Aug 9, 2021
ST ANDREWS, Scotland — “They’re pish,” replied the taxi driver, pulled over on Buchanan Gardens, when told it was the Manchester United team coach that had briefly stopped traffic.
Despite that blunt assessment, the welcome Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his players received in Scotland was otherwise warm as they made final preparations for the new Premier League season, which begins at Old Trafford against Leeds United on Saturday.
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For Solskjaer, the home of golf was the perfect place for United’s title ambitions to tee off.
Ahead of what turned out to be his final season as manager, Sir Alex Ferguson took United to St Andrews, the university town where Prince William met Kate Middleton, during the summer of 2012. Barcelona also used the town, located 50 miles north of Scottish capital Edinburgh, as their preseason base in 2007; Brighton were there last summer.
West Ham arrived at the beginning of July, using the West Sands Beach — famous for the opening scenes of the film “Chariots of Fire” — for their morning jog. Mark Noble spent most of the time dropping seaweed on his teammates’ heads.
David Moyes was happy to let passers-by watch his team train at the University Sports Centre, but his former club was more secretive.
An advance party of United staff was sent up to surround the training pitches with white fencing before the squad arrived, but that did not stop 30 or so interested observers standing on a wall to get a glimpse of the team’s first session on Monday evening.
By the next morning, red “Do Not Climb” signs had appeared along with another, much taller fence. One young fan went to the other end of the pitches to poke his head over, but was quickly spotted by two club security guards patrolling the perimeter. When it comes to United, there is nothing left to chance.
Man United finished second last season, having been third the previous campaign. Can they keep improving? Getty
It is a five-hour drive from Manchester to St Andrews, but United nevertheless brought with them everything from advertising boards to a custom golf cart with a big screen attached to the back, used to pass on instructions to the players before each session.
When training began with stretches and lunges over small, yellow hurdles, a group of staff opened a large black box that looks like it should be carrying gold bricks into a bank vault. Before long a drone is whirring overhead; each pass and every sprint is monitored.
As the 42A bus to Dundee rumbled past, games of head tennis were followed by passing drills, steadily increasing in difficulty and intensity. The final element was a focus on pressing — how to do it and how to beat it — which is a key part of the way Solskjaer wants to play.
Sessions usually ended with highly competitive games of six-a-side. On Monday, the winning team was made up of Bruno Fernandes, Nemanja Matic, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard, Harry Maguire and Phil Jones. The games were so frantic that Aaron Wan-Bissaka, training alone with a coach, stopped to watch.
Most of the players’ free time was spent in the team room at the Old Course Hotel with games of pool, table tennis and Uno, sandwiched between watching the Olympics and catching up on episodes of “Love Island.” Andreas Pereira was the man to beat at pingpong.
The squad were given Wednesday afternoon off and the golfers in the group, including Mata, Harry Maguire, Scott McTominay and Daniel James, went to play a local course.
Great day golfing with the lads ️ pic.twitter.com/kkhIwEIfht
— Harry Maguire (@HarryMaguire93) August 4, 2021
Most of the players and staff had rooms overlooking the 17th fairway of the Old Course — traditionally the hardest hole for anyone hoping to win the Open Championship — but it was decided playing there would attract too much attention.
As a consolation, they were allowed to use “The Swing Studio” at the hotel, which allows guests to virtually play 60 of the world’s most famous courses. Solskjaer is not a golfer — “a good walk spoiled” is his view — but he did watch a few players take on the blind tee shot on the 17th from his hotel window.
The interest in United is so intense that their manager was spotted in his room by a small group of supporters on the public path, which runs between the golf course and the hotel. They got a wave and thumbs up from the Norwegian.
Even the coaching staff, led by Kieran McKenna, running through the streets on Tuesday evening was enough to have locals walking to the Jigger Inn — the pub attached to the Old Course Hotel where Louis Oosthuizen celebrated winning The Open in 2010 — reaching for their phones.
United cause a stir wherever they go, and Solskjaer is hoping to make waves next season. Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane have arrived and, shortly after returning from Scotland, the preseason schedule ended with a 4-0 thrashing of Premier League rivals Everton.
St Andrews was chosen as the base camp to begin the fight for the title. The climb to the top starts now.