So, we’re now just a day away from the opening game of the UEFA European U17 Championship Finals kicking-off in Serbia and it’s all systems go for the four teams contesting Group A.
We arrived here in Novi Sad on Saturday evening after what seemed a long day of travelling. It started with a 6am wake-up call at the squad’s Hinckley base in England before a flight from Birmingham took us to Zurich, and then on a connecting flight to Belgrade.
The England squad were joined on the same plane in Switzerland by their Danish counterparts before the hour long bus transfer north, and across the Danube, to Novi Sad.
Prior to travelling east, John Peacock and his side had been together since last Wednesday to prepare for the trip, training at Coventry City’s Academy and with the same squad which came through the Elite Qualifying Round in March to start with. There was only one enforced change to be made, as defender Matty Regan had to return to Liverpool with an injury and he was replaced by Courtney Meppen Walters of Manchester City, who has also been a regular for the U17s this season.
The party were given something of an interesting arrival to their base at the Hotel Park in Novi Sad on arrival, with five girls in silver outfits greeting both England and Denmark with a disco-dance routine, complete with steam billowing out into the spacious lobby. Quite a reception.
It’s a large hotel, said to be the best in Novi Sad, that has been selected by UEFA and all four Group A nations are based here along with the UEFA delegation whilst Group B is being contested back in Belgrade. Complete with a spa and wellness centre, there is no shortage of room for the players to relax away from their rooms. From a selfish perspective, the exchange rate seems good, the coffee has been excellent out here so far and the food isn’t bad at all.
Given the long journey taken during the day, the players didn’t have a full training session to contend with on top of that, but a brisk walk around the adjoining park, the biggest in Novi Sad apparently, gave the squad a stretch of the legs ahead of the first training session on Sunday morning.
The training base is at FK Proleter, on the outskirts of town and I’m reliably informed that the second tier club once came close to knocking giants Partizan Belgrade out of the Serbian Cup at the semi-final stage a couple of years ago in what was their greatest moment to date.
During the afternoon, the players were given a talk by the UEFA Referee group, highlighting several of the rules and regulations that will be enforced by the officials in the competition. All teams at this level are given the talk as UEFA look to promote Fair Play and Respect throughout the next two weeks or so.
Sunday evening then saw the squad joined by forward Raheem Sterling, who had been kept behind at Liverpool before linking up in time for the first game. He was accompanied from home shores by Club England Managing Director Adrian Bevington.
You know it’s what UEFA dub ’Match Day Minus One’ when the Coaches are all called into a press conference at the hotel and photographs of the players, as a team and individually are taken. Interestingly from the press conference, Serbian coach Milovan Djoric claimed that England and France are favourites for the title, whilst young Denmark boss Thomas Frank said his side will be the ‘dark horse’ in Group A. Peacock and French counterpart Patrick Gonfalone sensibly kept their cards much closer to their chests.
With everything in place, focus is now on Tuesday’s opener with the French and after completing a second training session on Monday to further prepare, the squad have a steely determination ahead of what will be the first experience of life for many of them in a European Championship Finals after the six games in qualifying over the course of the season.
If they need any advice on what it’s like once the games kick-in then they don’t have to look too far, as captain and defender Nathaniel Chalobah tasted success in the same competition last year when he became a European Champion.
The Chelsea man was a key part of John Peacock’s side in Liechtenstein last May and is now hoping to lead his team to a similar outcome here. Unfortunately though, he will be missing the game with France on Tuesday due to a suspension carried over from the Elite Round.
With an 18-strong group as his disposal though, Peacock will be well equipped to replace him in the back-line.
I’ll be back with another blog after the first game and when I’ve had a better chance to explore Novi Sad, so let’s hope it’s with three points on the board.