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The Professionals: How one 'amateur' went into the Lions' Den - and survived

by Rob Smith

FOOTBALLERS are a namby-pamby lot-everyone knows that.

They kiss and cuddle after putting away the easiest of scoring chances and deserve an Oscar for their acting ability after taking a tap on the ankle. And they get paid thousands of pounds more than you or I for playing a couple of 90-minute matches each week.

The popular view of footballers is playing in front of millions on 'Match of the Day', turning out for England in the World Cup, scoring the winning goal in a cup final.

But it's a lot tougher than that. Not a soul was watching 14 members of Millwall's first team squad going to hell and back on a lonely sports ground in Sidcup.

“Just here for the day are you? ” muttered chief sadist Paul Sansome, in the dressing room beforehand. “You should have been here yesterday,” continued the bearded goalkeeper. “It was boiling hot and humid - and we went on until a quarter past two.”

My watch showed just before 10.30 as we trudged out on to the grass - as quiet as a condemned man as the professionals discussed the previous night's telly. We began with three or was it four? - laps around the ground.

On to a series of stretching exercises led by coach Theo Foley.

A few short sprints - forwards and backwards - before moving along to the attentions of manager George Graham. The tough, sharp-talking Scot introduced a kind, of follow-my-leader game where one man tries to stay with another as he bobs, weaves, dummies and sprints.

My partner for this was Anton Otulakowski Anton practiced his own version of the vanishing act before George introduced (horror of horrors) a ball into the game


The idea was one player to beat the other and crack in a goal past the club's two senior keepers, who took turns in the net.

Needless to say I did neither. My throat was leather, my legs lead, and my head concrete, as we trudged across to a set of cones at 10-yard intervals.

Sprinting backwards and forwards up the course was torture the first two times, but my legs were walking through quicksand on the third, and nearly went on strike when manager Graham spat. “I'm timing you this time.”

I was the last to go and he said I hadn't done too badly, but as I looked up the rest were already downing drinks of weak orange squash 50 yards away.

The afternoon session was easier. After the warm-up laps and stretches, of course, we did more ball work. Then a couple of five-a-side matches when your intrepid reporter shone by striking two excellent goals from more than two yards from the net.

And I had the audacity to ask burly Kevin Bremner if he was hurt in a tackle. He laughed, but my leg sported his 'autograph' the next day. All the lads privately admit training is “boring, repetitive” stuff, but it must he done and there are no shirkers.

All players are competitive - stretching for the line in the sprints and asking for extra-time when the five-a-side finishes level. Pre-season training is the worst, they say, lasting up to four hours, six days a week. No wonder they are happy when a well-practiced strategy results in a goal.

I went into the Lion's den and came out intact, but my ego was quickly burst by dead-pan Paul Sansome. He looked genuinely upset as he walked towards the dressing room, saying, “You should have been here yesterday. We did nearly an hour longer. It was boiling hot and .... ”

Before the pace picks up

Running Battle: Before the pace picked up
Buck your ideas up

Straight Talking: Buck your ideas up son, or you're out

A Full Backs Nightmare

Soccer Shuffle: Rob faces a full backs nightmare

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