It was the week that was – that nearly wasn’t thanks to three of the biggest storms in recent English history.
Storms Dudley, Eunice and then Franklin combined for the perfect hat-trick, wrecking havoc across the UK and threatening NCE Soccer’s Pro Pathway Tour before it had even got off the ground!
Lives were lost, homes destroyed, rivers flooded and even some of the soccer grounds were due to visit damaged (Fleetwood Town lost part of the Stadium roof) as the UK was battered by storms.
But fly the boys did and, they went onto took on not only the might of English Academy talent but also conditions that would test even the hardiest of soccer players.
‘Character building’ is the phrase often uttered when describing such conditions for youth players in England as they face horizontal rain, wind and snow, puddles and mud, but this was something else!
Undeterred and full of spirit, this is the story of NCE Soccer’s Pro Pathway Tour to England as penned by Operations Director Nick Dunbar, who oversaw the action packed feast of soccer for our players and their families, ably supported by NCE Soccer founder John Curtis and Regional Directors Gary Taylor-Fletcher and Tyrone Mears.
Pro Pathway Tour
Day 1: JFK to Manchester Thursday 17th
Our group met at JFK airport to fly over to the UK with the NCE staff on what turned out to be one of the fastest ever cross Atlantic flights as we arrived to what was going to be our first of four storms that swept across England.
After arriving at a typically wind-swept and rainy Manchester it was onto the bus and across to Platt Lane training complex to shake off the jet lag and get on the field. The complex is now owned by Manchester Metropolitan University but was once the training base for Manchester City and now houses the academy for Salford City Football Club.
After a brief warm up it was into a mini tournament and then across to the nearby Trafford Center shopping mall for lunch and for some of the parents to buy coats and warmer clothing!
Our next stop was The Theater of Dreams also known as Old Trafford Stadium and the home to Manchester United. We were shown around the ground by our tour guides and had the chance to go into the home team changing rooms which was very familiar to John Curtis our founder and ex United player.
The NCE Soccer Select Squad were taken pitch side for pictures and a taste of the experience to be in front of 70,000 fans. After a trip round the club’s mega store for all your United gifts it was check-in and dinner at our city center hotel, then bed for the night.
With the bad weather impacting field and facilities we took the entire group to Liverpool for a training session with the coaching staff of the Steven Gerrard academy. On the way there we managed to upset several drivers in the Liverpool area as Derek our wonderful bus driver decided to take over the entire forecourt of a gas station to fill up our bus!
In between the rain showers and the wind, the players enjoyed a great attacking clinic where the staff highlighted the expectations and demands for players at a top youth academy in the UK. The feedback from the staff was that our boys acquitted themselves well and our Monday game against the academy would be highly competitive.
It was then back to the hotel to get showered, changed and fed before the entire group braved the Manchester tram service as we made our way to the Etihad stadium, home of Manchester City to watch the current EPL leaders play against Spurs. Getting over 30 people across the city on trams proved to be very interesting with not much social distancing going on and managing to lose two parents who did not get off the tram on time and we watched them ride away trying to stop the tram! No fear though as they jumped off at the next stop and sprinted back to join us.
The match proved equally as exciting with one of the games of the season as Spurs won 3-2 away from home pleasing every Liverpool fan in the group as the race for the title heated up. Harry Kane gave a master class on playing as a number 9 and the team got to experience a real EPL atmosphere.
With our game against Preston North End cancelled as a victim of the weather we headed over to Tranmere Rovers academy for a training session with their staff coaches. The boys were taken through their paces of a typical academy training session for those players looking to break into the U18 and U23 programs at the club.
With conditions of rain and wind and a grass field the group again received tremendous feedback from the coaching staff who thanked them for their commitment and effort throughout the session.
From there it was onto Liverpool again to watch Liverpool U23’s against Blackburn U23’s in a Premier League 2 Match of the Day. The game took place at the famous Liverpool Training Ground and featured several players who were trying to break into the Liverpool first team and had featured for them over the course of this season.
The game was played in some very difficult conditions with the wind and the rain at some points threatening to blow the stand over and got so bad that the officials took the teams off for 5 minutes as sleet and snow stopped play! At the end of the game, it was back to the warmth of the bus and home to the hotel for dinner, rest and relaxation.
Monday provided us with our first game of the tour after a number of cancelled games due to the weather. We once again made our way to Liverpool to play against Steven Gerrard’s Academy team.
Steven Gerrard is the current manager of Aston Villa and a Liverpool FC legend, and his academy provides a pathway for those players looking to find a way into professional academies or careers in sport.
We played a full squad with rotating players so that everyone had the chance to play. A tight game in tough conditions resulted in a 3-2 win for our visiting team.
Lots of positives from the game with great performances throughout and a good preparation for future fixtures against some top professional academies.
After the game with the weather now brighter we headed into the city of Liverpool for lunch break, shopping and sightseeing.
The parents and supporters headed to the Cavern Club which is considered the home of the Beatles for a chance to take in the history of the place, get some pictures and experience some of the nostalgia of this famous location and mecca to music fans from all over the world.
It as then back on the bus for our pre-match meal at a local hotel before heading to play Blackpool Football Club’s academy for our second match of the day.
A very strong Blackpool team that featured players who were competing at the highest level of the game provided a very stiff test for our boys.
With our players never having played together before we acquitted ourselves well losing the fixture but showing great promise in the various phases of them game and some top individual performances especially from our team of goalkeepers.
After every game the question win, lose or tie is would you want to play that team again and every member of our group agreed on another day with even more preparation it would be another top game.
This time we were heading to the blue side of Manchester to visit the Etihad stadium again but this time going behind the scenes to see what the players experienced on match day. We walked around the changing rooms.
Down the players tunnel and out onto the field to get the same view that Pep Guardiola has every home game.
After a tour and a quick trolley dash around the club store it was on the bus to Fleetwood Town Football Club and their incredible academy at Poolfoot Farm. This superb facility is the home for the Fleetwood Town academy and once again our boys were taken through a typical training session that youth players would experience.
After the training session our group took a tour of Rossall School where one of our NCE players Henry Welles is currently attending and playing as captain of their soccer team and has recently represented England Independent Schoolboys.
NCE Soccer will feature in an interview with Henry soon, providing insight into life studying and playing soccer overseas.
The school really feels like Hogwarts on the Fylde coast and has a great reputation for producing outstanding sporting athletes and offers a pathway for NCE players to go across to England and experience the life of a top soccer player.
After dinner at Poolfoot Farm it was on the bus to go and watch our third and final game of the tour as Preston North End took on Nottingham Forest in the English Championship.
The club store at Preston was thrilled to welcome our group as they bought as many warm items of clothing they could find including a Preston North End hoodie which was basically the clubs logo made into an item of clothing and may never be worn again.
The team also got the chance to have their picture taken with Matthew Olosunde who is from New Jersey and currently plays for Preston. Like Coach Curtis, he started his career at Man Utd but is currently recovering from an injury but was fantastic with our players. Big thanks to Preston and Matthew for helping us out. The game, not a thriller but a great night and after a tight 0-0 tie, it was back on the bus to our hotel and rest.
Our final day of the tour started at Crewe Alexandra Football Club who are another top academy in the Northwest of England.Our players worked on specific skills and techniques that the Crewe staff implement across every age group of the academy.
They have minimum expectations and standards for players at the club as they develop a pathway for them to get towards the first team in a region of the country that is surrounded by many other bigger and more affluent clubs.
The history of producing players at Crewe has led them to attain category 2 status and develop players who have gone on to represent clubs at the highest level and even their country.
After lunch back at the hotel ahead of our final fixture of the tour, but Coach Curtis was able to organise an incredible surprise for our group of goalkeepers – an afternoon training session with Manchester United’s Academy coaching staff.
NCE Soccer will provide full details on this incredible experience soon with a stand alone story. This was an incredible opportunity and again, huge thanks to United and Alan Fettis in particular!
The four boys were put through their paces for more than two hours at Carrington, the home to United first team, before they whisked away to catch-up with their teammates at a rainy and windy Fleetwood Town.
This was another step up for our group against an even stronger academy and we took the lead with a great worked goal but in the end Fleetwood’s experience and time spent together as a team showed and they ran out worthy winners but again there were some great individual performances and play by our various units.
Back on the bus to the hotel for our last night, packing all the souvenirs into the suitcase and ready for a morning start and a flight back home.
Today was on the bus for our flight home with once again a massive thanks to everyone on the tour from NCE players, parents and supporters to the support staff behind the scenes and all our partners and the teams we played against.
For the players, the tour as incredible opportunity and full credit must go to the NCE Soccer coaching staff for having the ability – and contacts – to pull rabbits out of hats as the weather wrecked havoc to the soccer schedule.
As games were cancelled, stadiums destroyed, matches called off, our team were able to think on their feet and secure alternative options that ensured the travelling squad enjoyed a ‘never-to-be-forgotten experience.’
Henry Stout who was on the tour with his wife Jemma and son Lindon, said: “It’s beautiful to see him (Lindon) achieve success, he has a new found confidence and a tolerance for failure.
“He wrote his prep school essay about perseverance, hard work and focus. He’s been on fire since returning from England, that trip changed the course of his life.
“I hope we’ll have the opportunity to travel with you again!”
To become part of the NCE Soccer Select Squad and enjoy international and Pro Pathway experiences players must be resisted to NCE Soccer.
Follow our socials for more images over the coming days and check our video diary below.
* NCE Soccer host tryouts twice-a-year in Spring (April) and the Fall (September) and only players of a certain standard will secure places.