Day 3 -Wednesday 14th November
After another jumbo breakfast (we by now have acquired the art of blagging a box of croissants for Jacob’s “avoid night time hypos bedtime snack”) it was time for a Q&A session with Daniel Farke and Stuart Webber hosted by the Morecambe and Wise of Norwich City: Grant Holt and Adam Drury.
The session was in an impressive room with sea views on the 14th floor. As Jacob has a fear of elevators, we braced ourselves for the long climb using the emergency stairs, which have no air-conditioning.
Just before the session started we mentioned to one of the NCFC team about Jacob’s cheeky question to Stuart Webber the night before. As a result, Jacob was given the opportunity to repeat the question but this time in front of the room full of club partners.
Thankfully the answer was the same and it brought the house down. The elephant in the room now slayed, later Daniel walked past our table and smiled to Jacob, saying that was a “good question!”
The Holt/Drury combo is highly entertaining and we could have happily sat all afternoon listening to stories about Wes hiding in a washing basket, Paul Lambert’s habit of creeping up behind players and Simeon Jackson having to nip down to Thickthorn Services cashpoint to pay a fine for wearing earrings, only to be fined again on his return to Colney as he had forgotten to take them out resulting in another trip to the cashpoint!
However, it was time for another visit and off we went to the Raymond James Stadium, home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was a hot, humid day and even hotter inside the stadium. Our host for the tour explained that whilst the team was owned by the (in)famous Glazer family, the stadium was state-owned and so they only put the air conditioning on when there was a matchday.
The tour was very factual in nature, and the cannon of facts launched were lost on us as we coped with the searing heat and no air-con: “air conditioning costs $8k to turn on, so we don’t use it unless there’s a match” … “there are 1400 miles of electrical cables in the stadium” … Detailed figures on ticket pricing, which seemed far too complicated for us to deal with, and a mention of “400 speakers around the stadium that amplify the sound of cannons firing from the life-sized pirate ship at one end of the stadium ..”…
Yes, that’s right, there is a massive pirate ship, built by Disney, at one end which fires off a broadside when a touchdown is scored. A bit more cartoony than the cottage at Craven cottage but about the same size. By the time we posed for a group photo by the ship, we were all wilting in the heat. It could be dehydration setting in, but this was becoming a bit surreal. It was a bit like Alton Towers meets the Liberty Stadium but on a grander scale.
On to the Police Custody suite (yes, really). Jacob was fascinated by this, a place where unruly fans are held during a game or processed to be dealt with by the courts, depending on the severity of the offence. We thought we should have one of those at Carrow Road for when we play “that team” and stick the away fans in there.
Back to the hotel for a breather and some aircon, and then we were off to the “Armature Works” – an eclectic collection of eateries surrounded by a small market and live music performances, reminiscent of a hip Shoreditch warehouse, for dinner and bucket loads of excellent customer service.
Day 4 – Thursday 15th November
By now it was becoming rather ordinary to be having breakfast surrounded by first team and management. Even the cries of “you want some kwaffee?” seemed normal and natural.
Boots filled and croissant box reloaded, it was off to the Al Lang Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Rowdies to watch an open training session. The stadium has a large sweeping stand on one side and a more temporary structure, similar to the away end at Gillingham, opposite. There is also a splendid view of the marina, which Gillingham doesn’t have.
We were met by the current Rowdies manager, Neil Collins, who Jacob recalled was “born in Troon and played for Sunderland, Wolves, Preston, Leeds and Sheffield United” to collective “wows” from those around us. He continued: “he played against Norwich for Leeds on Saturday 27th March 2010 which we won 1-0”. Who needs Wikipedia when you have Jacob?
Having roasted in the heat the day before, the drop in temperature was pretty unwelcome for us spectators. The heavens opened and so we watched the training session from the main stand. We left our “Farke flag” on the terraces and hoped it wouldn’t blow away (we are proud to have been asked by Along Come Norwich to take their flag to all future away games).
The training session was followed by a barbeque lunch and then an hour or so chatting to the players. We posed for a group photo and then Jordan Rhodes, Zimm and Louis Thompson agreed to hold out the flag; we looked behind us and found that there was a crowd gathering around us – that flag brought people over in droves!
Daniel Farke also proved once again that he is a great guy and posed with us and the flag. It was a pretty soggy flag by this time, having been rained on all morning, and took quite a while to dry out that evening.
Once the training session was done, it was off to the Tropicana Field (yes the fruit juice), home to the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team. This indoor stadium is reminiscent of a small Millennium Dome and on a good day can accommodate 30,000 spectators as well as a hot tub containing live stingrays. We were given goody bags to take home and we also raided the club shop for some more memorabilia. Back to the hotel.
We had a free night, so we ate at the hotel and went on player watch duties from the hotel bar. We realised that it must be difficult for the players and senior staff when they want a quiet time knowing that there are so many fans lurking in the hotel, so we tried our best to keep our gawping from afar to a minimum.
Day 5 – Friday 16th November
Friday started with one of our most amazing experiences ever. The club had got wind of the fact that it was Jacob’s birthday and so arranged for us to have breakfast with his favourite player, Christophe Zimmerman, together with his new bestie, Stuart Webber.
We spent one-and-a-half hours chatting about football and related matters in a relaxed and comfortable manner. Zimm handed over a card and shirt signed by all the players. Not only that but Jordan Rhodes, Tim Krul and Matt Jarvis also popped over to chat with Jacob, and we started chatting about the latest football results.
We then headed over to Busch Gardens amusement park for the day (it is a bit like Pleasurewood Hills, with better weather and on a bigger scale). Being cowardly, we stuck to the log flume (and got drenched), and the chairlift and gave the big rides a miss. We stopped for lunch and fell about laughing at the “unlimited eating” option – Eat all you can all day so long as you only refill once an hour.
Later we bumped into the team, who were there for a short while after their training session. A chorus of “hi Jacob” greeted us from the players as they saw us (proud parent alert).
Back to the hotel for the final night, where a dinner had been arranged for us at a swish restaurant. The players were on their way out to a different eatery and as we waited for a taxi to take us to the restaurant (which didn’t arrive, but that’s another story) we could hear the familiar sound of “Jordan Rhodes is one of us…” from a group of players as they emerged from the hotel lobby. Do they know something we don’t?
Day 6 – Saturday 17th November: homeward bound
The morning was spent packing and feeling gutted about having to go home. We watched TV including a silly programme about US trading standards enforcement officers and were in disbelief when we watched the advertorials about health care and the state insurance system. It seems so complex, and we were so thankful that we were born in the NHS.
A final hotel meal with PG Tips tea (more of that later) and then off on the coach to the airport. Getting through security was much lower key and stress-free than at Gatwick, and we had lots of time to kill before the flight. We bought some genetically engineered (mutant) muffins as they were the only peanut-free things we could lay our hands on.
The flight back was uneventful, (the plane was older than the one on the outward trip, so no new entertainment system or USB ports to charge our phones). There was, of course, the now customary row with the BA stewardess about the inadequacy of food allergen information provided with the in-flight meal. The UK has such a lot to learn about customer care from the Americans, who were amazing.
Did we mention PG Tips earlier? The hotel concierge, herself an ex-pat, came over and swapped the hotel tea bags for the PG Tips ones she had brought over from England as they were nicer.
Stuart Webber was sat in front of us on the plane and when the morning lights came back on, Jacob greeted his new mate with “Morning Webber”, which we thought was hilarious. We circled Gatwick on a breakfast of a croissant filled with cream cheese and other grotty stuff which no-one should have to eat at that time of day. Luckily there was an M & S in the arrival hall.
Jacob was duly topped up with more coke as his sugar levels were dropping, and we hopped on to our bus. No traffic jams this time but there were a few tears on the way back. We arrived back at Carrow Road shortly after midday on Sunday, a bit weary but extremely grateful to the wonderful team at NCFC who had made this adventure possible.
Things we have learned: The NCFC staff worked tirelessly throughout the trip, making sure everything went smoothly for us. It was all pretty seamless so there must have been a huge amount of work behind the scenes to make it all happen. We know that the trip took months of planning.
The NCFC media staff were there in the hotel bar each night working away on their laptops, and Farke and his technical staff were seen working away too. Their sheer professionalism and hard work have made a great impression on us, and it is no coincidence the club is at the position it is at the moment.
We have made some wonderful friends, who we will keep in touch with, and we have already organised a meet-up. There was a diverse group of guests but everyone was great fun, friendly and a pleasure to spend time with. The ‘one club” manifesto certainly seemed to be in evidence all the time we were there.
Hats off to the players, who in between training, made trips to the local hospital and soccer school, for example. They look completely united as a group and were impeccably behaved. We are so proud of them (no taxi stealing antics there…. are you watching West Brom?), although I think Jordan Rhodes didn’t return our Sharpie pen when he signed a photo for us! But we’ll forgive him.
It was amazing to hear that both players and staff were back at work on Monday, whereas the Bowles family had to take the day off as we were jaded, jetlagged and over-emotional.
And as for Jacob? We tell him that fortune favours the brave. Despite the anxiety and panic attacks he suffered on the run-up to the trip, he ended up loving every minute of it.
And as for us, we are thinking: How can we ever top this?
Thanks again to the wonderful Bowles family for this fine three-part travelogue. We hope to hear from them again very soon.