RAHEEM STERLING and Manchester City had better be on a war footing when they travel to Cheltenham.
For their League Two FA Cup fourth-round opponents have been getting battle tips and endurance training from former Royal Marine Commandos.
Ironically Afghanistan veteran Ben Williams, who has been working with the Robins for the last two years, put City stars Sterling, Kyle Walker, John Stones and England through their paces ahead of their highly- successful 2018 World Cup run to the semi-finals.
And he said: "I liked Raheem a lot because he's a great professional – but Pep Guardiola and the City lads must beware because little old Cheltenham are up for a fight."
When Cheltenham boss Michael Duff called in the Marines for help he and the team were in a hole.
Burnley legend Duff – who won three promotions to the Premier League at Turf Moor in eight years there as a player – acted on a recommendation from his former Clarets team-mate Tom Heaton.
The now Aston Villa keeper had been part of that England squadthat spent a weekend with Royal Marines Commandos at their base in Devon.
Duff said: “I’d just taken over at Cheltenham and we’d lost five and drawn three of my first eight games – and not many managers survive much longer with that record.
“There was no culture at the club. Everyone had their own agenda and standard.
“I lost count of the times I told players to clean their boots before training.
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“And don’t ask why but footballers nowadays like taking a shower wearing their pants – but our lads would then just leave them lying around in the showers for the kit-man. I told them, ‘It’s not his job to clean them. He’s here to provide you a kit.’
“I wanted the team to show humility, talk and treat the cleaner the same way they would the chairman and have one common goal like we had at Burnley.”
Duff knows all about the use of learning military values as his dad John served in the RAF for FIFTY years – 37 in service and 13 as a civilian. That earned him an MBE for service to the services.
He said: “My upbringing gave me identical core values shared by the Marines but I needed someone else to deliver that message as the players would have thought then, ‘You talk a good game but can’t even win matches.’
“Footballers buy into the Marines because they believe they have a similar personality and environment – a load of alpha males thinking they must prove how strong they are. But that’s nonsense.
“The commando thing is the same as the team thing in football – it’s bigger than any individual.”
I wanted the team to show humility, talk and treat the cleaner the same way they would the chairman, and have one common goal like we had at Burnley.”
Former commando Williams and his fellow soldiers impressed Heaton after they taught Gareth Southgate’s men key survival, leadership and team skills.
Williams said: “They spent two nights with us sleeping in bivvy tents, learning how to survive on rations and being put through gruelling endurance tests.
“Some hadn’t camped out before so it was a unique situation for a lot of them.
“We put them through a course which was two miles of tunnels, bogs and submerged water features before a four-mile run back to camp.
“When Jermain Defoe got to the ‘sheep dip’ – a two or three metre tunnel completely under water – he didn’t want to do it. He wasn’t being dismissive, it was sheer fear.
“But he finally went through it and when he came out the other side he was so overwhelmed with happiness of his achievement.
“Raheem Sterling was another player who impressed me. He was quiet and reserved – but you could see he was embracing everything we did and was taking in everything.
“While I’ve never seen anyone as fast as Kyle Walker. He shot past us at one point and I just thought, ‘Wow.’
“John Stones was a nice enough lad and it’s great to see him doing well now.
“It’s about putting yourself into those situations that are difficult but when you get through it you maximise your potential afterwards.
“You see a bit more to yourself and that is what we really did with them and that is what we’ve gone on to do with sport.
“It’s about instilling into players the commando mindset – how does a Royal Marine think and then apply it to football.
“We work on what are your values, how do you increase resilience and personal drive and what you do in the shadows away from the pitch and training ground matters most.”
The Cheltenham team went on a similar camp but first of all they were given a motivational speech by Williams and fellow former soldier Antony Thompson.
Former corporal Williams himself battled drug addiction and suicidal thoughts before turning his life around by joining the Marines, where he learnt valuable lessons about belonging, leadership and success.
And he revealed what he told the Cheltenham players in that first meeting.
He said: “They were staring at relegation and Duffy was facing the sack.
“I told them in a powerful talk, ‘You can hit promotion standard, you can hit top four.’
“We had to set standards and values. I told them, ‘It’s not an individual thing, it’s a Cheltenham thing.’
“People laughed at me and said, ‘This is little old Cheltenham, it’s not going to happen.’
“But then there was a turning of the wheel situation and they started to enforce what was said between themselves.
“We’ve been down a few times, done some virtual calls and they’ve been on our commando experience.
“If they continue doing what they’re doing they might be in contention for winning the league.”
Duff now believes he has a perfect environment for Cheltenham to be successful.
One of the messages drummed into the players has been “check your ego” – which is the importance of playing as a team, training as a team and leaving any ego at home.
Duff said: “Sean Dyche has that sort of environment at Burnley. Even if they signed a wrong ’un, that person wouldn’t be able to affect the group because no-one would pivot towards that person because they’re so focussed on the common goal.”
Duff believes Cheltenham can pull off what would be one of the FA Cup’s biggest upsets by beating a team 72 places above them in English football’s pecking order.
The former centre-back was in the Northern Ireland team that stunned Spain 3-2 in the Euro 2008 qualifier after a David Healy hat-trick.
He said: “The City game is a free hit for us. We know we’ll have to be compact and not have much of the ball.
“To this day no-one can explain how we beat a Spain team packed with superstars that went on to win those Euros.
“That proved anything is possible.”
And Williams believes in the seemingly impossible too.
He said: “Of course they can beat Manchester City. Marines never go into a battle thinking they’re going to get killed by the enemy. The Cheltenham players have that commando mindset.”
BEN WILLIAMS has written a great book called Commando Mindset, which documents his life before, during and after the Marines. It is published by Penguin and available from all good book outlets.
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