Sojourn all about sprinting and sweating but most definitely not shopping as Italian gets tougher ahead of new campaign
Well, it's wet and it's miserable on the day that Leicester City's footballers have been dreading for weeks, for this is the day that they have to tackle this: "The Hill," intones a somewhat Partridgean local TV news reporter in the early 1980s, on an old clip of the players in question embarking on their pre-season training . The camera promptly pulls back to reveal our man on the spot in a decidedly elevated position; the "this" in question is one of three giant mountains of muck and rubble on a patch of waste ground.
At the behest of their manager Jock Wallace, the kind of sadistic granite-jawed, hard bastard Scot who made Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons look like a cross between the Dalai Lama and Gandhi, a queue of bedraggled, reluctant, retching, panting and wheezing City players proceed to take it in turns to sprint and stumble up and down each hill, occasionally succumbing to the temptation to ease their pain by crawling on all fours. In scenes reminiscent of any number of war movies featuring the archetypal bullying drill sergeant, Wallace roars at his players to "keep your hands off the bloody sand". The impression conveyed is that he is unconcerned about them getting grit lodged beneath their fingernails.
The video is a sepia-tinted throwback to a different, barely recognisable, genuinely frightening football time. Scarcely any two members of the rank and file on view are wearing identical training kit, with many having appeared to have got dressed in the dark after randomly picking duds out of a training ground lucky dip. Among the top brass, the bizarre 1970s, middle-aged football man's predilection for red woollen tracksuit bottoms remains in vogue although, despite the inclement weather, Jock is not so audacious as to set his off with the accompanying avant garde brown raincoat and trilby combo first worn by the Sunderland manager Bob Stokoe at the 1973 FA Cup final. Energy drinks are conspicuous by their absence and one feels any player craving refreshment will have been pointed towards the nearest puddle.
Over 30 years on, it is not difficult to imagine what Raymond Verheijen would have made of such training methods. In what has been interpreted as a pot-shot at the training methods of another steely-of-gaze, no-nonsense Scotsman – the new Manchester United manager David Moyes – the Dutch fitness expert recently took to Twitter to grumble that "as long as most dinosaurs are still in denial and ignore how things develop in other countries, nothing will ever change".
His comments came in the wake of Robin van Persie's withdrawal from a friendly in Japan suffering from slight muscle tightness in one thigh, an injury that is not believed to be life or career threatening and may well have been sustained as a result of the player standing up from his chair too quickly after an autograph signing session at the launch of the club's "large black and midnight navy gingham" away strip in Osaka Castle, Japan.
In a modern plyometric-driven era, where player power rules supreme and the most gruelling aspect of pre-season training is the exhausting quest to milk lucrative developing markets on foreign soil, it is difficult to imagine a player from any top-flight English football team agreeing to run up and down a giant mound of muck and rubble without, at the very least, consulting his agent.
If there are notable exceptions, they might well be the footballers of Sunderland, who, if reports emanating from the camp are to be believed, have spent the larger part of the summer running up and down an ever-growing metaphorical mountain comprised largely of the apparent corpses of fallen team-mates.
Aiming to assault the Premier League by replacing the low-tempo lethargic, depressing style of the Martin O'Neill regime with a radical hi-tempo, energetic, pressing equivalent, Paolo Di Canio has made no secret of the fact that no team in England will be fitter than Sunderland next season. Indeed, it is a testament to the more mature attitude of the ambitious, young, modern-day football tyro, that despite being told in no uncertain terms they will be denied the basic human right of being allowed to drink beer on school nights and lie on casino floors sprinkled with £50 notes, as many as eight different players have already signed for Di Canio.
A 10-day sojourn in Italy – where Sunderland's players were forced through their paces as often as twice a day – has been followed by a commercially driven trip to Hong Kong, where talk suggests the regime has been equally gruelling and spartan. "We are not here for shopping, we are here to work, play and train, have good food and rest," said Di Canio. "So there is no chance for shopping."
No chance for shopping? At all? Perched atop the precipice of pain that was his personal Heartbreak Ridge in Leicester, one feels Jock Wallace would have approved of this no-nonsense Di Canio doctrine. As another dictatorial Italian boss for whom Sunderland's manager has long harboured a less than sneaky regard once kind of said: it is clearly the club which educates its players in civic virtue, gives them a consciousness of their mission and welds them into unity.
What can possibly go wrong?