Meeting of feet between a hack and a hard man

FOOTBALL: The pen may master the sword but the boot is a different matter, as Glenn Moore found when he trained with Liverpool
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As Neil Ruddock moved in I frantically tried to recall if I had ever written something foolish like: "Ruddock played like a carthorse". Nothing came to mind, but what if "Razor" confused me with someone who had?

Fortunately, Liverpool's bruising centre-half had another journalist in his sights, the News of the World man who had followed him around for three weeks during his marital problems. Now, somewhat boldly, the stalker had had the gall to turn up at Melwood to train with his prey.

As Robbie Fowler rasped in shots of ever greater velocity the unfortunate journalist - who had volunteered for a session in goal after Joe Corrigan got fed up - began to lose enthusiasm for his task. The sound of Ruddock bawling "break his fingers so he won't be able to write" did not help.

We were two of a cluster of hacks who had been invited to see how one of England's finest teams honed its stars. The session had been set up, like most football PR stunts, by a sponsor, in this case Adidas who were showing off the latest version of their Predator boot.

The afternoon began with a greeting from Roy Evans, the Liverpool manager, along the lines of "we've been dying to take the Mick out of you". Then Sammy Lee took the warm-up. As he led us around the training ground at a brisk jog one staff member shouted out "the physio's room is second on the right". A hack gasped something like "I thought Liverpool did all their training with a ball".

Fortunately, they do. Juventus or Wimbledon, where players face a rigourous daily work-out, would have been considerably more taxing. This was simply to warm up muscles that are more used to pushing the pedals of a car than kicking a football.

"Most of what we do has been the same since I have been here," said Evans, who has spent more than two decades at the club. "One thing that has changed is the emphasis on warming-down as well as warming-up. In the last five or six years we have done much more of that than we used to."

Liverpool, like many clubs, also look at diet and other aspects of players' health. "We are always looking to learn," Evans said. "You have to listen to the scientists. There is a place for them in the game, as long as it is alongside the football and does not take over."

Having stretched rusty hamstrings dangerously close to snapping, the Press, not a body of men noted for their devotion to good dietary practices, had finally been given a ball to play with. However, dribbling through narrow plastic cones with Liverpool's finest watching on is not an easy exercise. As England's most successful team in Europe this season (wins in Norway and France), the Press corps had been in cocky mood. This quickly dissipated as we attempted to juggle the ball between us. Ruddock, in our group, showed a noticably more refined touch.

Liverpool's training is based, as it has been since the days of Bill Shankley, on small-sided games. Their sessions will be familiar to anyone who watches Kevin Keegan's Newcastle train at Durham: warm-up, ball-work, small-scale match. The Dutch trained at Melwood before their European Championship play-off at Anfield and, Evans said, their routine was very similar.

The drawback with such training is a lack of work on specifics. One player recently recruited to such a club has told his old manager that he thinks he may be playing worse. "I play with all these great players," he said, "but they never work on my game the way you used to."

Evans admits that can be a problem but it is more a question of circumstance. "When things are going well it is not a problem but, when they are not you are cramped for time. I would like to have done some work this week but we have had five players away with England and Ireland. At times the games take over from the coaching."

This was one of the main themes of the recent get-together between Terry Venables and the managers of clubs who had figured in Europe. Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds, said there were so many games "English clubs were becoming blackboard teams". With time limited points were made on the blackboard rather than the training ground.

One reason for this is the relatively short time English teams devote to training. A survey by World Soccer compared Blackburn's regime with those of Juventus, Real Madrid, Dortmund, Nantes and Ajax. A common theme was the amount of extra training by the foreign sides.

This was partly due to fewer games but not entirely. Dortmund, who had played as many games as Blackburn to the end of November (24), train twice a day when there is no midweek game and often on the day of a game when there is. Ajax have a similar programme. The Ajax players, who had been up to 3am celebrating the Netherlands' win over Ireland on Wednesday night, were training in Amsterdam on Thursday afternoon.

But, Evans noted, there is another factor, the climate, which makes training easier for Juventus than Liverpool. "When it is cold it does not do any good having players standing around outside while you explain things. We have had to do a bit more on specifics recently, working on different options for playing the ball up to the front. But we have always been a passing team and I see no reason to change that. Sometimes you can change too much."

Liverpool's recent run is the first time things have gone wrong under Evans and it has clearly caused him deep thought. The signing of Stan Collymore has caused problems, both with his outspoken interviews and Liverpool's difficulty in assimilating him into the team. Collymore has suggested Liverpool bought him without knowing what to do with him, but Evans said: "There has to be some give and take. Teams do not defend against us the way they do against Forest, they do not leave the same space behind them. Stan is quite capable of joining in the short stuff.

"We have had our worst run for years but that does not mean the style is wrong. Confidence plays a massive part. Expectation was high. It always is at Liverpool but, after last year, with winning the League Cup and doing well in the league, we were expected to be genuine title contenders. I am not saying we are not contenders now, it is a bit early to give anything up, but we have made it difficult for ourselves."

Their slump makes Sunday's match with Manchester United at Anfield all the more crucial. That opens a taxing Christmas programme, fixtures against Arsenal, Aston Villa and Chelsea follow.

Jamie Redknapp, who has been sorely missed, will still be absent on Sunday with his hamsting injury. But, judging by his midweek session, Fowler, who scored twice at Old Trafford in October, is coming back to form.

After the News of the World man had made the mistake of tipping one of his curlers past the post, Fowler began shooting with astonishing power in one so languid and slender. He was also the only player to make the ball appreciably "wobble". Us hacks could only make our Predators curl it. The boots were very comfortable but, like the best golf clubs, you have to be a decent player to bring the best out of them. At pounds 120 a throw they are an expensive Christmas present, and not exactly the cheap teaching aid Craig Johnston originally designed them to be.

With Fowler in their side the left-footers comfortably beat the right- footers in the final shoot-out. That meant 30 press-ups for the losing team with Ruddock counting them down. The shoulders still ache, but at least he did not tread on the fingers.

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