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'You don't want to be last' - Inside pre-season testing

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As the summer sun beats down on Copers Cope Road, the familiar sound of activity has returned to the Crystal Palace training ground. The summer break is over and the players have returned; this, in some respects, marks the start of the 2022/23 Premier League season.

Make no mistake, the first league fixture is still some way off. There is plenty to happen in the meantime: the transfer window remains open, a pre-season tour to Singapore and Australia is yet to get underway.

But when Palace take to the field at Selhurst Park on Friday, 5th August, much of their hard pre-season work will have stemmed from what happens in this session.

It’s pre-season testing day.

“For us, today is the first day of the season,” says physio James Haycock, overseeing large aspects of the players’ return. “It’s great to catch up with everybody really.

“You catch up about the summer, you get the players in and you try to set the tone for what’s going to be the rest of the season. Although it’s a bit light-hearted today, it’s still gearing us up to get out on the grass on Monday.

“It’s great to catch up with everyone, see all the players and see all the old faces as well.”

There is a certain sense of déjà vu here, a reminder of those first days back at school after the summer holidays.

In the gym, rows of boots are neatly lined up against the wall, underneath a giant whiteboard laying out today’s schedule. Beeps and alarms punctuate the air as GPS trackers stir back into life after their own post-season hiatus.

As the players arrive, talk is of summer holidays and family news – even the latest Love Island developments require detailed discussion.

But for all the joviality, the work is serious and soon testing is underway.

“This pre-season day is like a snapshot in time, in terms of how the players are, how they return, what their fitness level is like,” Haycock explains. “That then allows us to formulate individual programmes for each specific player.

“It allows us to set some benchmarks and determine where their ‘start points’ are, so that as the season goes we can monitor their base fitness, but also their muscular and skeletal fitness.

“It can be things like ensuring they have a good range of movement from the hips, a good range of movement from the muscles. That informs us as we go through the season in terms of rehab and return from injury.”

In the gym, Jack Butland and Joel Ward come to the end of their warm-ups on exercise bikes. They begin their rounds, leaping from a standing start and hopping from one side of the room to the other.

The next cohort arrive, and Will Hughes and James Tomkins notice the scores being uploaded to a large screen leaderboard in the corner of the room. These are top-level athletes, and their competitive nature kicks in straight away.

“You don’t want to be last,” Hughes points out.

As Haycock points out, today is not about competition – but it should be a gruelling experience, nonetheless.

“It will take a reasonable bit out of them,” he says. “That’s why they’re in today, and then they have a couple of days off where they don’t need to train before they start out on the grass on Monday.

“We give them a couple of days to recover from some of the maximum testing that we’re doing in the gym today.”

The old clichés of players returning with a beer-belly or an additional couple of stone are of a bygone era. The medical staff expect the squad back in excellent condition.

“Those days are gone really – players don’t come back grossly overweight,” Haycock says. “When I first started in the game 20 years ago, players would use the pre-season as the time to get fit.

“Now players go away with an extensive programme to do over the off season, and they know that if they don’t come back in reasonable shape they are going to struggle in the first couple of weeks, and it will be really difficult to catch up with the group.

“They all have individual programmes that are largely set by the sports science staff, which gives them a couple of weeks off followed by a gradual increase in their training loads.

“They’re away, but they are always on the radar.”

That rest is key, and plays an important part in remaining fit throughout a physically demanding campaign.

“It’s a long season, and all the players need a rest physically and psychologically,” he says. “If you think about the international players, its particularly difficult for them because they go straight after the season into another two or three week block.

“They need a two or three week period at the end of that where they can allow their bodies to recover. The difficulty is that if you just keep training and training, the body doesn’t recover. It can impact on performance, and it can set you up for injuries across a long and difficult season.”

In the next room, there is audible exertion as James Tomkins pushes his body to the limit.

“Halfway there!” comes the shout from the staff. James McArthur can’t resist a response. “That’s the worst shout in the world that,” he laughs. “‘Halfway there’ – that’s the worst…”

Moments later it’s his turn. As he struggles away, Tomkins leans across: “Halfway there!”

For the players to enjoy a good relationship with the medical staff is important, particularly as they are both aiming for the same end goal.

“There are a lot of players who really want to play – and we want them to play,” Haycock says. “Often medics can be accused of keeping players longer than necessary. That really isn’t the case.

“It’s more a case of players balancing risk and reward. A player might go back early and get away with it, but he might get injured and miss the next three or four games.

“It’s always a balance and a discussion between the player, the medical staff, the sports science staff and the coaching team as to how big a risk we are ready to take.”

And so the second major relationship comes into play: the interplay between the medical staff and the Patrick Vieira – and his coaching team.

“For me, that’s one of the biggest relationships in a football club,” Haycock says. “For the manager to trust what we do, and allow us to inform some of their training.

“That relationship really is massive. The gaffer and Osh [Roberts] have been really good in my time here. They push, they want the players on the grass and they train really hard, but they’re also open to suggestion that perhaps we modify somebody or do something different for a day or two.

“Because we’re all ultimately working to get the players available in the best condition for the weekend or for the game, whenever that is.

“But that relationship really is key. The manager and Osh have been very good and supportive in terms of listening to how we work as an overall team.”

As the players lie back on massage tables, detailed measurements are taken between every joint and muscle, while limbs are stretched and pulled in all directions. For most, this is second nature by now.

It may be a tough first day back in the office, but it is worth it because it signifies one thing: the return of club football and the start of a brand new season.

Perhaps that is why spirits are so high, and why the sound of laughter so often fills the room. Just like the supporters who will greet them at Selhurst Park in August, the players just can’t wait to be back.