Being a pro
Ever wondered what life is like as an international footballer? William Esler gets the chance to find out by training with Northern Ireland coach Michael O'Neill
By William Esler. Last Updated: August 2, 2012 1:46pm
Growing up, like most other children my age, I had two dreams - scoring the winning goal for my favourite club in the FA Cup Final and representing my country.
So, when the opportunity came along to experience life as an international footballer and spend the day training with Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill at the base the team use during their international fixtures, I jumped at the chance.
Arriving at the revamped Queens University sports grounds, or "The Dub", you are immediately struck by how professional and state-of-the-art the facilities now are. Indeed, the surface of even the training pitches put some Premier League clubs to shame.
It is an amazing feeling when you walk into the changing rooms and see your Northern Ireland training kit hanging up on your peg. Pulling on my new training kit, it strikes you that David Healy, Chris Brunt and Steve Davis have all sat here and done the same prior to training.
After a quick team-talk from the gaffer, we were out onto the pitch for the warm-up, followed by some passing drills and agility work - similar to the exercises carried out by the Northern Ireland team.
The workouts were designed to keep everyone involved, whilst the complicated design of some of the passing sessions meant you needed to be alert and reading the game ahead of the play - skills vital in international football.
Poles being used to create a slalom course are common place in a training session, but this was the first time I had experienced them used to combine multiple exercises, including keeping the poles at an angle to ensure players have to get low to change direction. This was combined with having two players on the layout at the same time, meaning you had to ensure you knew what was around you, whilst concentrating on the exercise. This ability is crucial on the pitch, particularly when running with the ball, to evade opposition players.
Next came some two-on-two on a 20-yard long pitch. O'Neill said the high intensity workout is very popular with the national side's defenders as it helps them stay sharp. Whilst the pitch was short, there was still plenty of room to move around and it really put your marking skills to the test - one mistake and you were likely to leave your partner with a two-on-one break.
The session ended with an eight-a-side game on half a pitch, with the television, radio and online journalists taking on the newspapers - although, O'Neill claimed a newspaper column he wrote many years ago entitled him to play.
The action was fast paced and the 43-year-old clearly has not lost his touch as the former Newcastle, Dundee United, Hibernian and Wigan midfielder tried to trick his way past me. Multiple balls were used to keep the game moving, meaning there was limited rest time, vital in improving fitness levels for a gruelling 90 minutes on the international stage.
Despite the opposition's 'ringer', our team still emerged victorious and I am awaiting my call-up to face Finland on 15th August - live on Sky Sports 3HD - although O'Neill did tell the group: "Don't call me, I'll call you."
What the session did highlight is the difference a good coach can make to football training and the enjoyment of it. The day flew past as the drills kept everyone involved, whilst even the fitness work was interesting.
This is a marked difference to some sessions I have taken part in with some teams over the years when endless running, followed by passing a ball between two players five yards apart, turns training into a hateful, repetitive and boring workout.
The event was organised by Northern Ireland sponsor Vauxhall