The smell of sizzling bacon wafts past FFT’s nose. Hmmmm. Sausages, beans, eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms – a full English heart attack is lifting up its skirt and showing us what’s on offer. “Don’t even think about it,” says Josh Dixon, the Nike Academy’s strength and conditioning coach. “You need to get some quality carbohydrates and protein on board, plus some fruit. This will top up fuel stores you’ll need throughout the day and trust me, you’re going to need it,” he adds with a sinister wink. Spoilsport. Slap – a spoonful of porridge hits our bowl.
FFT is used to treading carefully into a dark and dingy changing room where a damp, muddy kit is waiting for us. But not today; today, we get treated like pros. In a pristine changing room at St George’s Park a sparkly new Nike kit, immaculately laid out, is waiting for us. Ooooohhhhh. “Dri-FIT Knit fabric on the training tops wicks sweat away and helps keep you dry and comfortable,” explains a Nike insider. “There’s breathability technology to help keep you cool around your body’s high-heat zones.” Great. Do they come in onesies?
More after the break
Now FFT looks the part it’s time to head down to the pitches to impress the Nike Academy coaches, but there’s one last stop we need to make: the physio’s room. We take a deep breath before reeling off an injury history that would make Ledley King wince. Nike Academy sports therapist Hayley Iwaszko offers some sage advice. “For someone of your…” she says, before pausing, “age – I would recommend a lot of pre-activation work before you play, and give your body time to recover after a game. The Academy players are 17 to 20 years old and sometimes train three times a day. I wouldn’t recommend you do that.” FFT tries to get up, but is momentarily immobilised by a back spasm.
We mere mortals stroll out onto our Sunday League pitches, fag in mouth, tea in hand. Not elite players. They get their bodies ready with massages, dynamic warm-ups and a darning from the physio. Iwaszko uses the ATFL strapping technique to support FFT’s ankle with a heel lock. “This will stop your ankle moving backwards and protect it against strains, but you’re risking ligament damage by playing on it,” she explains. “Ligaments take longer to heal because they have a poorer blood supply than a muscle or a tendon.” Gulp.
Imagine what a BDSM-themed yoga class would feel like. Well, that’s what Dixon puts us through. Even a contortionist would struggle to get in some of the positions he asks us to perform. For all the pain, it’s like relieving a pressure valve. Dixon runs us through dynamic movements, static stretches and some reactionary drills. We pair up and face each other like two wrestlers about to go at it, but instead of grappling we compete for a cone lying between us. The first to grab it, wins. FFT competes against a whippersnapper eight years our junior. He wins. Every time.
We’re now in the hands of the Academy’s assistant manager Edu Rubio. “We’re going to put you through the same drills our players do everyday,” says the Spaniard. “The ability to keep the ball is crucial to us, but it’s possession with purpose, not just for the sake of it. I’m not big on restrictions – we play freely – it has to be realistic.” The possession drills we run through are played on mini-pitches marked out with cones. “Football is played inside a rectangle not a square – it’s important we replicate game-like conditions.” We, unfortunately, are unable to replicate the Academy’s slick passing game.
There are few better feelings than catching a quality football sweetly and watching it cut through the air before hitting the back of the net – making that unmistakable sound of leather connecting with string. Rubio gives us the chance to chase this high with a fast and furious shooting drill. You take a free shot at goal, before becoming a defender and facing an attacker in a 1 v 1, then another attacker joins the action creating a 2 v 1 scenario. FFT finishes the drill with three goals – sadly, one of them is an accurate reconstruction of Marcelo’s own goal in the opening game of the World Cup. Eeyore, eyore.
After sitting down for lunch, FFT can feel the early onset of rigor mortis taking grip of our legs. As we shovel another mouthful of food down our throat, Dixon brings our happiness to an abrupt end. “Let’s get to the gym,” says the sadist. “Before we get started we need to prepare the body for movement.” He hands us a golf ball and tennis ball, but there’s no club or racquet – we have to roll our feet, calves, hamstrings and hips over the balls. This feels like someone is digging their elbow into your body’s most sensitive regions. “Don’t go into the pain cave: smile,” grins Dixon. FFT wipes away a salty tear before he can notice.
Sadistic stretching, pain-provoking tennis balls and a muscle-burning weights session – FFT has experienced all manner of torture today, but nothing compares to the ice bath. “Two minutes in the cold, two minutes in the hot, do this for 10 minutes,” instructs Dixon. The dip in the cold water is designed to reduce swelling in our weary legs, creating a flushing effect to improve recovery. It might do this, but it also causes severe shrinking in the groin area and a pain so piercing it feels like your bones are being crushed. The hot water feels like a hug from Yogi Bear. It’s warm and snug in here. FFT doesn’t want to leave. “Back in the cold water,” screams Dixon.