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Finding Netherlands - Day One: On Yer Bike

26 July 2016

WE sent pafc.co.uk's Rob McNichol on tour with the Argyle squad. His Day One Diary includes tales of perambulation, hesitation and integration...

I cannot ride a bike. There, I said it. I told the world. I am a 32-year-old man and cannot ride a bike. 

Until Monday, July 25, 2016, it had never once caused me a problem. I have never had the urge to try my luck at a triathlon, nor have I ever been cast as Nurse Gladys Emanuel in an am-dram production of Open All Hours (the latter is more likely.)

The trouble is, as I write this, I am in the Netherlands, and everyone rides bikes. On our two-hour bus journey from Amsterdam airport to our base this week at Delden, we sailed along a motorway, then turned off towards our destination. On doing so, we saw bikes. Bundles of them. Way more than cars. And yet still I did not forsee a problem. 

Fast forward to Monday evening. Two training sessions and a hearty dinner taken care of, and I was told that we non-playing members of the tour party would meet, out the front, at 8pm. For completists, that list reads: Derek Adams, manager; Craig Brewster, assistant manager; Paul Wotton, first-team coach; Greg Strong, chief scout; Paul Atkinson, physiotherapist; Matt Neil, analyst; Neil Lunnon, kit man; and me, Rob McNichol, media bod. 

I arrived ten minutes before eight; I have quickly learned that no-one in the party is ever late. I walked into breakfast two minutes before the meet time of 8.30am Monday morning, and not a soul arrived after me. 

Wottsy had matched my earliness. It did not cross my mind at the time that he was not on foot, but on a two-wheeled vehicle. Around the corner skimmed Brew and Strongy, on similar vehicles. Reality began to dawn. "What are we doing, lads?" I nervously enquired. "Just a little bike ride," said Argyle living legend Paul Anthony Wotton, who I now work with, but never quite forget that I watched him make his debut at the age of ten, in 1995. (I was ten, not Wotts. He was a quick starter but not that blooming quick.)

A few players and staff had taken a bike ride between training sessions earlier, but I had filled my time writing up interviews, making videos for Argyle Player, and using our facilities to try to reduce the embarrassing belly I possess, which is even more pronounced when I am around professional athletes. And Neil the Kit, the fittest man in Mount Wise. Now, I realised that my seven colleagues had all taken possession of bicycles, were about to head into the centre of the small town of Delden, and it was time for my dirty secret to come out. 

"Erm, I don't think I'm going to join you," I told Paul, Craig and Greg, before the others had arrived. "I'll stop here, I think." Wottsy was insistent I join them, so I pledged to walk and catch them up. "Just get a bike, they're only a couple of Euros to hire," said Wotts. Given this was not going away, I had to spill. 

To be fair, I thought they would laugh more than they did. I mean, obviously, they laughed a bit, but they could have been nastier. That said, I do not think Wottsy was entirely serious with his offer, through chuckles, to give me a crossbar into town. 

And so it was that the first time I have ever sat on an actual bicycle, and not an exercise one fixed to the ground, was in the car park of a hotel in the Netherlands, at the age of 32, with Paul Wotton trying to encourage me. I cannot believe I have just written that sentence. 

Since this is not Hollywood, I did not immediately work it out and start sailing around the complex. Instead, I stumbled a couple of times, swore rather a lot, and then started walking toward Delden. 

Halfway there, not knowing where I would meet the others, a couple of people were happy to give me directions. It was Luke McCormick and Gary Sawyer - on bikes, of course - directing me down a path. I had hoped it was not the garden one, as I am always vigilant against wind-ups, but it turned out they had been truthful. Another ten minutes walk and I found everyone else. 

And they were watching a bike race. 

Not any bikes, mind. Lightning-fast racers on recumbent bikes were whizzing around Delden, watched on by a brass band, a cheerful crowd and a frantic man with a microphone. My 30 hours or so in this country has not led to me mastering the language as yet - thank you is 'dank je' and hello seems to be 'hallo', which is helpful - but I think a chap called Johan won. After an hour or so watching the bike ride and enjoying the pretty town, the eight of us returned: seven on two wheels, the other on two feet. 

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I tell that tale not to be entirely self-indulgent, but to talk about the nature of facing a fear in this environment. I am not scared of riding the bike, I simply have not had a go before, but I was full of trepidation telling people I admire that I cannot do something seemingly everyone else can. I overcame it, though, and although I took a bit of ribbing, I can take it, and that is that. 

For the Argyle players on this trip, there are lots of steps into the unknown. For some, this is a first pre-season in England. For many, the first pre-season with Derek Adams. For only a couple more, the first pre-season for Plymouth Argyle. For most, a first pre-season with each other. And it is taking some time for folks to get to know each other properly. Mind you, that is exactly why we are here. 

I was struck by how quiet the dining room was at dinner on Sunday evening. Part of the hush might have been us all enjoying our hosts' sublime chicken, steak, fish, veg and other delights on offer - they better do that buttery potato dish again before the end of the week, or at least give me the recipe - but I got a sense that nerves played a part in the reserved atmosphere. No-one wants to say the wrong thing, make a fool of themselves at the wrong time, with their new team-mates and their new gaffer. 

It reminds me a little of being at school, and the science teacher asks the class a question. "You, McNichol - can you tell the class what happens when magnesium is put under a flame?" Actually, I probably could, but the 'well done' I may have received from Mr Atherton would have been the equivalent of one gold note on the end game of Crystal Maze. The silver notes, heavily outscoring the gold counterparts, were classmates calling you a boffin, smart-alec and other dubious names which I would need to get clearance to write on this site. And likely would not get it, given that we like trying to win Family Club of the Year. 

The easier thing to do was say nothing. Mr Atherton, a good man and a good teacher, would roll his eyes that you could not remember the thing he taught you last week, but at least no-one would call you names or graffiti your pencil case. Not that day, anyway. 

Some alliances are visually already formed. The two Scottish representatives on the playing staff, messrs Miller and Goodwillie, have quickly bonded, and have been labelled 'Jack and Victor' by at least one member of the coaching staff very familiar with the Scottish hit comedy Still Game (and it might not be any of the coaches you initially suspect). There are other small bonds forming, and they will continue to form. Every time I pass by or a through a room I seem to see players throwing a dart, lifting a weight or looking down the line of a pool cue. The leisure time shared on this trip could prove to be utterly vital in around nine months time, when tables are finalised. 

On the training park, things are a little different. Many elements of what goes on between coaches and players on the training park - advice given, set-pieces worked on, shapes tested - must remain confidential, as you can doubtless appreciate. But I can report the sense of togetherness I palpably felt during one long drill which involved all players. Defenders built from the back, worked the ball forward via midfielders, crosses were centred, attackers fired goalwards, goalkeepers tried to fend the ball away. Time after time, one heard "Great ball, Graham," "Nice finish, Rooners", "Well done, Vincent". And it was not always Derek, Craig or Paul. In fact, more often than not, it was a host of team-mates, firing up the colleagues that they hope will stand beside them, fight with them and - hopefully - succeed with them. 

The white lines of a football pitch affect players. They change. Their reticence to chat at mealtimes or pipe up on a plane goes out the window, and in its stead comes a renewed sense of purpose. Footballers know where they belong, and it is a grassy and rectangular place. 

I know the places where I belong, too. They include sitting at a desk, as I am now, and walking around on my feet, as I will do for the rest of the week. Wheels that come sans engine are just not me, really. 

Although it would be some story to tell one day. "Have I ever told you about the time Paul Wotton taught me how to ride a bike...?"

Join Rob each day this week for an unique insight into life in the Argyle camp whilst in Delden. He will also be talking you through Tuesday's game at MVV Maastricht on Argyle Player. The game kicks off at 6pm, UK time. 

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