DAY five brought with it a defeat for Argyle in a pre-season fixture against FC Twente...but our man in the Netherlands, Rob McNichol, is focusing on positives, and inspirations.
LET me tell you about a young man I have come to know this week. His name is Joshua Smith, he is in his mid 20s, he has cerebral palsy among other ailments, and it confined to a wheelchair.
Josh, along with his father Colin, is in our official party of supporters joining us on tour in the Netherlands. This week, he is usually to be seen in his Argyle shirt, with his name on the back, calling out his encouragement to Argyle’s players and staff. And he LOVES Argyle.
Many mornings at training, one of the first things one hears is Josh calling “Wotton!” or “Carey! Come here!” Josh loves to clap hands with his heroes as they are arrive at training, encouraging them, or reminding them of a recent score in a game they played, or a goal they scored.
Josh has obviously had a tremendously tough life, but he is a ball of energy, and a constant source of inspiration. Sometimes, after his initial burst of seeing everyone and being a house of fire, Josh quietens a little, but is soon back up again, calling out pro-Argyle slogans. To see the delight he feels every day in meeting Argyle’s players and staff is so uplifting.
Sometimes you need that. On Friday, the last full day of this tour, Argyle lost 3-0 to an FC Twente side full of good players, including some from their first team squad, as well as many promising youngsters. At this stage of pre-season, as manager Derek Adams said after the game, the result is largely irrelevant; it is fitness that is the key.
That said, no-one likes to lose. Argyle, in my opinion, were nowhere near their best, and frankly looked a little jaded. It has been a long week here in the Netherlands, with plenty of intense training sessions, matches, travelling and time spent away from family, friends, even your own bed, can grind on an individual.
Do not get me wrong – the players have been extremely well looked after this week, but the work has taken its toll a little, and I feel that contributed to a slightly flat performance.
In time, that will not matter. After we get home, and a little break, we will be into proper training for next week’s first game of the season at Peterborough United, with this week’s efforts being put into the bank for the season to come. If last season is anything to go by, the experience here will be hugely beneficial, to fitness as well as team morale.
As the players left the field after losing to Twente, though, they were solemn. They are professional athletes - competitive spirits, as we highlighted earlier in the week – and any loss is not taken well. As you read this now, they will already be over it, and looking forward, but at the time, as they trudged off, they were down.
In the corner of the pitch, in the gap between the rail around the park, sat Josh, in his chair. The result did not worry him one iota. Every player got a hand slap, and a word of encouragement. They also, if they were able to see the bigger picture, might have got a sense of perspective. On that day, their adversity was to come back from a friendly defeat. That is nothing in comparison to Josh’s life.
A word for some other folk, too. Firstly, Colin – Josh’s dad, who is simply magnificent with his boy, who he clearly dotes on. When we arrived at Amsterdam Airport, still on the plane, Colin warned us he might be some time, as he and Josh would need some assistance disembarking.
We headed into the terminal, went through customs and collected baggage, and cheerily waited for the Smiths. We were in no hurry, as we understood that it must be a daily struggle for Colin and Josh. We commented on how it must get them down a bit, having to go through that rigmarole that we do not have to suffer.
Just as we contemplated their plight, we heard “Green Army!” as Colin’s voice pierced through baggage claim. He and his son were beaming, and excited for the week ahead. And their excitement has been infectious throughout.
I also have to make some time to praise every single player and staff member that has treated Josh magnificently. Many have spent time not just clapping his hand, but chatting, seeing how he is, and so forth. Wottsy answered Josh’s questions on all the squad numbers of the players, whilst Derek has ensured Josh gets a daily rundown on matters, too.
We all know that football is not the be all and end all, and not to listen to silly people quoting Bill Shankly as if he actually meant that ‘life or death’ quote, and was not saying it tongue-in-cheek. However, football should not be discounted a beacon of hope; not just for Josh, but for us all. When times are tough - relationships, work, money, health – we will always have football. And though it can get us down at times, one could never replace the joy we feel at a derby win, a last-minute equaliser, or a day like we had when we beat Newport 6-1 to seal promotion.
In that mode, permit me to conclude with a couple of humorous notes that have occurred. Firstly, I feel a little guilty for having made overnight social media stars of Club Analyst Matt Neil and Head of Operations Jon Back for highlighting their goalkeeping prowess (or lack thereof) on videos uploaded from here in Delden. Not because I have embarrassed them – no, they will have to deal with that – but partly because I do not want to take away from the true focus – the players.
Back deserves one more mention, though, for ordering “black coffee...with milk” at dinner this evening. How does that work, Jon?
Derek Adams offered up a superb crumb of knowledge around that time. He had found out that the referee in Wednesday’s fixture at Feyenoord was Kevin Blom, which may not mean much to you, but consider that he was the referee who awarded a penalty to Czech Republic against Scotland at Hampden, which essentially cost the Tartan Army a place at the 2012 European Championships.
Given that Joel Grant got hauled back inside the penalty area at Feyenoord and nothing was given, despite the protests from Derek and Craig Brewster, it suggests that Blom has yet to feel too much sympathy for the Scots. Kuba Sokolik has not been approached for comment on the subject, however.
Finally, speaking of referees, it is worth noting that Friday’s official gave a curious handball decision against Oscar Threlkeld. Curious in the sense that Ozzie was laying flat on the ground, attempting to head a stationary football THAT SOMEONE ELSE WAS TRYING TO KICK. Amazingly, Oscar’s head was not smashed by a size 10 PUMA king, but instead he headed the ball away from the Twente player.
The referee awarded a free-kick for a handball, presumably assuming that no-one would be brave enough (or daft enough) to try to head a ball in those circumstances.
Those of us that know Ozzie a little better, though, can very well believe it.