EXCLUSIVE: In with the Toon: Sportsmail goes behind the scenes at Newcastle, the undisputed team of the Premier League season
23:58 GMT, 27 April 2012
They started well and kept going. Newcastle are the team who came from nowhere and are still pushing hard for the Champions League.
Alan Pardew and his scouting team have attracted players like Yohan Cabaye, Hatem Ben Arfa, Cheick Tiote, Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba. They are the Barclays Premier League’s surprise team of the season.
This week they opened the doors to their NUFC Training Centre to Sportsmail to share (some of) their secrets.
Building blocks: Sportsmail was given exclusive access to the Newcastle United training centre
The facility sits in the area of Benton on the east of the city, a mile from the Tyne Tunnel. With four main pitches, one indoor pitch in a hangar and the main building block, the training area stretches down for several acres to the club’s ever-improving academy next door.
On Saturday, Newcastle travel to Wigan looking to continue their winning run as their season goes from strength to strength.
Pardew said: ‘I think it’s been great for the Premier League that we’ve done this. It’s been absolutely brilliant and we’ve been a breath of fresh air. People talk about Norwich and Swansea and the impact they’ve had and the way they play, which has been fabulous, but you can’t get away from the fact that we’ve shaken up the division.
‘We’ve shaken things up in the right manner and we’ve done it playing the right way.
All smiles: Newcastle coach Steve Tweddle puts the team through their paces at the training ground
‘We’ve changed things when we’ve needed to. But right now, we’re really playing with a lot of flair. I think that sets us apart from most of the others.
‘Before I came here I wasn’t a Newcastle fan, but you always used to smile when you thought of Newcastle because of the flair players they’d had in the past.
‘This has always been a club that’s been synonymous with great football and it’s great to be able to emulate some of that. And we have not broken the bank. It’s been about clever manoeuvering and getting a good work ethic on the football pitch.
‘I still don’t think the ratio of the top teams has changed too much. It’s still going to be difficult for us to break into that top four, and I still think it’s a bit of a long shot. But if we do it, then I am certain people will be having a good look at what we’ve done and how we’ve done it.’
The kit lasses' Gill Houston, Claire Bryant and Juliet Cox are among the first to arrive at the training ground, clocking in at seven to start washing the shirts, shorts, socks and training tops of all the 70-plus first team and Academy players from the previous day so it is ready for their 10am start. There are also all the coaches and club staff to keep pristine in their club uniforms and an endless supply of towels.
The five washing machines and four dryers are on the go all day, quietly humming in the background as the ladies fold the kit and place it on the shelves around the room. It is picked up by the kitmen and distributed round the dressing rooms for training.
The signed shirts and the photos on the walls from former players and managers show the importance of the three women who work in the laundry room.
Bellamy, Woodgate, O’Brien, Dyer, Given, Griffin, Solano and of course Shearer have all left the club with a gift as thanks for their hard work. They were all frequent visitors, seeking the sanctuary and warmth in the welcome and temperature of a block which sits independently from the main building, next to the expensive players’ cars.
The girls have their favourites of
course, demonstrated by the numerous photos of Alan Shearer, and those
signed shirts which survived the unfortunate fire several years ago.
one of the damaged shirts lost the signature of their absolute
favourite, Sir Bobby Robson, a frequent visitors to the laundry block,
and the only man who managed to get his shirts ironed and suits pressed.
The great man spent hours in this room entertaining his hosts. And like me, Sir Bobby had to be educated in the difference between a washing machine and dryer, even though in our defence, at first glance, they look very similar.
'He always made us comfortable and part of the team,' says Gill. 'He was a one-off and a real gent.
'And he managed to persuade us to do his shirts and suits. Just don’t tell anyone.'
Chef Liz Hornsby is hard at work from eight putting breakfasts together for the staff and players.
As she starts her preparations for lunch, an endless stream of callers pop their head round the door to make their breakfast order – poached eggs for goalkeeping coach Andy Woodman, which is smothered in tomato ketchup when it is served at his table where he sits with first team coaches Steve Stone and John Carver, glancing up at Sky Sports News, the silent presence in the corner. The last player’s order comes from Hatem Ben Arfa and Papiss Cisse who tuck into toast with chocolate spread (two hours later).
Up in flames: Newcastle Head Chef Liz Hornsby preares breakfast at their training ground
Since Kenny Dalglish became the first Newcastle manager to revolutionise eating habits of the players, Liz has worked closely with all the managers and staff to produce a menu throughout the week and before matches.
And for all the carbs, protein, halal meats and goat curries she has produced every day, or for the themed days in the restaurant, there will always be one constant. Sir Bobby's rice pudding.
'He came in one day and said he had a very sweet tooth and could I come up with something for a sweet, so I asked if he fancied a rice pudding. After that he would have it every week. And once Alan Shearer tried it and liked it, that was it.
Breakfast like a king: Newcastle United are served up a treat to fuel them for training
'Now I’ll do 70 to 80 portions every week, plus some for some of them to take home. There’s no secret recipe, or secret ingredient, I just seemed to make quite a nice rice pudding, but I wouldn’t know because it is very sweet and I don’t have a sweet tooth and I don’t really like it.
'The foreign players in particular love it, it is like an addiction and of course the one day I didn’t make it, they lost, home to Chelsea. John Carver said it’s the last time it will happen.'
Feast: Newcastle duo Hatem Ben Artha (right) and Papiss Cisse have breakfast at their training ground
The first player to arrive every day, without fail, is Fabricio Coloccini.
We find the Newcastle captain by his locker in the otherwise empty dressing room at eight thirty. He is waiting for his tea to boil.
First through the door: Newcastle captain Fabricio Coloccini sets an example to the rest of the squad
Despite the vast array of food available down the corridor, Coloccini drinks his own special brew of Argentinian green tea – mate. He brings it from home in a backpack, with a thermal flask, a cup, a strange silver spoon, which doubles as a straw, and the plastic container for green leaves.
'I drink this every day and Jonas will have a cup too,’ he says pointing to the empty space beside him. `Ryan Taylor tried it too but he didn’t like it so much.'
Some players are happy going straight on to the training ground. Some prefer to do their own stretching exercises before the head for the pitches. Some are so late they barely make breakfast.
In the mini-gym, fitness coach Duncan French puts defender Mike Williamson, weighed down by a heavy vest, through a series of bizarre stretches and leaps from a metal box in front of the mirrors. Behind Yohann Cabaye does his yoga and palates stretches on a mat before finishing with a small set of weight exercises.
'I like push myself and I like these sort of routines,’ says Williamson. `And anything that can give me one or two per cent extra I am open to.'
Stretching: Mike Williamson warms-up ahead of a Newcastle training session
Feeling the strain: French midfielder Yohan Cabye has been one of Newcastle's star players this season
The squad gather in the hangar which
is also the indoor pitch at 10.30. John Carver talks through the next two hours, before the
players sweep away for a very light jog for three laps of the pitch
which is treated more like a social catch-up. The serious work begins
when they return to Carver, coaches and fitness staff.
in groups, the players go through a number of intense stretches and
exercises aimed at ensuring all the key muscles are warmed up before the
says: 'There were some of the older guard, shall we say, who said this
was a waste of time and it would never last. Now we do it twice a week
and it is an integral part of our preparations.'
Billy is the cleaner. In the summer, on one of the first days of pre-season, Alan Pardew lined up all his first team and reserve team players one on side behind the main building. Opposite them stood all the staff. He asked the staff to introduce themselves to the players, some of whom were new to the club, some who have been around for years. One of the first up was Billy.
'I told them, “my name’s Billy and I am in charge of my own department, the cleaning department.” There’s only one of me. I said, “if you like the cleaning, I’m you’re man. And if you don’t like it, blame someone else.”
'It was great of the manager to do that and I think it was a way of saying that the work we do is just as important as the players. Well, nearly.'
Preparations for Saturday’s visit to Wigan get under way first thing on Monday morning when analysts Kerry Morrow and Ben Stevens take their seats in the dark video room, known among the coaches as the bunker.
Speaking in a language most ordinary football fans would struggle to comprehend, they piece together the best (or the worst) of Newcastle’s opponents. They also study every aspect of Saturday’s win over Stoke City.
Planning: Alan Pardew has worked wonders to mastermind Newcastle's epic rise
This week the Newcastle players will be shown two videos featuring Wigan, dealing with defensive and offensive aspects of one of the more unique teams in the Barclays Premier League.
Nothing is left untouched, or two chance, but there can be interesting debrief sessions with Pardew on a Monday morning.
Ben Stevens says: 'If we’ve conceded a left foot free-kick into the top corner, he’ll come in and say “you didn’t tell me he could do that”. Thankfully that doesn’t happen very often.'
Talking tactics: Newcastle staff study footage in the Strategy Room at their training ground
Neil Stoker’s Newcastle United company car is a little different to everyone else’s. He says it goes from nought to 60 in four weeks, which is a little different to the high performance vehicles in the player’s car park.
He has photos of Shearer, Keegan, Cole, MacDonald and Quinn on the front, and a little blue flashing light on the back for emergencies. His mini ambulance, complete with first aid kit and stretcher, carries an endless supply of footballs and the plastic mannequins for practice on to the training ground. When necessary, on rare occasions, he will escort the wounded from it.
If any coaches need equipment, football or cones for their sessions, Neil is their man. And if any balls go astray over the high wire fences, it is a man who has worked for the club for nearly 15 years who must keep an eye on them and head off into the wilderness to find them, long after the players have gone home.
'It’s worse at this time of year,’ says Neil. 'Because you have long nettles and I’m forever getting stung.’
Groundwork starts now
Groundsman Mike Curran has a busy summer ahead. In fact his work for next season has started already.
Two of the four training ground pitches have had all the grass taken off, and Mike and his six-man team are in the process of taking all the vegetation off the areas and then putting a mixture of fibre and elastic on there to grow over the close season, and be ready for early July when Alan Pardew and his players return for pre-season.
The main pitch, which is cut almost daily and used by the first team, particularly the day before matches, is an exact replica of St James’s Park.
Mike’s day begins with a meeting with first team coach John Carver who, sets out the training schedule for the day. The pitch rotation system means all the areas are used and rested.
On the day we visit, Mike’s team have also been given instructions to mark out a basketball pitch at the back of Alan Pardew’s office. This follows a training session with the Newcastle Eagles last week, which was held on the car park.
Pardew and his players liked it so much they wanted to play the game regularly so groundsman Chris Coleby and Anthony Jackson have the unenviable task of cutting, measuring and putting down the lines for a new basketball court, showing the same precision and finite details that they would for a Champions League game at the stadium. It takes several hours to perfect and before they are happy to walk away.
Hard at work: Newcastle ground staff Anthony Jackson, Christopher Colbey and Mark Cooper at their training ground
'It’s what the gaffer wants,’ says Chris. 'so it has to be absolutely spot on.' Although he is based at Benton, Mike has two full-time staff at the stadium. Their work starts the moment a first team game finishes, and can last until the early hours.
Mike said: 'After a game on a Saturday, we replace all the divots and vacuum up all the debris with five machines, which takes about 40 minutes. We then have to bring in the five lighting rigs to cover the pitch which can take up to four hours in the height of winter. The club bought this equipment, at some cost, so it is important to use it to its full potential.’
Mike Curran was poached by Sir Bobby Robson who chipped away at him for six months to join the club when Newcastle were temporarily using the Northumberland FA base next door.
He is not alone in missing him. `He was fantastic and always so appreciative of the state of the pitches and with the continued advancement in technology, they really are improving all the time. 'One of the main things you learned was never to stand anywhere near the pitches if they were training though, or he’d have you chasing after balls when they were flying around.’
And with that Fabricio Coloccini, Jonas Gutierrez, Davide Santon and Rob Elliot suddenly appear by our side. The first team session over, they are finishing their day with a game of football golf, kicking balls from targets across the pitch, aiming for holes in one, or birdie twos.
Photographer Ian Hodgson moves to kick a stray ball when it appears at our side. He is soon told off by Jonas. 'You can’t touch it,’ says Mick. 'There’ll be hell on.’
Treat them right
Two players head into the physio room for treatment while we are on site. Leon Best withdraws from the first team session after the warm-ups in the dehab. He felt his groin in the shooting at the end of training the previous day and it is a precaution, not serious. He watches his team-mates put through their paces by John Carver and Steve Stone from a bed.
After training, goalkeeper Steve Harper is treated by masseur Micky Holland, who rubs ice on to his inflamed left knee. Within minutes it is red raw and apparently soothing. `We’re just having some treatment and putting the world to rights,’ says Harper, who was in line for bench duties last weekend, and who is hoping to be fit for his own charity golf day at the Ramside Hall Hotel in Durham, the following day.
Every morning Micky Holland holds a boxing clinic in the gym, which is attended by the likes of Carver. Earlier this month he helped raise 4,000 with a boxing event for the local hospital where defender Danny Simpson’s daughter was treated. `Put that in your article,’ says Micky. So I have.
Patched up: Newcastle goalkeeper Steve Harper (above) and striker Leon Best (below) receive treatment at their training ground
Patched up: Newcastle goalkeeper Steve Harper (above) and striker Leon Best (below) receive treatment at their training ground
Heard before they're seen
You can hear the players’ cars before they get anywhere near the training ground. And security guard Graeme Crombie, another long-serving member of staff, can usually identify which player is coming into the long drive, before he has to lift the barrier.
So when the deep growl of an engine is drowned out by thumping techo music, Graeme has no doubts that it will be Chieck Tiote. And he’s right.
After more than 15 years with the club, Graeme has seen the men behind the wheels of the cars change with some regularity and he is convinced this current group is among the best he has seen.
He said: `When we were relegated you could feel the change in atmosphere and it was a difficult time for everyone involved in the club. Even in the weeks before it was tough because everyone was worried about their jobs.
'It is totally different now and if there was one positive thing to come from being in the Championship it was that everybody got back together and it feels like a proper football club again now.’
All shapes, colours and sizes
Long gone are the days when players would wear their boots for training and playing over an entire season.
'Paul Bracewell was the worst,’ says kitman Ray Thompson. `His boots would be like bits of thread by the time he’d finished with them.’
Some players today have enough boots and colours to wear a different pair every day for a week. Most have three or four hanging on their peg and if they want or need more, they will quickly discard an `old pair’ if a manufacturer offers their latest product. It is the job of Ray and George Ramshaw to make sure all the boots are cleaned and dried and all the relevant studs tightened before every training session and match.
Multicoloured: The boot room at Newcastle's training ground with Ray Thompson (left) and George Ramshaw
They are clean by water through power jets and dried in the warm wet room before the two men lay them out on the players’ pegs for the following day.
The pair have seen significant changes in the footwear and the personnel over the years. Ray said: 'This is one of the best dressing rooms I have seen since I have been here, and I’d include the lads from the first Kevin Keegan team. They are a really nice bunch of guys.
'I’d say a lot of that comes from the captain. Colo is one of the most professional players I’ve encountered and he just makes sure that everything is done properly and all the squad understands their responsibilities. That makes everyone’s life easier.’
One player who has to watch the first team training session from the sidelines is injured striker Peter Lovenkrands. With his achilles in bits, and his contract running out in just a few weeks, the popular Danish striker knows his Newcastle career is coming to an end.
Lovenkrands briefly watches his team-mates going through finishing and crossing routines with Stone and Carver, no doubt still sick that his own participation has been curtailed by injury.
A few minutes later, he gets the call from Alan Pardew’s PA Sue Banks to help out with one of the many community-based events the club supports every day. A Downs Syndrome team will be representing Newcastle United in a national competition this weekend and Alan Pardew has invited the youngsters to the training ground to have a coaching session with one of the club coaches, and to meet the players.
As so, less than an hour after the first team squad have warmed up and jogged on the indoor arena, the group are put through their paces, with Lovenkrands watching their every step.
He disappears at one point before returning with arms full of energy drinks for the exhausted players. Although some of the group are shy and reticent (some aren’t) they eventually pose for a photo together. Lovenkrands said: 'I was in Germany with Schalke and their training ground was a like a full-on complex where hundreds of people who mingle with the players and watch training. Rangers had the most unbelievable facilities.
'But this is up there with the best. It’s a fantastic place to come to work, and to play, and I think every player who comes here appreciates just how wonderful it is.’