A visit to Arsenal’s London Colney training ground provides much more than an opportunity to get autographs make small-talk with the players and staff. After all, what have they really got to say to us and vice versa? I quickly found this out when Aaron Ramsey sauntered towards our table in the dining area while our four-person tour was enjoying a welcome cup of tea. The ensuing dialogue between Aaron and myself flowed thus:
AR: “Hi, I’m Aaron, nice to meet you”
Me: “Hi, Aaron, Alex, lovely to meet you…
…Err, great to have you back, top performance versus Hull the other week.”
AR: (with a token bored smile) “Thanks.”
He signs a shirt we’ve brought, we all shake hands and then he’s off to get himself some breakfast.
Clearly, the day wasn’t to be about finding black and white answers to the screaming questions so many of us have about the players, the manager, and the general running of the club. More it was a chance catch a glimpse of the day to day life our squad and their often enigmatic leader and draw conclusions from there.
The training ground was opened in 1999, 2 years after Wenger took over the managerial vacancy, at a cost of around £10m. It was built at Wenger’s request after the first two years of his reign had seen the team train at a facility shared with University College followed by a stint at Sopwell House Hotel. The new venue would contain the newest fitness technology and be crucial in implementing Arsene’s vision of how the team should be assembled. In many ways, London Colney is much more his “baby” than the Emirates Stadium.
My first impression as we walked up to the training ground was that it had an intense atmosphere of privacy and serenity. The building still looks modern and elegant and is surrounded by immaculate landscaped gardens and streams. On closer inspection, huge Koi Carp swim lazily in these man-made waterways, although it turned out these weren’t the brainchild of some Mahayana Buddhist expert to try and help the players obtain spiritual enlightenment; they were donated by David Seaman after he overcrowded his pond.
We entered the facility through the same doors the first team come through each day, passing a plaque listing all the club’s major honours. There’s very little space left – Tim, our guide, tells us Jack Wilshere always jokes that it’s the reason the team haven’t won anything in the last 9 years. In an airy hallway adorned with pictures of club legends lifting trophies, there’s a wall of pigeon-holes which contain all the players’ post. All fan mail arrives here, apparently. Mesut Ӧzil had stacks of letters and parcels, Theo Walcott keeps his well-organised, Nicklas Bendtner’s contains a pair of battered cloth boots. Tim says that Bendtner always seems to have some strange shoes delivered, and that the others take great delight in hiding them around the entrance.
We don shoe covers – Arsene is very strict about his indoor shoe policy – and walk through the first set of doors into the first team dressing room. There are no doors on any of the lockers, another idea of Wenger’s, Tim says. When the locker doors are open, players can’t see the person next to them, which doesn’t encourage communication. Mobile phones are banned in here for the same reason. Our guide tells us with a wry smile that there once used to be a supporting column in the middle of the dressing room, which Arsene demanded at removed. And the cost of this amendment? £1.3m. The lack of doors gives us a chance to be nosey and inspect the contents. You wouldn’t know who most of the lockers belong to; they all contained the expected boots, fragrances and protein milk, apart from Fabianski’s, which had a poster on the wall showing himself celebrating in an Arsenal kit, the club crest and a slogan reading “Hard work conquers fear”. And Serge Gnabry’s contained Veet hair removal cream. Make of that what you will.
Next on our tour were the medical facilities. It’s easy to see where the £10m went: There’s a swimming pool with adjustable depth to enable running in water, just like the technique used to care for racehorses. There’s an ice bath, an anti-gravity treadmill, and there are five physios on site.
Passing through the rooms of massage tables brought us to the youth academy side of the building. Here, the lockers do have doors. “When one year starts pranking each other, they all do it,” Tim says with a wry smile. “Deep Heat in the underwear was the favourite.”
The youth academy is obviously world renowned at Arsenal, yet recent results in the league belie this. “You see a lot of people questioning the management of the youth sides on Twitter,” Tim goes on, “but I’m not sure they really understand what it’s all about. You can win the youth league every season, but if not one of the U21 side makes the step up to the first team, you’ve not done your job as an academy.” It’s a very good point he makes, and with the U21 matches becoming more popular as tickets for the first team become harder and harder to obtain, it’s an important one for the fans to understand. “We help the players to learn through mistakes. For example, if we have a goalkeeper who’s weak at collecting crosses, the coach might tell him to go and try and collect every cross, even if he knows he can’t get there. It’ll cost goals in the game, but he’ll improve.” I asked him if player improvement over results translates across to the first team, citing the use of Aaron Ramsey on the right wing a couple of years ago. “The first team is much more results based,” says Tim, “But Wenger did play Ramsey wide to speed up his game. The pitch is effectively halved when you’re out there, so when you come back into the centre you suddenly have a lot more time on the ball. I can’t believe he’d have played out there had Walcott been fit, though.” I also call him out about what he said about Twitter. “Are the players aware of what gets said about them on Twitter?” I ask. “They’re mostly on Instagram and Twitter, so yes they do pick some of it up,” he tells me. “Bendtner was asking around if anyone knew why the fans were calling him “Lord Bendtner” a few weeks ago!” It’s food for thought.
Having toured the excellent youth facilities (I’m told the youth training ground changing rooms are far better than at some Premier League first team stadiums), We move to the gymnasiums. To get there, we have to pass through some double doors near another entrance. “The youth team come through this entrance and never pass through these doors,” Tim informs us, indicating the double doors. “This side is the youth side, the other side is for the first team. Unfortunately after 2 years with us, if they aren’t going through these doors, they go back out the way they came. We don’t cast them off though. We’ve got plenty of good contacts at a lot of clubs, we do our best to find them opportunities elsewhere. It’s not like “We don’t want you anymore, off you go.”” Another nice touch stands on the wall opposite the entrance doors and adjacent to the doors which lead to the first team facilities. Three pictures of the last three players to progress from the youth academy to cement a place in the Arsenal first team stand proudly framed as inspiration for the youngsters. They’re out of date; Gibbs, Bendtner and Wilshere are up there, but the idea’s nice.
The smaller of the two gyms contains frames and giant elastic loops hanging from the ceilings for the players to do yoga and pilates, as well as a wall strengthened with reinforced steel to allow the players to throw medicine balls against it. “They still put light switches and sockets on that wall, they didn’t think it through. Every week Pires would be up here trying to hit the light switch, and most of the time he broke it. He’d tell the gaffer every time with a cheeky smile, promise to pay for the damage, and walk off.” The main gymnasium downstairs is far more impressive. Even though it’s now 15 years old, the equipment has all been updated. I take the chance to ask a few questions:
Me: “Who’s the strongest out of the current first team?”
Tim: (After a long pause) “Probably Podolski, he can lift the most. The players aren’t supposed to lift too much in the run up to a match, but some of them have strange traditions. Gallas used to deliberately lift the heaviest weights he could find the day before a match. It’d tire him out, but he’d feel mentally prepared and strong, so Arsene never used to stop him.
“Parlour was definitely our strongest ever, though. He used to lie on his back with a 5kg medicine ball and slam it off the ceiling. Not just touch it. Slam it. Ten times in a row. Nobody else can touch it.”
We all look up at the ceiling. It’s at least 4m high, maybe 5.
Me: “Who works out the most?”
Tim: (Without a second’s hesitation) “Arteta. And Wilshere. He’s in here a lot.”
Me: “And who’s the fittest?”
Tim: “Probably Jenkinson. He can run all day long.”
The final indoor section of our tour takes us to the press room, where Arsene was just finishing his conference as we entered. Little did we know about the news about his future he announced as we seized to opportunity to pose for photos in his vacated chair. The one interesting thing we spotted on the way out was the Jean-Richard clock, tactically positioned so it’s in shot as the cameras catch Arsene leaving the room. There are obviously some very clever marketing people going over the details with a fine tooth comb at the club.
With our tour now finished, we walked to the first team training pitch to watch the players train. It lasted around 90 minutes, consisting of a warm up, possession game in a third of the pitch with 11 players on each team, and then an 11 a side match on a full sized pitch. Pires was playing, and ran the show in the middle of the park, scoring two goals. Steve Bould gets involved playing at centre half, and is far more vocal than Wenger, who prowls around with a stopwatch and whistle occasionally shouting to praise or instruct his players. I wouldn’t read too much into a training game played at 80% intensity, but there were a few interesting points to note. Flamini was still flying into tackles, Bendtner looked rather disenchanted throughout, and Mertesacker was hilariously animated (and very good) playing alongside Vermaelen.
“Flam! Flam!! Tighter, Flam, tighter!”
“Nach! Close down, now!”
“Lukas! HELP HIM!!” he roars, pulling his shorts right up to his hips as he shouts in that pose we’ve all seen before.
I ask Tim why Mertesacker seems to be leading the partnership when Vermaelen is the captain. His response was that Per is the regular starter, so it makes sense for him to orchestrate. And it does.
Players like Ramsey, Cazorla and Podolski looked excellent, and there were surprise appearances for Abou Diaby (in spite of the boss’ statement that he had a groin strain in the preceding press conference) who looked assured, and for Arinse Uade, for whom it was his first session with the first team as cover for the injured Kieran Gibbs. Arteta, Chamberlain and Wilshere were the other notable absentees.
After the match, we headed upstairs for lunch in the canteen, the only space the youngsters share with the first team. It’s a relaxed atmosphere, there are TVs at each end of the room showing Sky Sports News. The players definitely eat well, there are at least five different low fat main courses, all balanced to provide energy and the correct nutrients to stimulate muscle regeneration. Theo Walcott was in the canteen early having not trained, and sat talking with us for a few minutes while his lunch went cold. He said his knee was feeling “much better” and has recently become a father. Many other players came over to sign autographs and take photos with us, including Diaby, who replied to my query about him playing again this season with a big grin, exclaiming “oh yeah!”. All of the players were incredibly articulate and friendly, including the youngsters we met. One gets the impression they’re coached to deal with supporters and media incredibly well.
Leaving the training ground, you got the feeling you were leaving behind a footballing paradise. Everything at London Colney is set up to get the most out of the players and make them feel at home; even the colour scheme around is chosen to relax them while traditional crests and photos of club legends reminds them of the future they can make for themselves. It’s all tailor-made to suit Arsene’s philosophies and training methods, and when we got home to hear the news that he wanted to extend his deal with the club, not one of us was surprised in the slightest.
Follow Alex Hurley @Huuurrley
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