SKY SPORTS cameras with access all areas were at Villa Park today following manager Martin O’Neill through first team training. It was just a gentle session with a few warm up exercises and stretches, a couple of runs through set-plays and a half-hour training match between bibs and non-bibs that looked to be three touches and non contact.
More interestingly the lower tiers on two sides of the ground were jammed with spectators as 5,000 or so kids on a half-term break were invited to come along and get close-up with their heroes. They got to watch training, many got a first ever glimpse inside the ground and afterwards they could collect autographs before heading off to the club shop.
What a brilliant and simple bit of PR. Why can’t Boro do that?
Boro’s training ground is isolated and deliberately so. After the bad publicity of Ravanelli chasing dogs and dodging toxic clouds across a variety of school fields on urban Teesside the club opted for more serene suroundings of Hurworth. It is a beautiful site and easily accessible for players driving in from Yarm and the Harrogate Triangle.
No one is criticising the move there. It has delivered enviable facilities that have helped attract top name players and given the club the stability to develop a culture of excellence and a productive academy. It was also a shrewd investment and planning permission has been granted for a luxury golf and leisure hotel that should help it pay for itself.
But moving the training operation lock, stock and barrel to Hurworth has denied a generation of eager young fans the traditional joy of watching their favourites training. To get there by public transport is a logistical challenge of changes and timings that never arose when it was just a case of getting to Hutton Road. Realistically It requires a parent to drive and that is not always practical and rarely desireable.
In adults the need to watch the nuts and bolts of first team preparation always seems a bit anoraky and sad but for the zealous kids who are the future faithful it is a rite of passage. For the passionate consumed by their team watching on matchdays was not enough. To be a real fans you had to do more, see more, understand the mechanics of the team and see the nitty-gritty of the tactical and technical preparation. It was important to feel that what the team did was knowable and that you were part of the inner circle who understood.
So Villa’s approach has much to commend it. It would be good for Boro to follow suit and make Riverside training sessions part of their own battle for hearts and minds. There would be objections to training on the pitch, not least from the groundstaff, but the benefits are obvious.
It can bring new would-be fans into the ground, excite them, lure them back for matches and unleash the awesome pester power that drives the consumer machine. It makes the star names visible and accessible. So often the players only enter Middlesbrough on match days so every appearance in front of fans like this is a PR boon, especially if they can take out some time afterwards to sign autographs and chat to the youngsters. Cynics would point to the fact that it
may increase revenue streams in the club shop too as parents arrive to pick up buzzing children desperate to show them the goodies in MCC Retail.
It would help answer some burning questions exercising the minds of the crowd too: do Boro practice corners? Does Jason Euell ever hit the target from 20 yards; is Ray Parlour still alive?
It would go some way to replacing the much missed tradition of the Ayresome Park open day. Back then it was the norm for the gates to be thrown open for fans to have a wander across the pitch, meet and greet the players, sit in the dug out musing and get behind the scenes into hallowed areas like the boardroom and the fabled 100 club. That helped fans feel they knew more about the inner workings and imagine themselves as part of the club.
Given that fans are more estranged from the stars than ever before anything that can help increase that contact is a good thing. Boro should consider open training sessions at the Riverside. Half-term is only three times a year.