Friday morning, West London.
The Titans elected to stay and train at the same location. The schedule said the team would train on the lawn, conjuring up the image of an immaculately manicured croquet lawn. The reality was a little different.
The field was rough. The Tennessee press picked up on it straight away, comparing it to the photos that the Chargers had posted of their luxurious surroundings. Even before the press conference started there seemed to be focus on reasons why the Titans wouldn’t win on Sunday. It was less than five hours since the team had touched down in the UK and their preparations were being scrutinised. I didn’t think there was a rivalry between the Browns and the Titans but not for the first time I heard the phrase “this is so Titans”. Negativity was in the air.
The squad had a light work out, first in their specialist units followed by some stretching whilst an eclectic mix of tunes blasted from the oversized boom box. When walk throughs commenced, the press were ushered inside the “Castle”.
Now lets get things straight. It was more of a stately home than a castle. Travel 400 miles north to see a proper castle. But I didn’t want to burst the Tennessean bubble. They were kinda stoked to see it. They were in a strange land. I’m sure they thought this was Hogwarts. And it distracted from the field, a bit.
Marcus Mariota was up first and for a man under pressure he is as laid back as can be. He said all the right things. It’s all business, we’re here for the win, we’re improving as a team.
However, the Titans run game is an issue and talk turned to that quickly. The message from the Titans camp all week and again with Mariota was that they have to give the running backs a chance. At third and nine or ten, the run game isn’t getting a look in. So their focus this week is on getting a quick start and making sure progress is made on first downs. This was the mantra of the day. Good progress on first downs.
Linebacker Wesley Woodyard is a sight for sore eyes for the Titans team and fans alike. Returning from a shoulder injury he practised fully and is declared fit for Sunday. And he was up for it. There is no doubt his leadership has been sorely missed in the last two weeks. He talked passionately about the hurt he felt watching the defeats to the Bills and the Ravens. How he felt he had let his teammates down by not being there. There is no doubt he is raring to go and will be a much needed boost for the Titans on Sunday.
If all this sounded like a low point during the press conference, he lifted it immediately when asked his view on the state of the turf. ‘I found mushrooms”, he boomed. “I ain’t never played on a field of mushrooms before”. And all of a sudden the Great Hall was filled with laughter. You can sense the Titans need him in the locker room and on the field.
Mike Vrabel might be the new head coach, but the honeymoon is over in Nashville. The Tennessee press fired questions from the off ranging from “did the players get enough sleep on the plane”, to “should the team have come across earlier” to “why is the team playing on a poor version of a high school football field”.
For someone who had just flown across the Atlantic and then run and participated in a full practice, he remained far more dignified than I would have given the circumstances. Vrabel said that as a team they felt no need to get off a plane, drive to a hotel, check in, get on another bus for 30 minutes to go train on a rugby field. This was in reference to the Chargers who were practicing at a professional rugby clubs facilities. Vrabel said it made sense to practice where the players were staying meaning they could reduce travel time. In fact, Big Mike said he would have practised at the Airport if they could find anywhere. And who said we couldn’t find a use for a third runway at Heathrow…
I asked Vrabel if the trip was helpful to get the players away from Nashville to use it as a bonding exercise post last weeks defeat to the Ravens or was it an unwelcome distraction. He was genuine in his response. This was an excellent way to get the team out of Nashville and to use the excitement and expectation of playing in London positively. He enthused about the welcome they had received and the overall excitement off the game in this country. He expressed surprise that the rush hour traffic hadn’t been as bad as made out. He said that knowing he will never have to travel the Central line during his time here.
The team was given Friday night off to go explore the City, so when asked about their list of must see places, each players stock answer was wherever the tour bus takes them, wherever their wives and girlfriends (and I suspect them too also) can go wild with credit cards and where is a good place to eat.
I didn’t have the heart to tell them Big Ben is covered in scaffolding. But I do know where you can get some decent pie and mash.
Sunday is vital for this Titans team. A third successive defeat would bring their season to a shuddering halt. Their work is cut out playing an in form Chargers side packed with talent. Let’s hope the Hogwarts magic rubs off on the Tennessee boys.
photo credit : Gordon Dedman, @steeluk