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Santa Barbara Soccer Club in England: Day Nine

Memorable trip overseas ends in victory

[Noozhawk’s note: Sloan Hanson, 12, plays for the Santa Barbara Soccer Club, which is in England through April 1 to train with and play against top development teams like Manchester United, Tottenham and Manchester City. He will be filing periodic Noozhawk reports from the scene.]

April 1, 2012

Today was our last match of the tour on the last day of the tour. It was against Lakeside Football Club, the Swans. The drive to the game took about an hour and a half and went through pretty countryside with rolling green pastures with fences, wooly sheep and bare trees along the edges of the fields. There were brick houses and a large manor house with an old, massive gatehouse on its driveway. There were small canals with brightly colored boats in red, blue, green. It was another day of great weather — the sky was light blue with puffy white clouds. We were rested and ready. It was a great day for soccer.

We were amazed by the hospitality of Lakeside. They set up a 17-piece brass band that played our national anthem and “God Save the Queen.” They had banners and a welcome sign. They had greens keepers prepare the grass that morning. They even made a program for the match. There was no security, and the parents could stand at the side of the field and watch and yell to the players if they wanted, just like at home. It was a nice change from the other clubs, such as Tottenham, which wouldn’t even let the parents out of the parking lot.

Lakeside had been doing well in their league, so we figured it would be another tough match. We all really wanted to bring home one win, and this was our last chance. We had the first opportunity to score but didn’t finish. The next shot was theirs, which ended in a goal. We shrugged it off and continued to play hard. It was hard to be down when we felt so good, playing soccer on a beautiful day in the English countryside. We had a lot of possession and were making good passes up the field that brought more scoring chances, but we kept shooting wide of the goal. At half time the score was still 0-1.

“Oh my god, I’m so tired,” one of the players from Lakeside said. “You guys are fast. The sun is so hot.”

“Well, we’re used to playing in the sun,” I said.

“I know,“ he answered. “This is burning me out. Usually this field doesn’t even have grass because it’s too cold.”

In the second half we kept working at moving the ball forward and got more chances. This time, we were successful and scored three goals to finish the game with a 3-1 win! A great souvenir to bring back home!

After the match we took a lot of pictures and went into their clubhouse. The people were very nice and welcoming. They had lots of food (chicken nuggets, buttered toast, chips and sandwiches) cherry Lucozade (English Gatorade), locally brewed beer and some guitar players. Both teams ate and drank and went outside to play more soccer while the adults talked. Then it was off to our closing dinner celebration at an English pub that dated back to the 1500s. There were lots of awards and thank yous, especially to our tour organizer, Barrie Love from EPL Tours, and to our coach Billy. Finally we left for the hotel next to the airport.

Tomorrow we fly back home. This has been the trip of a lifetime. In social studies class I’ve learned about English history, and to go there and see it for myself is amazing. But most of all it was the soccer. I expected to see a country obsessed with “football” and I did. For our team, we now know how we have to play to compete with the best teams. We learned we could do what we needed to do to win. We all gained confidence. Our team bonded because we did everything together and helped each other through each day. I couldn’t have asked for a better soccer tour.

As the English say, it was “brilliant!”

March 31, 2012

Today was a day of relaxation. We went sightseeing in Liverpool at the Beatles Museum. It was surprising how many fans they had. It was cool to learn about the history of The Beatles because it is part of England’s and the United States’ culture.

After that we went straight to the English Premier League match of Everton vs. West Bromwich Albion. To get to the stadium we walked along Stanley Park, which was very green with little green buds or lots of white flowers on the trees. Almost every day had been warm and sunny, and it seemed like spring had come while we were here.

We arrived at Everton’s stadium — Goodison Park, which holds about 40,000 people. It was a little bit small for a pro stadium. The seats were so small that my knees hit the seat in front of me. It had an old-school atmosphere.

As goalie Tim Howard was warming up, we shouted “USA! USA!” because that is where he is from. He turned around and lifted both hands up to wave to us. We were there early and people were slowly filling in the stands, and grass keepers were checking the grass with skinny rakes. Everton is nicknamed the “Toffees” because they used to be next to a toffee factory. A toffee girl in a long blue dress and white pinafore kicked the ball around before the game, and I heard she handed out toffees for free. I didn’t get any.

The game was very entertaining because both teams played well by passing and by using good ball control. Everton was better than West Brom, which was why they won 2-0. Fans were much quieter than at the Arsenal match, except for the guy behind me. He was apparently an Everton supporter but with fans like him you didn’t need any opposition. All he did was yell and point out the Everton players’ mistakes. “Ah don’t lose the ball there! Ach! Come on!”

Back at the hotel we watched Real Madrid and Barcelona games back to back. I couldn’t get to sleep that night, I think because I hadn’t played any soccer and I wasn’t tired.

March 30, 2012

Today wasn’t as intense as other days. We went to train at Manchester City Football Club, called “Man City.” Founded in 1880 they have been in and out of top flight status. Recently they were bought by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who has a lot of money and has bought some very good players and improved their facilities.

Gavin the coach was very nice. We lined up with our ball and worked on passing and then had a small-sided game. It was fun. Then Gavin gave us a stadium tour of Manchester City stadium that was built in 2002 for Commonwealth games. Man City is one of the richest teams, so their stadium was a little better than the other stadiums, but not much, which was surprising. They have plans to develop the grounds around their stadium, especially the academy training area that will include a small stadium, a school and 15½ fields.

After the tour we bought some things at the megastore and went to a mall called the Old Trafford Center. First we got some lunch, then went to play laser tag (our team won) and miniature golf (I beat my mom). After the mall we went to a classical English pub and we all had English food. Then we headed back to the hotel.

March 29, 2012

We started our day with training at Everton. Everton is an English professional football club from the city of Liverpool. It was formed in 1878 and has played in the top division for a record 107 seasons. But it is most respected for its academy, which makes more first team players than any other academy.

The grounds we were playing on were nice and were paid for by the club selling Wayne Rooney to Manchester United for about 28 million pounds. Our training was pretty fun. First we warmed up by getting good skills with the ball, then we moved onto passing with the ball, and after that we took those skills into a good old 2-vs.-1 situation. Last we played a shooting game.

We grabbed a quick lunch of either Subway or fish and chips on the way to our game at Sheffield United. It was a long drive. By the time we got to Sheffield, we were feeling tired and sore. A few kids were sick and injured. We’d played three games in three days along with trainings. The effort of the match against Man U the night before had drained us of our energy.

It wasn’t a good day to play. But the show must go on, and we tried to play hard and do our best. Unfortunately, most of us weren’t 100 percent and it was a painful loss of 1-6.

March 28, 2012

Old Trafford stadium holds more than 76,000 fans and fills up every game. It has hosted some of the best players, teams and games in the past 100 years. It looks monumental, with lots of glass and statues. We went on a tour of the stadium and got to see where the players get dressed and hang out. They always sit in the same places — next to their friends on the team. Everything is red, red, red, with a megastore that sells every kind of Manchester United thing a fan could want.

Later, in the evening in the dressing room at Manchester United’s training grounds, we sat on wooden benches and listened to our coach Billy’s pre-game talk. He talked about the privilege of playing against one of the top teams in the world. He talked about desire, effort and fighting for each other, and told us to enjoy the game.

As I jogged onto the pitch, butterflies in my stomach went crazy. I didn’t know what to expect. Would we lose in the double digits, or would we be able to match their skill? It was getting dark and there were long shadows on the turf. We were surrounded by high fences, and it smelled like manure from the farm next to the fields. It was cold, but I didn’t notice. I bounced on my toes, waiting for kickoff.

As my mom says, the silence before the kickoff is like being in the eye of the storm with kinetic energy all around you. I like that weirdly peaceful minute. Except the butterflies in my stomach got worse and worse until I heard the whistle and the snap of the kickoff. My butterflies flew away. The game was on.

It was obvious they were really good. From the first kickoff they controlled the ball, making quick and accurate passes up the field. But I knew we could hold them off. I was playing central defense and it was going to be a defensive game. We tried to pressure and tackle — steal the ball away — before they could pass, then follow it up with a big pass up the field. We moved forward and back, forward and back with the play, watching each striker carefully. If you left one of these guys open they would score. They were too good not to take advantage of our mistakes.

We held them off for the first quarter, which gave us confidence. One down, three to go. I thought, we can do this. And we did. We held them off another quarter. And another. They scored in the fourth quarter, but we didn’t lose hope even though we couldn’t get through their defensive line and hadn’t gotten one shot off in play. Max Levy was fouled about five yards from the box. Juanito Zarate took the free kick and sent a strong, straight torpedo to the right side netting. Goal! We ended with a tie: 1-1.

Inside our tour bus it was loud as we rolled out of the training grounds. We joked and yelled and hooted. It felt great to tie because it was against world-famous Man U, who according to our referee hadn’t lost a home game for seven years. Two players who were extraordinary were Men of the Match Juanito Zarate and goalie Ben Roach. But our coach said it was a team effort, and we all felt proud of our performances.

March 27, 2012

Max Levy plays a short corner kick back to left defender Ryan Flood, who takes a few dribbles and rockets the ball to the top right of the net. Goalasso! This was the first goal of our match against the famous Tottenham Hotspurs.

When we started our day, the soccer gods were smiling on us. As we went to our bus, we saw the Liverpool Football Club’s team bus in the parking lot of our hotel. The driver let us on board, and we were awed at the fancy seats and tables with the Liverpool logo, flat screen TVs and a full fridge of sports drinks. Maybe this was a good sign for our match.

At the Tottenham training grounds, we trained with their coaches for an hour, working on ball control skills. We trained indoors under a large dome. We took a break after training to get a snack, watch soccer on TV and change into our uniforms. We were fired up and ready to play. Tottenham Hotspurs, or Spurs, plays in the Premier League. The team has won a major trophy in each of the last six decades, an achievement matched only by Manchester United. Their academy scouts the best of the best young players in England, and we were excited to see how we matched up.

It seemed like a game of copy cat: They answered our goal with their own. In the second quarter, our goalie Ben Roach sent the ball to our center midfielder Jack Luckhurst, who got a toe on it and nutmeged (through the legs) the goalie for our second goal. A few moments later, Tottenham scored to tie it up. The third quarter was our weakest, but we came out in the forth quarter with lots of fight. Avi Ghitterman scored on a half-volley rebound after the goalie had deflected a shot by Juanito Zarate. We were up 3-2 with only a few minutes left.

The hard skill work we had experienced with the Tottenham coaches made a lot of sense. These kids had amazing technical skill. With a few minutes left in the game, their defender hit a long pass to their forward, who tipped it over our goalie to end the game in a tie at 3-3. We like to win, but were really happy with a tie. We’d proven we could hold our own against the highest level of play. 

The Tottenham boys were very nice. Immediately after the game they came over and complimented us on our skill. We gave them T-shirts, and they all put them on right away. They seemed to feel we were special, coming all the way from California to play them.

“Every player played a massive part,” said our coach, Billy. But he picked right defender Adam Hogue as Man of the Match (aka MVP) because of his desire and fight. He wanted to win so badly he won his tackles and made things happen. We all got Tottenham pins for our excellent effort, and the good feelings lasted for the four-hour bus drive up north to Bolton.

Tottenham was amazing, but tomorrow would be a dream come true. We would play Manchester United, arguably the top development team in the world. A rare opportunity because Man U usually doesn’t play American teams.

March 26, 2012

“One of the most important things in football is to balance your speed and quality,” our Fulham Football Club coach said in his proper English accent. I squinted up at him, another day so bright that the fake green grass glistened.

We were at the Fulham FC training grounds having a practice session with Fulham coaches Joe and Tom. The security was so strict at the training grounds that to enter the grounds we had to pass through security and our parents had to wear badges. Parents had to stay where we were training.

The grass fields next to us were very well kept because the professionals had to play on them. Right now the U17 team practiced on the grass, and I checked them out wondering who would be a future football star.

Fulham FC is the oldest professional club in London and one of England’s top Premier League teams. Clint Dempsey from the United States is their star player. We would watch him play that night on TV against Manchester United. We did similar drills to what we do with our SBSC coach, Billy Gallagher.

“The training helped improve my touches,” said my teammate Max Levy, Man of the Match in our game against Reading FC. “It felt special and privileged because it isn’t everyday you get to train with professional English coaches.”

Next we went on a tour of the Chelsea Stadium, home of the world-famous Chelsea Football Club. We got to see the jerseys and lockers of the team and stand where they stood. We came out of the tunnel with music playing loudly, as if we were a professional team ourselves.

Our tour guide had played for Chelsea Academy when he was younger. He had joined when he was my age. Most kids in the academy live with host families nearby. School isn’t as important as soccer for them. Due to injuries he didn’t make it to the professional level. He said each month 500 boys try out for the Chelsea Academy and only a couple are selected. From those selected, only a few make it to the professional level. It made me scared to hear this.

Tomorrow is a big day with an intense match against Tottenham (pronounced “Totnum”) Hotspurs. Not many teams from the United States are allowed to play the Spurs, so we’re excited. Our parents are not allowed in the academy.

March 25, 2012

Today it was our turn on the pitch. We had our first match against Reading Football Club, established in 1871. It is one of the oldest teams in England.

It was an exciting challenge against quick and skillful players. We played hard for all four 20-minute quarters, but we found the English players much more physical than we were used to. There was a lot of pushing, shoving and tripping that isn’t bad sportsmanship here; it is just part of their game. On the field they were rough, off the field they were very friendly.

We lost the match 1-2. It felt bad to lose, as we had many chances at the goal and Reading scored its winning goal on a penalty kick, but, as our coach tells us, the most important game is the next one.

After the match we went into London and got to look at historical buildings from England’s past. The architecture had patterns, arches and domes, with lots of detailed stone carvings. We went on a double-decker bus to the Tower of London — a thousand-year-old castle in the middle of the city. Then we went on a boat on the River Thames, and to the Parliament and Westminster Abbey. We played soccer in the courtyard outside of Westminster Abbey and got in trouble. We rode on the Tube, London’s subway system, back to our bus.

It was a living history lesson, both by playing a team with such tradition behind it and walking around places where the kings and queens of England have walked throughout the ages.

March 24

After a sleepless overnight flight, our team arrived in England at 10:30 a.m. local time. The airport was pretty much the same as LAX except for the distinct accents. We got our bags and headed out to meet our tour guide named Barrie. He helped us get on a bus and the bus took us to our hotel for a brief stop and then straight to the Arsenal vs. Aston Villa match in the English Premier League.

“He scores when he wants, he scores when he wants, he scores when he wants, he scores when he wants,” sang the energetic fans surrounding us.

The sun shone and we took off our jackets. It was one of the hottest days of the year in London. Everyone said we’d brought the California weather with us.

The stands smelled of beer, salt and bad breath.

“Ar-sen-al, Arsenal!” sang the fans, trying to be louder than the fans in the next block of seats who were for Aston Villa.

The perfectly groomed grass of the pitch was only 50 feet away and I wished I could join the players on it. That is until a defender slide tackled a forward, nearly chopping his legs off.

Soccer is a rough sport and, up close, the players I’d watched on TV looked like supermen, full of strength. These were players like Robin van Persie whose names we wore on the back of our shirts, whose moves we tried to copy. It was amazing to watch their skill as well as their powerful shots, and to see them playing right in front of me with 60,000 fans cheering them on. I wondered if I could be like that some day.

After the game I had an English burger and chips (fries) at a pub called The Duchess of Kent in the neighboring London borough of Islington to celebrate Arsenal’s 3-0 victory over Aston Villa. It smelled like the stadium — beer and salty food. With lots of cheering men.

It was a perfect way to start our soccer tour. Watching the best of the best fight it out on the pitch made me want to get at it myself. I wouldn’t have to wait long as our first match was at 10 a.m. the next day.

— Noozhawk correspondent Sloan Hanson, 12, is a Santa Barbara Junior High seventh-grader and plays for the Santa Barbara Soccer Club.

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