“I don’t think Real Madrid is an easy club to play for – there is a circus attached to it,” said Sir Alex Ferguson this weekend, as he raised the surprising possibility of a return to Old Trafford for Cristiano Ronaldo.
“He [Ronaldo] knows the value of Manchester United, and Ruud van Nistelrooy has said the same because what they have here is protection. They come to training every day at Carrington and there is no-one here but the players and the coaching staff. At Real Madrid and some of the big Italian clubs there are 2,000 people watching training. The media film the training sessions every day. It is completely private here at United and we don’t allow that exposure of our players.”
The well-documented state of United’s finances would appear to preclude a big-money swoop for Ronaldo so soon after his departure, but Ferguson’s words do hint at one of the reasons why tactical discussion in the UK lags behind that which takes place in many European countries: how can the press write about a team’s tactical preparations for a match if they can’t even watch them train?
In their highly recommended book The Italian Job, Gianluca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti describe how Italian newspapers carry detailed accounts of Serie A clubs’ tactical work in training, while French match previews are full of the kind of precise information that can only be gleaned from an attentive training ground watching brief. For the top Premier League clubs, however, training sessions are now very much a secret affair, with media representation typically limited to in-house television stations and the very occasional delegation of newspaper journalists. The result is that training sessions are rendered a thing of mystery, with rumours of bust-ups and walk-outs the only stories that filter through into the mainstream media.
The British media’s distance from the day-to-day reality of what actually happens on the training pitch was addressed by Ryan Giggs earlier in the season, when he complained about how everyday training ground aggression can provoke completely disproportionate headlines.
“It’s ridiculous when people go on about training ground bust-ups, because it’s been like that every Friday for nearly 19 years I’ve played professional football,” said the Welshman. “Training is so competitive the day before a game that there are always arguments.”
The training pitch is where the coach imparts his tactical instructions to his players and it is the only place where players can prove their form, their fitness and their capacity to improve between matches but in the UK, all we hear about is bust-ups, injuries and strops. It is partly the fault of clubs like United who guard their privacy so jealously but it also partly the fault of a press more interested in scandal and gossip than the actual mechanics of the game.