I was stood in London Stanstead airport on a warm summers afternoon waiting for our flight, when it suddenly occurred to me that I had take over as Vice Chairman of my club, just three years prior, and to dream of such a day seemed impossible, I have always strived to push the ‘dream factor’ in all of my players, ‘there is no limit too far’, ‘no goal too high’, ‘never be held back’, yet organising the clubs first international tournament in under six months seemed a step too far, even for me and my quite superb management team.
In reality Steve Naylor, my right hand man, did most of the organisation, after all this was not any tournament, but the Gothia Cup – The Youth World Cup. In front of me I had 17 girls with mixed experience, some had never flown before, some were seasoned travellers and most of which had never played on foreign soil before. This was the first trip for our club since 1994 in which a victorious team won the Reebok World Fives in Florida, a massive achievement in tougher times in girls football than now. I had no realistic aspirations to win the actual tournament, in fact I had no idea at all what we would face.
One uncomfortable budget airline flight later, we dusted ourselves down, ensured the legs still worked from the minimal leg space and dragged our suitcases into a new land, the furthest north I had ever travelled on our globe and a language of which I was not familiar, but seemed to be an odd variation of Yorkshire slang (getting a drink of ‘Vatten’ from the tap was perfectly fine).
Sweden itself was clean, really clean, free of litter, chewing gum, cracked slabs and the air was like soup. There was the edge of an arctic breeze in the background which gave the slightest edge, but it was less uncomfortable and more exhilarating and gave a clean and crisp feel to our arrival.
The hotel in Gothenburg was unreal, a five storey hotel complete with 25 grass pitches, 4 astro pitches, a 4 floor gym, a beach volleyball centre, an indoor cross country ski centre, outdoor gym and fully equipped ninja warrior course, quite simply an athletes dream come true. In the car park we watched before our eyes a huge indoor ice skating arena being constructed in a beautiful wooden frame. I think the thing that shocked me was that all the astro pitches were public access – for free. I was later told that it was unthinkable in Sweden to cause any damage or vandalise the facilities, they just wouldn’t do it, a concept unheard of back home.
My hotel window unveiled yet another surprise as it opened onto a magnificent indoor arena, I could literally stop in bed for the day and watch 12 hours of tournament football should I have chosen, not that my week would allow for that.
Managing a team of young teenage girls in a foreign country takes planning and patience, a mix between ‘enjoy yourself’ and ‘prep for tomorrow’ is a very very fine balance, but one the team relished in. I was not expecting the extreme physical aspect of travel to take it out on the players so much, but it proved to be my first learning point of many learning points during my ten days, I was about to get a lesson in tournament management.
Tournament football is different to normal football, multi day tournament football different to one day tournament football and multi day international tournament football … well that was a whole other level. 3 games awaited us in three days, eleven a side but with shorter halves. The night before our first game I lie nervously awake in my bed, I had NO IDEA how this would go, plus we were the only English team in our whole section, so we had some weight to carry, wisely I never mentioned this to the girls at the time.
Our first day and we lined up a squad, our first international game for 28 years. The girls took no time at all finding their feet and got into their groove, the worries and the doubt melted as they played some of the best football they had ever played. We finished the game 2-0 victors, out came the speaker and long walk back to the hotel full of Sweet Caroline being chanted out – a song I would later learn to hate with all my heart as a song that was significantly overplayed – but at the time we revelled in our first win.
We then had a 16 hour recovery before our next game, a seemingly tougher opposition and a 9.30 kick off at another venue, meaning a bus ride away. I never thought a one hour time difference could cause jet lag, but getting up at 6.30 am (5.30 UK time) takes it out on you more than you know. Questions pop up all the time about recovery, eating, drinking and many more, the reality was we were learning all the time. Our second game was a masterclass, facing yet another Swedish team, we knew a result would more or less see us through into the top pool as a top two qualifier and the girls came out on fire, the 5-0 scoreline was a reflection of the game, in reality it could have been more, the tired and weary had done themselves proud and in good form, but what was to follow was even more impressive, having shared the coach with the opposition, rival speakers and songs became one, dancing started as two groups and finished as one, topped off with a unified dance off on arrival back at the hotel, true football spirit at its finest. We stood back and admired.
Our reward was 24 hours rest until the final group game, a reward and a curse, the balance of recovery vs boredom was a fine balance. I have never had to explain to 17 happy girls, away with their mates for the first time, to chill out and eat salad for the day, but that was what we had to do. In true professional style they wanted to ignore everything I said, but followed the orders begrudgingly. A keen US side awaited us the next day after all.
The earliest kick off yet, the furthest journey, the hottest day, the biggest arena and the match that was streamed live, nothing could go wrong could it? In reality, neither team wanted to lose, concede or be the second best and in what was the toughest game of the tournament. With literally hundreds watching back home, two strong physical sides fought and not a let up was had, a predictable 0-0 draw full of blood, sweat and tears. This was a tough one, but neither team walked away leaving anything on the pitch, both going through to Pool A and having a further opportunity to compete with the best in the world.
As fate would have it, our US encounter would be the last non Swedish side we would play, the next day our Swedish opposition awaited us on a day that had the potential to be a double game day. Players were feeling the burn now, injuries mounted, severe fatigue started to set and the girls were mentally drained, we had to ask them to get up early again and play an hour long game of football.
The play off was a big deal and by all accounts our opposition were very serious about the whole affair with aspirations to win, our girls battered and bruised were all that stood in their way, but tired as they were, they were here to show the world what they were all about. Our girls won the game 2-0, two goals in the first half secured the win, despite the overwhelming efforts of the Swedes, the team held out. The final whistle went and the opposition dropped to their knees in tears whilst ours dropped to their knees having given more than they thought possible.
Now get some rest girls, we play again 6 hours.
Our last game was a step too far, it might have been said that it was the right time to go out, I was asking the girls to give what they no longer had, but yet found somewhere hidden deep. Our final game of the tournament would be as resilient as they had ever been, the opposition fought and fought but could not find a way through, how we held off I will never know, but we did, it finished 0-0 and went into penalties. A shoot out was a step too far and having not conceded a single goal from open play in the whole tournament, my team went out on a penalty shootout, our time in the tournament was done.
I am not sure what I every expected, but after my team talk, I spent some time on my own to reflect on how superb this team had done, how every girl had done themselves proud in unknown circumstances and learned more about themselves than they ever knew.
Three years prior, my team trained an hour a week, no training kit, very little equipment, in a short space of time they had pushed themselves to a position where they could compete and stand head and shoulders in the worlds biggest youth tournament, I was proud of them, I was very proud.
Our final two or three days was filled with the joys of Gothenburg. The theme park, the streets, the food, the harbour and of course the biggest pic and mix I have ever seen. We left late Sunday night and arrived in a dusty cool car park in Chesterfield at 3am, tired and weary, but with a sense that something amazing had just happened and a yearn to go back.
Thank you to my management team:
We could not do what we do without you.