Pursuit Of Excellence: Insight Into Demanding U23s Training Camp

by Paul McNamara

A young Everton player charges forward to join an attack. The move breaks down before he has the chance to participate. He spins on his heels and begins the trudge back downfield.

Not with the urgency David Unsworth demands, though.

“You sprint forward but you have to sprint back,” Unsworth counsels his charge. 

“If you don’t run back, you don’t play football. You have to run and run and run.”

It is day three of Everton Under-23s’ week-long training camp in La Manga. The young Blues have set up home for the week on one of eight manicured pitches at this Spanish complex.

Unsworth’s message is consistent with the principles he had outlined just hours earlier, stood on the perimeter of the field, shading from a fierce sun and impatiently waiting for 10am and his players’ arrival to start work.

“They are only on the ball for two minutes in 90, so for 88 minutes they have to be running and moving into the right positions,” Unsworth told evertontv.

He underlined the imperative of training drills replicating match scenarios, of players becoming conditioned to applying their technique “under pressure” and thinking on their feet.

“Everything we do is at speed and tempo,” says Unsworth. “Everything at the next level is done a lot quicker and faster, so your technique has to be perfect. That understanding of when to move, when to play one touch or two touch, when to slow it down or quicken it up.”

John Ebbrell had struck the same tone on day one. “You have to handle the ball to be an Everton player,” Ebbrell cautioned as a possession drill lost its rhythm.

Ebbrell is a disciple of Howard Kendall’s football philosophy, with quick, progressive passing its central tenets.

Asked early in the week if he had witnessed an evolution in pre-season programmes, from the slog of long runs and sprinting practice on a loop, to a more refined model, hooked around sports science and ball work, Ebbrell answered unequivocally to the contrary.

He was reared on Kendall’s ideologies, where the football is king. “We had lots of touches of the ball from the start, lots of small-sided games to hone our touch and awareness,” explained Ebbrell.

Unsworth was 18 and had progressed through Everton’s youth system when he was handed a first-team debut in 1992 by Kendall, the Club’s most successful manager.

He would play 350 matches for Everton. In his current post as Under-23 boss he has pushed a succession of homegrown players into the senior set-up.

“A lot of detailed planning goes into every single session from all the coaches,” says Unsworth.

“Everything is detailed for the individual and the team. Playing for Everton, you have to be able to handle the ball… in tight areas. We have to play at a tempo and speed and have a physicality.

“And you have to have the right mentality and be brave and courageous enough to get on the ball and do the right things.

“Everything we do is game related. We would not do anything just for the sake of it. Everything has a reason and a purpose.”

Ten minutes of each session are boxed off for players to work in pairs with a football. On occasion, mini-footballs are rolled out for individual practice.

“These are developing players and their techniques will improve over a period of time,” says Unsworth.

“We always try to give them free time at the start of every session to be familiar with the ball.”

There is no escaping the sun’s gaze on the exposed fields of La Manga Club’s Football Centre. The mercury tops 30 degrees by 10am and it is another eight hours before the dialling down process is under way.

Chelsea’s Under-18 and Under-23 teams are toiling on an adjoining pitch. It is possible to hear the voices shouting instructions to Bournemouth’s footballers further in the distance, where Eddie Howe is overseeing his team’s preparations for the new season.

Goalkeeper coach Alan Kelly branches off to work with his trio of stoppers. The remainder of the squad is divided in two and splits off into separate halves of the pitch.

Ebbrell and Francis Jeffers simultaneously lead intricate passing exercises. The two coaches are testing their players’ first touch and weight of delivery. Their body position when receiving possession, too: the ideal is striding onto the ball – absolutely do not be caught rocking back on your heels waiting for it to arrive – and accepting it in a way to open up the pitch ahead of them.

The squad reunite for a drill which is the epitome of Unsworth’s demand for speed, physicality and courage. In essence, the exercise is a three-pronged examination of the players. By turns they must look after the ball with opponents bearing down on them, hound furiously in a bid to regain possession and defend with power and intelligence.

Some of the skill is breathtaking, the intensity frightening and the tackling eye-watering.

The sun still beats down. Stepping out of the shade is enough for a sweat to form on one’s brow. Not to mention the perspiration which gathers on the neck, arms, back and legs.

Everton’s young players now stand under the canopies next to their pitch, reflecting on a practice match – a mix of analysis, high-cadence chatter and gentle teasing – and gulping down water.

They re-emerge into the heat, where Unsworth awaits, standing on the centre spot, a small piece of paper clutched tightly in his left hand.

He explains the next exercise – but probably needn’t bother. These players know what is coming. A series of runs, out to a mannequin stationed at a far-away point and back to the middle, then off again to a different corner of the pitch – and on. And on. It is merciless.

Those players unable to take part sit on the sidelines bellowing encouragement. Captain Morgan Feeney, steadily plotting his way back to fitness following knee surgery, is on his feet, welcoming the finishers back with a high-five.

Some of them emit paroxysms of pain. But there is a detectable sense of satisfaction, achievement even. Rightly so. Unsworth recalls the elation of surviving similar trials and of bonds formed as a consequence of sharing a forbidding, formidable experience.

One player’s legs failed him towards the end of his final run. With his teammates gasping for air and eyeing the ice baths [in reality, wheelie bins filled with ice] located 12 feet from the pitch’s touchline, he edged tentatively to the centre of the field, then completed his last set of runs solo. He was applauded all the way back to where his colleagues were strewn.

This is a tight group. A competitive group but one which looks out for each other.

Unsworth and his staff look out for them, too. Two days on the spin, chips were on the menu, sending spirits through the roof.

Sustaining a positive team morale is an underrated managerial art – and fundamental to ensuring footballers front up every single day motivated and ready to listen and learn.

Manasse Mampala scored pretty freely for Everton’s Under-18 side last season – 11 goals in 18 matches. He played twice as a substitute for Unsworth’s team but this is his first trip away with the Under-23s.

He won’t forget it in a hurry. A striker who can also occupy the position on either wing, he filled in at left-back during a training match on his first day here.

Footballers must possess a 360-degree understanding of the game, explains Unsworth. For the attackers acting as auxiliary full-backs, they are learning about their defensive responsibilities.

Boris Mathis, too, another forward, had his turn at full-back.

Frenchman Mathis, whose yelps of delight echoed around the players’ accommodation when Samuel Umtiti headed his country’s goal against Belgium in Tuesday’s World Cup semi-final, and again at the final whistle, has experience of an Everton Under-23 camp.

He sat easily at the dinner table from day one, then. Not so Mampala and his fellow first timers. The prospect of belting out an initiation song in front of the entire travelling party shadowed their every move from the moment the team’s plane roared out of Manchester airport on Sunday afternoon.

The first batch of one-off cabaret acts, former Republic of Ireland ‘keeper and a veteran of this ritual Kelly among them, provided the entertainment on Monday night. Twenty-four hours later Mampala clambered onto a chair, placed squarely in front of the densely-packed dining room. He answered a couple of bespoke questions from MC-for-the-evening Feeney, paused to consider the number of pairs of eyes trained on him and launched into his chosen ditty. This observer has no idea what it was – but it was good and he brought the house down.

The news that Thursday morning’s training session was cancelled had a similar effect, the players granted a lie-in following the gruelling running which had concluded Wednesday’s endeavours – and the similarly tiring ordeal of watching England’s 120-minute duel with Croatia.

They are back at it on Thursday evening, buoyed by a day where laughter has been the most common sound filling La Manga Club – before waking up on Friday ready for the occasion these players have been anticipating all week, their opening pre-season friendly contest.

“We are in the business of producing Premier League footballers,” says Unsworth. Everton are rather good at doing just that. And out here in La Manga, it is easy to see why.

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