen’s style of play.   Now I was his younger sibling, Brian, twisting and turning in a game of ‘World Cup doubles’ up Boots’ park (the bowling green of a pitch we weren’t meant to be on behind the factory where my Mum worked) which had been imaginatively re-named ‘Euro Championship doubles’.  It blows my mind that six years later I would share the same pitch, battling against him and his star-studded Rangers team, attempting to nullify the same skills I once tried to recreate.

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This was a tournament where I was utterly engrossed and not just because Scotland had managed to qualify.  I remember watching almost every game as well as taping highlights shows onto a long play VHS tape so that I had every goal from the tournament.  90 minutes magazine even gave away a cut out video sleeve for the final which I expertly glued to the cardboard case to make my own unofficial extended highlights reel with the final between Denmark and Germany shown in full at the end.

John Jensen’s opener in that game typified the way Denmark had played over the course of the tournament which was with a  combination of skill and determination in equal amounts.  I think it was Kim Vilfort who latched onto Povlsen’s header down the right hand side and he cleverly back heeled it back into the Dortmund player’s path.  Povlsen, who I revered as much for his never say die attitude as his swashbuckling style, got nailed by a well-timed crunching tackle by no-nonsense centre back, Jürgen Kohler, who then passed to another of my favourite players from that time, Andy Brehme.  Brehme turned into the sliding Vilfort who took ball and man with an equally bone shuddering challenge to set up Polvsen to attack the German box.  A disguise cut-back to the usually off target Jensen was dispatched from the edge of the box with power and pace past a diving Bodo Ilgner, steering the Danes on the path to victory and sealing a move to Arsenal for the hard working Danish midfielder when the tournament ended.

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It was fitting that Vilfort scored the second.  The Danish utility man, who had an outstanding tournament, had spent his time between matches flying back and forth to Denmark to visit his daughter who had Leukaemia.  I don’t know how he did it, but his strength of character must have been an inspiration for his team mates.

The shock that reverbarated around the footballing world following Denmark’s incredible victory may have died down relatively quickly outside of the winning nation, but for a good few months after, I was still wearing that red shirt with pride.  No longer was I Maradonna or Matthaus or any of the more glamorous players I admired.  Up Boots’ park, when the game was back to ‘World Cuppy’, I was Lars Elstrup, Kim Vilfort, Brian Laudrup, Flemming Povlsen and John Jensen – the heroes of Euro’92.

Highlights of the final from YouTube: Denmark 2 Germany 0

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This is the first of a new series where I’ll be regularly posting introductions to five of my favourite people to follow on Twitter.  Expect mainly football oriented accounts, with a few random ones thrown in to keep things interesting.

@royhendo – My unofficial writing mentor and Dundee-based Liverpool fan who’s interesting and intelligent musings can be read on The Anfield Wrap and The Blizzard.  Roy’s profile picture is a terrifying hybrid of himself and legendary DUFC keeper Hamish MacAlpine. Don’t be fooled, Roy has no hair.

@RobPennWidwood and @lateraltruth– Author, journalist and TV presenter who can usually be found in the woods or on his bike and sometimes in the woods on his bike.  To my delight, Rob tweets about trees and cycling in almost equal measure.

@usasoccerguy – Hilarious parody account mainly ‘Soccerizing’ the ‘franchise teams’ in the ‘English EPL’.  If you want to be kept up to date with The Whitespurs and Manchester Unity’s ‘goal-shot denials’, ‘felony kicks’ and all the ‘franchise enhancement window’ news, then Soccer Guy is your man.

@ginkers – Scottish-Italian author, Giancarlo Rinaldi tweets about all things Calcio and in particular his beloved Fiorentina.  Obviously I follow him because of his astute and brilliant writing, but mainly because a man who loves Moretti beer and Gabriel Batistuta cannot be ignored.

@Conway_Sean – Mad man.  Inspirational. Super Human.  I think Sean is a combination of all three on account of the fact that he’s currently swimming 1000 miles from Land’s End to John o’ Groats!  He tweets regular updates with links to his blog and amazing photos from his adventure, providing his hands haven’t been stung by jellyfish.

If you’ve looked at my twitter feed over the last three weeks, you might’ve noticed that most of the ‘action’ has centred around this year’s 100th edition of the Tour de France.  I make no apologies.  It’s one of my favourite sporting events and what I consider to possibly be THE most extreme competitive test of sporting human endurance and willpower.

My love of ‘Le Tour’ was born and then fostered over the years during the period of time when every footballer faces their own annual battle of body and mind; pre-season.  The timing of the race coincides with the three to four week period when most British footballers are pushed close to their own limits; mentally and physically preparing for the long season ahead.  For the clubs that can afford it, this often means going abroad on tour (Austria was a particular favourite during my time at Dundee United and Swindon Town), embedding in a training camp and basically just eating and sleeping football for a week or two and drinking in the often beautiful scenery.  Double sessions are ‘de rigueur’ and the time in between is for recovery and relaxation.  This is when I became intimately acquainted with the greatest bike race in the world.

I’m not one for sleeping in the afternoons like a lot of footballers do.  If I have an hour or two in bed, in between sessions or post training, I don’t sleep at night, so my options when I’m on tour are limited to reading or watching T.V. with the sound down while my roommate catches a few z’s.  Back in the late nineties, when this love affair began, my choice of reading material was what could best be described as limited.  While the books I devoured on the SAS and other special forces kept me occupied, the Tour de France had me engrossed.  Although, I’ve got to admit that at first, I wasn’t watching it entirely out of choice.  Daytime telly abroad is possibly even worse than in it is in this country.  It might just be because I couldn’t understand what they were saying on their version of Wheel of Fortune, and even though the presenters were easier on the eye, the one saving grace was always Eurosport.  It didn’t matter that I didn’t know what the commentators were talking about, it was the standard channel for a brit footballer abroad.

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Photo: NBCnews.com

That’s when I started watching this amazing bike race.  The gratuitous helicopter shots capturing the colour and fluidity of the peloton as it made it’s way through the breathtaking scenery of the French countryside was a tourism board’s dream – and I was sold. Crazy fans in fancy dress or a pair of Speedos waving flags of every nation involved, running alongside the riders, desperate to give their heroes a push up impossibly steep mountain stages and sometimes receiving a firm shove when their enthusiasm and support got too close for comfort.  Kamikaze descents from riders eager to gain back a couple of seconds lost on the way up or to increase a gap in the hope of snatching that all important stage win.  And the crashes.  I shuddered when someone hit the deck.  I’ve still got scars from falling off my Raleigh Burner onto my cul de sac’s unforgiving surface as a boy, I can only imagine how hitting tarmac feels when travelling at almost 60km per hour with a rider centimetres from your back wheel and others all around you.  But these warriors, with lycra and skin peeling off as one, got back up!  And if they hadn’t broken a collar bone or dislocated a shoulder, they raced to the finish…and got up the next day and did it all over again.

If I was tired during a running session or a fitness test, I often thought that no matter how bad I felt, these guys were feeling at least ten times worse.  I would then dig in and grind out a few extra doggies on a yo-yo test or will myself to concentrate harder towards the end of a tough football session.  When I woke up early the next day with stiffness in my legs, wondering how I was going to get them moving again without a bit of WD-40, all I had to do was open the curtains for motivation.  The Austrian Alps were often the incredible backdrop to my pre-season and looking at the jagged peaks surrounding the training base, it was easy to imagine the riders of the Tour tackling the lunar like summit of Mont Ventoux or the steep switchbacks of l’Alpe d’Huez and realise that compared to this, my day was going to be a walk in the park.

There were times during those afternoons watching the race when I did feel myself nodding off, almost hypnotised by the constant  high cadence the riders somehow managed to apply for over four hours in the saddle.  I don’t claim to be an expert, but the more I watched, the more I learned about the intricacies of the race – the team tactics, sprinters, climbers, domestiques, time trials, GC riders, breakaways, attacks, summit finishes and the unwritten rules of the peloton.  And also Lance Armstrong.

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Photo: BBC sport

He’s largely responsible for my appreciation of the race.  Ironically it was the Festina, Cofidis and other doping scandals which constantly plagued the sport that actually gave me a growing sense of disillusionment during the latter part of the last decade.  However, it was a chance encounter with the final time trial stage of the 2009 Giro d’Italia while on holiday in Rome and Bradley Wiggins‘ and Mark Cavendish’s incredible performances in the Tour de France a few months later, that played a large part in rekindling my love of the greatest road race in the world.

With the emergence of Team Sky and a new breed of clean British cyclists, under the tutelage of Dave Brailsford, I’ve not only fallen back in love with the Tour, I’m almost obsessed by it.  I didn’t think it could get much better after last year’s incredible race when Wiggins, Froome, Cavendish and Sky dominated, but this summer’s 100th edition has had everything.  Stage one in Corsica set the tone.  Race favourite, Chris Froome took a tumble before it even got properly started and then farcically, the Orica GreenEdge team bus got stuck under the finish line!  A bad crash six kilometres from the finish scuppered Cavendish’s chances of wearing the yellow jersey, but introduced us to Marcel Kittel, the next big challenger for the Manx man’s sprinting crown.  In the pile-up, Sky’s Gerraint Thomas suffered a hairline fracture to his pelvis, but incredibly, managed to complete the race – all twenty one days of it.  With all this drama in the opening stage, you already got the feeling the it was gearing up to be a  bit special.

There are many memories and highlights from this year’s centenary Tour and it somehow feels fitting to have so many iconic moments to look back on.  It’s maybe because it’s still so fresh in my memory, but for me, Chris Froome’s performance is probably the best I’ve ever witnessed.  His stage 8 win on Ax 3 Domaines to claim the Maillot Jaune (which would subsequently never leave his shoulders) was his proper introduction to the race and then his devastating acceleration to take victory on Mont Ventoux was as much a statement of intent as it was a tactic to win.  The way he dealt with the subsequent attacks on the road and in the media showed the class he has both as a cyclist and a person.  I admire Bradley Wiggins, but I’ve never warmed to him.  I feel that his confidence borders on arrogance whilst Froome lets his cycling do the talking.

Froome_ventoux

Photo: BBC

But it wasn’t all about Chris Froome.  My living room window in Devon might not afford me views of the Alpine scenery that I associate with past tours, but ITV 4’s insightful coverage fronted by Gary Imlach, with Chris Boardman, and Ned Boulting, and colourful commentary from Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, elevates the racing further.  The tour organisers also played their part in designing a route that was not only interesting on a technical level, but included all the set piece elements and scenic stages the 100th edition deserved.

Mont_Saint_Michel

Photo: abc.net.au

The early rolling stages in stunning Corsica made sure there were a few riders and teams who felt they had genuine claims for high finishes and so helped to lay the foundations of a competitive race.  As the tour reached stage 11 with the imposing Mont Saint Michel in the background, not only were the Normandy tourism officials rubbing their hands with the amount of free advertising their region was receiving, but I was trying to work out if I had mistakenly pressed play on an old episode of Game of Thrones instead of the time trial highlights show.  And a double ascent of l’Alpe d’Huez, won in emphatic style by Frenchman Christophe Riblon squeezed in before the conclusion – a first ever night time finish on the Champs-Élysées, well what more could you ask for?  How about Ritchie Porte’s tenacious and unselfish riding to protect Froome from sustained attacks, Mark Cavendish being sprayed by urine the day after a controversial crash in a sprint finish, Peter Sagan’s wheelies, Jean Christophe Péraud’s brave/crazy decision to ride with a broken clavicle sustained in an earlier recce,  only to sickeningly fall on the same body part again.  Nairo Quintana making climbing look like an art form, the epic battle for the podium places, Peter Kennaugh falling into a ditch, the thousands of dedicated fans including my particular favourite; a barefoot, middle aged man in shorts carrying a stuffed boar under one arm and waving it’s broken front leg with the other.  I dare you to name me another event  that can cram in that amount of pure theatre.

Froome_yellow

Photo: Mail online

Next year we could potentially see Froome and Wiggins battle it out for supremacy.  Throw in Vincenzo Nibali, an on form Cadel Evans, a more experienced Nairo Quintana and many others who will attempt to peak at the right time and I challenge anyone not to fall in love with the Tour de France…even just a little bit.

Just in case you’re interested, here’s the mad man with the boar: http://gamedayr.com/gamedayr/gif-fake-pig-carrying-man-chases-tour-de-france-bikers/