Everton Under-23s’ reward for winning the Premier League 2 title? A week in Spain.
Except it’s hardly a reward when you are there to work harder than before, to strive to achieve further success and reach the standards the Club’s rising bar of expectation demands.
So while the surroundings of the La Manga coastal region are idyllic for many - including the golfers that flock to the famed courses on offer - the high temperatures and humid air make this no holiday for professional athletes. Especially when there are three sessions each day.
After touching down at Murcia airport on Sunday evening, a short coach transfer to the La Manga Club complex completed the journey, with the Young Blues following a host of professional football clubs in using the popular facilities.
A nighttime arrival may have come with the expectancy of a lie-in, but no such luck for the league champions - come 7.30am it was time for the pool, a cold wake-up call and the start of the hard work.
After breakfast, things went up a few notches. Having been warmed up by fitness coach and sport scientist Jason O’Keefe, defence was as much the focus as offence as David Unsworth, John Ebbrell and Francis Jeffers pitted the squad in individual battles. Beat the man, beat the goalkeeper - sounds simple enough, but the competitiveness and quick interchange meant for just what the boss wanted. High intensity at high volume.
The players themselves looked sharp - more sharp than just two weeks of pre-season would suggest. They marshalled each other with desire for the ball, tried to win it with breathless intent, they pulled every trick out of the book to skip past each other and the goalkeepers needed to be at their very best to have any chance against their hungry and clinical outfield colleagues.
Unsworth wanted to underline his belief in tight marking, forcing errors and regaining possession - and this was further evident when the same drill turned into 2v2. Now there were even shorter breaks between involvement, meaning recovery was urgent every time. Each and every session, the coaches were keeping score. That winning mentality Unsworth had spoken to evertontv about earlier was as evident as ever.
The morning session finished with a possession-based game, with the elements preached earlier put into practice. A hard slog - and it was only just past midday.
Dinner was most welcome and also offered the players a few hours to rest after their gruelling outing and first visit to the pitches located a 20-minute walk from where they will reside this week.
The third and final session of the day was a fitting finish, with the match-fit squad broken into three teams of six - one in blue, the others sporting yellow and orange bibs - and the goalkeepers distributed accordingly.
Three six-a-side games then ensued, with the team unused rotating to a finishing drill with striker coach Jeffers. There were great goals and saves aplenty as each side aimed to rack up as many points across the session as possible.
The pace of these small-sided games was electric, the spirit unstoppable and the technique, at times, simply breathtaking. If there had been any rustiness after the summer break, it had evaporated into the Mediterranean air.
The team in blue - Chris Renshaw, Antony Evans, Beni Baningime, Josh Bowler, Boris Mathis, Matty Foulds and Danny Bramall - were the afternoon’s victors, albeit by a slender margin. The cost of not winning is often punishing - and the two other sides certainly did not enjoy their series of sprints as forfeits. That lesson of winning once more being instilled as the group’s mission statement.
Rounding up his troops at the close of play, Unsworth labelled it ‘the best first day of a tour he has ever seen’. With the energy and desire on show, it’s hard to imagine how it could have been outdone.
A marker in the sand laid down early for the rest of the week then - the Under-23s have only just begun...