Defender Rod McDonald has typified the pre-season approach from the squad as a whole this summer with a return to training that has shown a determined mood and a real focus on attacking every session with full force.
The 29-year-old had a solid first season with the Cumbrians, notching up 31 appearances in all competitions, and he admitted that he’s enjoying the punishing schedule of double sessions having come back to the grindstone in fantastic shape.
“It’s like every pre-season, you know it’s going to be tough,” he said. “All the boys have come back flying, the camp’s in a good place, everybody’s enjoying themselves.
“I don’t think anyone will ever say they enjoy the running but I’ve come back quite fit this year, I’m feeling a lot better.
“I think last year it was difficult for everybody because we had four months or so without knowing if the season would get finished, then we didn’t know when last season would start.
“I usually do some work with my personal trainer during pre-season which was harder with the restrictions last year as well. This time around I’ve been able to have a good five or six weeks with him over the summer.
“We all had our own meetings with the gaffer at the end of last season and we both agreed that I needed to get back to the old Rod McDonald. I’ve done that during the summer and I think I’m in the best shape I’ve been in since I was at Coventry, which is why I’m so excited to get going.”
Noticeable during the outside sessions this past fortnight has been the amount of work done with the ball, dovetailed seamlessly with the running aspects of the fitness training.
“It’s been difficult, as it always is, but we’ve done a lot of football which has been good,” he explained. “We’ve had the balls out most days with some tough running alongside it.
“All the boys have come back in great nick which is great to see. You can never replicate match fitness but we’ve got a couple of games coming up, so we’ll get that side of our fitness from there and take it into the season.
“I always look forward to getting to the final couple of weeks of pre-season. Until then it’s about fitness and staying injury free, but that’s when you get into the bigger friendlies where you can really get your match fitness in and get going properly.
“It’s a fresh start for everyone and it’s back to a bit of normality, I think it’ll be a great season for us. I feel we’ve got a tight-knit group from the staff to the players, we’re all looking forward to it as a team.
“We’re talking about normality but you still need to take care, especially in pre-season, you don’t want to miss it. Personally I just go home, come to football, go home, I’m out of the way really.
“I don’t want to get that risk of missing 10 days because it sets you back. You have to be careful and look after yourself, plus your family.”
And on his own aims for the coming campaign, he commented: “I think it’s a bit too early to be talking about aims and goals.
“At the moment it’s just about getting everybody fit and through pre-season, just taking it week by week.
“Having said that, on a personal level I want to play in a lot more games than I did last year. I want to play over 40 this year. That’s my aim, touch wood.
“Other than that it’s just helping the boys as much as I can on and off the pitch and keeping the consistency of my performances higher. I feel I’ve come back in a better shape this year ready to step up.
“Personally, I know I can step my game up a bit from where I was last year. I think it’s mostly about consistency levels but I feel like I can do that this year. I just can’t wait to get started.”
With pandemic restrictions about to be eased, the hope is that this season will be a return to ‘normality’ following what was an unusual and extremely busy period leading up to the summer break.
“I don’t think any other footballing team in the next 20 or 30 years will play as many games as we did in those 12 weeks,” he said. “It is physical, but if you’re physically tired you’re probably mentally tired as well.
“It’s a combination of both, I would say. But we’ve learned from it and we’ll take it into this year knowing that everything in football has to be earned.
“We’ve just got to start off how we did last year and maintain it. Consistency is key. We’re going to have to go away, pick up points at tough grounds, and we’ve got to make Brunton Park a fortress again.
“The big thing is I think we just need to not let stuff get us down. We had so many games coming thick and fast we were probably worrying about losses we had the week before and we took that into the next games.
“But sometimes you’ve got to go through the tough times to work out the better times and I think we’ve done that. I think we’re a lot stronger for it this year.
“Mind you, as soon as the season finished I went straight down to Cornwall with the family and enjoyed a couple of weeks off down there.
“When you sit back and think about it you realise what we’d been through with the amount of games we played, it was tough, but we got through it and I think we’ll all be a lot stronger mentally and physically for it.
“I think we can all reflect on it now and know that we’ve seen the good and bad side of football. It’s important to never get too high or too low and I think the lads will have learned that, which will help us push on and be better players from it.
“I was looking at the fixtures the other day and some months there’s only four or five games, literally just a game on a Saturday and that’s it. We were playing nine or ten games a month towards the end of last season so a game a week will feel easy compared to that.
“It will give us time to work hard in training during matches, which we didn’t really get chance to do last season, so it will be good.”
Another positive for the group is that many of them went through that experience, with a number of players having played their first full seasons in the senior game under those testing circumstances.
“The core of the team is still here and I think that will be a big plus for us,” he agreed. “We all know how the gaffer wants us to work and how hard we need to work.
“There’s competition for places throughout the squad which is good for everyone. You should never think you’re guaranteed to play, we’ve got good players, especially in my position, so it’s good to know you need to fight for your position in the team.
“The majority of us already understand that, which is good to see. Even the new lads have come straight in and taken to it all like ducks to water, everybody is flying, I think it’s one of the fittest groups I’ve been in during a pre-season.
“Everybody is made to feel welcome. It’s a tight-knit group and easy to fit in to it. The three new arrivals have fitted in perfectly.
“Being one of the older lads in the group does bring added responsibility but we’ve got young lads in there who have actually got quite a lot of experience. The likes of Callum and Aaron are still only 24 or so, but they’ve played plenty of games.
“I think what happened last year, even for the young lads, will have helped them to be tougher mentally. That will help us to compete in what is a tough division.
“I think you’ve just got to be consistent in this league, and mix it up – one day you’ll play a passing team and the next play the most physical team, and then the next a passing team, you’ve just got to match them at both ends.”
Fans, of course, will be there in the stadiums, with the opening game against Colchester expected to bring a bumper crowd back to Brunton Park.
“The fans make a massive difference to everything,” he told us. “Even if a defender shanks the ball out of play for the away team, then the fans give him a bit of stick, the next time the ball comes to him it can happen again because they’ve put him under a bit of pressure.
“You see that sort of thing happen all the time and I think we’ve all been on the wrong and right side of it. It’s great to have their support because they really do become your twelfth man.
“Sometimes last year we were playing on Tuesday nights when it was cold and quiet, and we knew how different it would have felt if fans were there to give you that boost. I think it will be massive for the lads.”
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