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Bernard's Premier League Asia Trophy memories

Written by Luke Vinton

With Newcastle United set to compete in this summer's Premier League Asia Trophy, former defender Olivier Bernard recalled his experiences of playing in the inaugural tournament, held in Malaysia.

The Magpies travel to China on Saturday ahead of participating in the four team competition, where they will face Wolverhampton Wanderers on Wednesday, 17th July in their semi-final clash at Nanjing Olympic Sports Centre.

United will then take on either Manchester City or West Ham United at Shanghai Hongkou Football Stadium on Saturday, 20th July.

This will be the second time United have taken part in the pre-season event after taking part in the first edition back in 2003 - then called the Premier League Asia Cup - with Bernard featuring in the Newcastle side that reached the final in Kuala Lumpur before losing on penalties to Chelsea.

Bernard told nufc.co.uk: “It was very hot and humid but it was a great preparation for the upcoming season. Compared to playing in England, it was the complete opposite. In England, you struggle to see the sun sometimes but, over in Malaysia, it was always sunny and extremely hot.

"You stay outside in the heat and you're sweating. We were closer to playing in 30 degrees rather than 20, even when we were playing our matches in the nighttime. After the warm-up, shirts were dripping and we were not used to it.

"I recommend the players travelling to China drink plenty of water! Because of the heat, I think a lot of the players benefited from the experience.

"We won the game (semi-final) against Birmingham but it was a difficult match. We had a few injuries  and it wasn't ideal to prepare for that game. However, we did well and managed to win 2-1.

"The starting eleven probably wasn't the best we could have started with but, at that time, the squad was more than strong enough to keep the quality going and it was a comfortable win and an enjoyable game to take part in.

“However, the final against Chelsea was a flat one. Both teams were playing at quite a strong level in the opening 15 minutes but then the humidity started to kick in and everything became a challenge after that.

“You were breathing in hot air and it was very awkward to recover. Unless you were used to playing in those conditions, it was very difficult to play a decent game. It was still an important experience at the time and playing against big teams still gave you an overview on the new players and how they play, even though the tempo wasn't quite as high as what it was in the Premier League. 

"It was very competitive for pre-season and a good tournament to set the tone for the start of the season. It was important to play one or two big teams before the start of the season to measure yourself and the team along with the opposition of a similar level.

"It was a lot better for the team bonding rather than going to Europe. You go to an area where you have never been before and you are wanting to see the city and learn about the culture. If you go to France or next door to Ireland, there are similar cultures and the interest is not as high. Being in Kuala Lumpur and enjoying the sun and city, I think everyone really enjoyed the experience.”

The Frenchman, who spent six years on Tyneside in two spells with the Magpies, believed that the unfamiliar preparations in Malaysia helped towards a strong season in the 2003-04 campaign, with Newcastle finishing fifth and gaining European qualification for the third successive season.

Following his arrival at Malaysia's capital, Bernard admitted his astonishment of the scale of support received 6,000 miles away from home and, managed by Sir Bobby Robson, the defender revealed the desirable need for professionalism from his former coach.

The former left-back added: "That was one of the first times that I realised Newcastle United was a big club. You wouldn't imagine that many Newcastle fans. They are not as popular amongst the likes of Real Madrid or Barcelona but, when we travelled to Malaysia, the amount of Newcastle shirts that we saw was unreal. That is how we realised that we were doing a good job.

"We were being watched all over the world at that point and a lot of the fans were at the training sessions and even at the gym which was amazing. Sir Bobby was determined to make sure we represented Newcastle in the best way possible, being very professional and meticulous both in training and playing matches over there.

"It was encouraging to be involved in a young, innocent team. We gelled fairly quickly together and developed a playing style that was appreciated by the Newcastle supporters and football fans in general. The whole city was happy to see their team performing well. 

"The start of the season is always important as it sets the tone for the rest of the season. The beginning of last season for Newcastle was disappointing but after Christmas, I had to take my hat off to the way they had been playing where they went from fighting relegation to then trying to squeeze into the top half of the table." 

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