Sunderland skipper Kevin Ball gives us all the crack on the pre-season tour of Ireland
We left by coach on the Thursday to go down to the Copthorne at Manchester. In the evening, I saw the film Bad Boys with Atky and Martin Gray - Tippy had said it was a good film. Then some of the lads went for a quiet drink and wandered around for a while - just to get out of the hotel for a walk. We got up for breakfast the next morning and flew across to Dublin. We went to The Burlington Hotel for a meal - excellent hotel. Full of Yanks mind, but apart from that it was a lovely hotel. We had a great meal there, then travelled to St. Pat's in the evening to play against them. I thought we did very well. It was a hard fought game; in the first half we played ever so well, second half, they came at us a bit, but I thought we fully deserved the win and it was a good workout for the team (score 2-0).
On Saturday morning we got up and did a bit of training, had a bit of a stretch - those that hadn't been involved in the game did a little bit more, just to get their wind going a bit. Wind meaning what you need to keep going in a game.
In the afternoon we rested, then in the evening the majority of the squad went to play golf at a links course right by where we were staying at Bettystown. We had a nice evening up there - just nine or ten holes, not too many because of the game the next day - then we went back for a bite to eat and early to bed.
We trained again on the Sunday morning, had a quick meal and went to bed for a rest until early evening, when we got up we went to Drogheda to play against them. I didn't play - I'd picked up a bit of a hamstring injury in the first game. I'd thought it was going to clear up, but it was still a little bit sore so I thought it was better to rest it, it gave an opportunity to chop and change the team. I thought the lads turned in an excellent performance, played very well. We scored some excellent goals, especially from set pieces - young Michael Gray scored a tremendous hat-trick. Apart from set pieces, the movement, the passing and the finishing were all top quality. I think 6-0 was a fair result, and it was a thoroughly professional performance.
I don't think Drogheda were particularly worse than St. Pat's - they were promoted only last season and like a lot of teams when they've just come up, they were probably still finding their feet. I think they also had a couple of players injured in their last friendly, when they beat Queen of the South, and they came at us a bit more than St. Pat's had, so possibly that made it a bit easier for us.
The pitch maybe helped us as well. I'd say the first pitch was excellent, but the pitch at Drogheda was even better, they've spent a lot of money on it and it was in excellent condition. Still we mustn't forget how well we played, the finishing and the passing on the night was of the highest quality, especially in terms of a pre-season game, when we haven't got the fitness. And when you think of the pressure on the front players - these are difficult games for forwards because, while the rest of us are going over there to get a pattern of play, to get our fitness, to get the team blending together, we still would like a product, and most of the time that's going to come through the centre-forward - I thought all of them played well. The onus really is on them. It's a bit easier for defenders, opposing teams don't push as many men forward but now and again you're always going to come up against good players who want to impress, as was proved in the third game, against Athlone, when we ended up signing one of their forwards.
The main thing about these tours is for the players to get a togetherness, a team spirit, and a pattern of play, to get their fitness, positional sense and that kind of thing back, to get the team blending and just to try out a few different things.
After the game on the Sunday night, we had a long trip to Athlone, which was a bit of a pain, but we'd had a good result at Drogheda, and the backing from the fans had been good - it was at St. Pats as well - so it wasn't too bad; our support is always good whether you're in the league in England or just pre-season in Ireland. We stayed in a nice hotel right in the middle of Athlone, so there was quite a bit we could do when we weren't training, which is always good. The food was excellent again, and, just like everywhere else, we were looked after really well by the Irish; they're such nice people. I was very impressed with the place, and all the boys have said they'd like to go back there again. I must admit when I got home and spoke to my wife Sharon I said I wouldn't mind going back there with the family, because they're such lovely people over there.
We got into Athlone quite late and went to a burger bar for a bite to eat and a couple of beers. On the Monday, we trained again in the morning, and again those who hadn't played trained harder than the others.
That afternoon I went to the pictures twice, and got a load of stick off the lads for being sad and boring. After training there wasn't anything organised. A few of the boys went and had a game of golf, some played snooker and others went off and did their own thing. I went into town to send my wife some flowers. I usually send her some when I'm away, just to let her know I'm thinking of her and earn some Brownie points! After I'd sorted out the flowers, I saw there was a picture house there and that Judge Dredd was on. Now, the chances of me going to see Judge Dredd with Sharon are pretty remote, so I thought I'd go and watch it.
I went into the picture house and sat down with some popcorn and some Coke, and there was just a couple in front of me and a few kids behind. The kids were making a ridiculous amount of noise with all their sweets and things; I really couldn't hear the film for the noise they were making. To be fair to the kids, they were having a great time, but it was just chomp, chomp, chomp - the amount of stuff they got through was just unbelievable. In the end I thought sod that, and moved down the front right away from them or else I just wouldn't have heard the film. The film itself was very Sylvester Stallone, a bit too far fetched for me.
So after that, I went and had a cup of coffee, and tried to find some of the boys, couldn't find anybody, so I went back to the hotel, had a quick meal, then decided to go and see Terminal Velocity with Atky. Brian Atkinson is a total pig when it comes to sweets - he wouldn't give me any of his wine gums, just sat there eating them himself right through the film. Terminal Velocity is another film I probably wouldn't go and see with my wife, but it fills in a bit of time, and it's nice to have a change sometimes. But going to the pictures twice in one day - even the wife called me sad when she found out.
A lot of people always seem to want to know who was rooming with who on these trips; I was with Atky - I've roomed with him for quite a while now. We actually had a bit of a domestic on the trip; he said he couldn't take any more and we were splitting up, so I said Òare you packing me in?Ó Something I hadn't experienced since I was about fourteen with Sharon, but we sorted it out, and we're still together. Other partners: Alec Chamberlain goes with Andy Melville, Smithy with Michael Gray; Gordon Armstrong with Dicky Ord; Russ with Scotty; Dariusz and Big Lee were together. I think Dariusz has a reputation as being a bit of a loner, but, let's face it, it's not easy being in a different country, and they've got different temperaments and different ways to ours, and yes, he does like to be on his own a lot, but some people are like that. Some people prefer being on their own - everybody wants to do different things. Everybody's different; if Dariusz likes being by himself, fair enough. Also I have to say I don't know how Russ copes being with Scotty; I feel quite sorry for him, because he must have had to be careful all the time in case Scotty turned round with that big nose of his and poked him in the eye!
I actually injured Russ before the tour had even started. Totally accidental really. I saw the ball, but by the time I got there it was gone. That was a bit unfortunate for Russ, giving him an enforced break of the first two games.
We trained in the morning on Tuesday, and again I wasn't playing in the evening. In the afternoon, it was really hot, some of the boys were moaning because it meant they couldn't have a kip. That's quite a footballer's thing; we like to go to bed in the afternoon and have a bit of a rest especially before an evening game.
We'd heard some pretty dodgy stories about Athlone - about how they were going to try and kick us off the park, and how their pitch and their ground were crap. To be fair, they weren't especially dirty, but they had a very effective gameplan, they stood off us so we could have the ball till we were blue in the face, but not go anywhere with their sweeper and everything. We did get in on a few occasions against their keeper, who looked suspiciously like our club doctor, but never really made anything of it. But we kept going at it, and it was all getting a bit frustrating until we went one-nil up with a quality goal from Smithy.
In the second half, Athlone abandoned their negative approach and came at us a bit more, which livened the game up, not that that was difficult after the first half when you could have fallen asleep with no problems, and they got back into the game and grabbed an equaliser. The pitch there wasn't too good, and neither was the ground, but it wasn't anywhere near as bad as I thought it was going to be. The pitch was very bumpy, which took something away from the game, but the match served its purpose because the manager's seen a player from Athlone who in time could warrant a first team place here. He may have seen him before the game, I don't know, but good luck to the lad; he's got an opportunity to make a go of things, and I have to say, he took his goal very well, an excellent finish. (Score 1-1)
We all went out that night for a few beers to a place called Sean's Bar. Some of the lads were playing darts in there, and there was a lass near them who was utterly bollocksed. She was all over the shop, and then, all of a sudden, she went up to the board, ripped the darts out and started throwing them at the lads. One hit Gordon, and I think another hit Big Lee Howey. Anyway, the two people in charge of the bar took her under the arms and dragged her out, which was quite a sight. She may have been an Athlone Town fan unhappy at the result! Or it may have been that she was just totally bollocksed. It was all quite funny really; she was obviously enjoying herself, and I must admit I was laughing my head off. We left the bar after that, went and had a bite to eat and went back to the hotel.
On the Wednesday, Athlone Golf Club had organised a game of golf for those who wanted to play - no green fees or anything, lent us clubs, they really looked after us fabulously. All the lads paired up and played fourballs. I joined with Tim Taylor, from The Journal, to play against Martin Gray and Brian Atkinson. Tim isn't bad for such a big lad, but he's got his own little ways of setting up before he hits the ball - wiggles his arse a bit, one way, then the other - we were in hysterics at him. We played the first hole, and he said that he'd taken five, but I knew he'd taken six, but I agreed with him, so we won the hole. So at the next hole, Brian and Martin sat on a bench counting his shots.
A couple of days before, Tim had done well in a game against the management, but I don't want to go into that as it's a bit of a sore point to those concerned, it may affect my selection! It was really hot on the golf course, but I enjoyed it - we had a good laugh, and I didn't lose my rag until the ninth, when I hit a glorious tee shot, then took another six to get about fifty yards. I must admit I told Atky I was going to thump him for taking the piss and Martin and him were laughing their heads off, and in the end even I cracked up laughing. We left that afternoon at three o'clock, flew to Manchester and got the bus home. And that was it; good trip, good timing; three good games; good bit of blow; good bit of togetherness. i thought it was an excellent trip, couldn't fault it, ideal length of time; the standard we played against was good; the social side - which I think is important because it is a time to get a bit of team spirit going - was good; the lads behaved impeccably; the support was good. I can't thank the Irish enough; their hospitality was absolutely tremendous. In fact, I wouldn't mind going back for pre-season there next year.
In an interview with Martyn McFadden