After a huge breakfast at our hotel, featuring every type of food ever served at a breakfast table, we went to the Aspire Academy for a guided tour with the Director of Sport, Chris Earle. This is an incredible facility including basketball courts, gymnastic facilities, an indoor 200m track, 3 x 50m swimming pools (yes 3!) and 6 football pitches (like snooker tables).
Local Qatari children are talent spotted and are then invited to attend the Academy for their training and schooling. They undertake a programme of fundamental movement skills and multi-skills development before specialising in sports best suited to their body shape. The support provided includes world class physio, sport psychology, nutrition and strengthening and conditioning. One of the main aims behind the Academy’s football programme is producing a team capable of doing well at the 2022 World Cup.
A huge (and obviously healthy) lunch was provided at Aspire before we returned to the hotel for a light jog around the surrounding streets, dodging the 4 x 4s and manic Qatari driving. The signposts are described as "suggestions" and there are no hard and fast rules on roundabouts other than everyone to themselves and good luck.
That evening the British Ambassador entertained the three visiting schools, the American School of Doha and the tournament sponsors with a lavish barbecue at the British Embassy. There were lamb kebab wraps, hot dogs, individually carved fruit, an ice cream stand and a pop corn machine! Speeches were given by the Ambassador, the British Council and by Trevor Stephen, former Everton, Rangers and England winger. Mr Hughes responded on behalf of the three English schools.
Breakfast at 7.30am was followed by training at Aspire at 8.30am. A good session on the 3G pitch allowed us to prepare for the surface and work on the formation for our first match against the Evolution Soccer Academy - their coach was present to do some unashamed spying on us! A compliment perhaps?
Our game started at 4pm and we warmed up in muggy conditions, eagerly anticipating kick-off. The game started positively with territory deep in the opposition half, but we couldn't break down their defence. They were a strong counter-attacking side and they struck 20 minutes into the game. The game ended with a 3-0 loss, despite the fact that Shrewsbury dominated most of the play in the second half with some brilliant attacking play from the likes of Angus Hayward, Joe Carrasco, Dan Durman, Ed Dolphin and our left winger Jamie Humes. Joe Carrasco produced a top corner wonder strike in the first half that was magnificently saved by Evo's huge goalkeeper, who was their man of the match. Areas to work on but a positive start against the strongest Qatarian side in the tournament.
We went off to training in the searing early heat of 30 degrees and had a lacklustre session, still showing some of the rustiness evident in the previous night’s performance. A couple of players were recovering from injuries and some more felt niggles. At the end of the session we received a few deserved stern words to get us in the right frame of mind for that evening’s match.
Before that, however, we had the World Cup trophy to see! We went to where it was on show in Aspire Academy and watched a video about the competition before we each had our picture taken with the trophy. It was an amazing and inspirational experience, something we will never be able to do again.
We then headed off to the Corniche, a particularly spectacular part of Qatar, where we had a boat ride and viewed the gigantic skyline. It was a fun and relaxing trip which gave us an insight into the full extent of the Qatari wealth and just how quickly Doha is developing (most of the skyscrapers are less than ten years old). Then it was time to head back to the hotel for a quick rest before heading off to the game.
When we arrived the nerves visibly set in, as the whole group started to go quiet, not helped by seeing rivals Oldham Hulme beat the Evolution side 1-0. There was a real intensity in the warm up and pre-match talk that showed the team’s true desire to win the match. After a strong pre-match huddle we were ready to go and were all buzzing to take the game to them from the off. Sadly it started badly, as within a minute we were a goal down due to some weak defending and a big deflection enabling ASD to get an early lead, with a looping shot from the edge of the area. The players were a little shocked and a lot of strong words were shouted, but we weren’t going to crumble to defeat. Thankfully, after this we started to dominate the game and head towards an emphatic win. Henry Blofield started the rout with a goal from a corner, and Jamie Humes took us into the lead with a good run and finish down the left wing. From then on it was one-way traffic as Joe Carrasco bagged a brilliant hat trick, Dan Durman finished two well worked moves, as well as a rare brace from Olly Brown. It was all finished off with a thunderous strike from Angus Hayward and a particularly surprising header from George Lewis, with the game finishing at a pleasing score of 11-1!
Confidence was high in the camp and we trained well and felt well prepared our game later that evening.
During the day we went to a museum containing various random items collected by a member of the Qatari royal family, ranging from cars and aeroplanes to swords.
We knew the chances of qualifying were very slim but even so we really wanted to beat QUESS (Qatar Union of English Speaking Schools), who had definitely already qualified, and remind all the other schools that we could beat the semi-finalists.
That we did! Although we weren't as clinical as the game before, we came through 2-1 winners. This took us to 6 points and our only hope of qualifying for the semi-finals was for Manchester Grammar to lose 3-0 to Evolution. This did not happen. The tournament format meant that only the top two English and top two Qatari sides qualified for the semis.
So the final standings were Manchester 9 points, Oldham Hulme 7 points, Shrewsbury 6 points, Evolution Academy 3 points, QUESS 1 point, American School Doha 0 points. The loss in the first game cost us dear and left us to lick our wounds and think of what might have been.
An early breakfast and off to the Damien Hirst "Relics" exhibition, the largest collection of his works ever assembled. There were some incredible pieces including a full sized Great White Shark in formaldehyde, a cow cut in two and a cow's severed head with live flies buzzing around it. The flies live for about two weeks and it is supposed to symbolise the cycle of life. Other themes included his "dot" paintings and a fascination with butterflies. There was a large "medical" influence too with his pharmacy display and his anti-smoking message featuring a huge ashtray containing thousands of cigarette butts. The ‘pièce de resistance’ was of course the diamond-encrusted skull "For the Love of God" which cost £15 million and was purchased by an anonymous collector for £50 million. The exhibition was met with mixed reviews from Salopians ranging from "awesome" to "very curious" to "not for me" and "you can get them dot paintings in IKEA for a tenner!"
From here we then went to the Museum of Islamic Art where the main focus was on Haj - the pilgrim journey to Mecca. There were historic Islamic artefacts from all over the world.
We then went to the "souk" which is the oldest part of Doha and is a labyrinth of narrow streets and market stalls. Our bartering skills were put to the test and Gus Hayward was delighted to come away with a Barcelona away kit for 20 Riyals (£4 approx), although we suspect it may be fake.
The semi finals were played in English conditions with a bitterly cold wind. The first game was won 4-0 by Manchester Grammar v Oldham Hulme and the second game was won by QUESS who beat Evolution Academy.
After a decent lie-in, we went off to visit the Mosque where we learned all about Islam and were shown how to pray. We also received a personalised message of goodwill in Arabic calligraphy from one the world's leading calligraphers who has just completed copying out the Koran.
We then had a training session – an 8-a-side match when the young and old guard saw off the Upper Sixth. Then it was back to the hotel for lunch and free time before returning to the Aspire Academy for the final and the tournament closing ceremony.
It had been a fantastic tour which the boys and staff will always remember. The hotel, training facilities, food and itinerary were simply amazing and we were made to feel welcome wherever we went. We got a real feel for what Qatar is all about and we were all very positive that they will host a fine World Cup in 2022.
A huge vote of thanks must go to Marwa and Rima, our organisers and reps, who were brilliant throughout and to the British Council and the Aspire Academy for looking after us so well.