News. "You're driving to training and you see big boards of Bruno" - Matt Targett on Riyadh welcome

06 Dec 22

One suspects that Matt Targett - as unassuming and self-effacing as top-flight footballers come - will never fully get used to being recognised in the street thousands of miles away from home, but the Newcastle United defender accepts that visiting a football-mad region as part of the team sitting third in the Premier League is bound to bring its fair share of attention

The former Aston Villa defender has toured countries like China and the US with previous clubs but admits that the reception the Magpies received as their SAUDIA flight landed at King Khalid International Airport, Riyadh, on Sunday night, when the players were met with a red carpet, a media scrum and handed bouquets of flowers, was an "incredible welcome."

"Even we had a little wander around the shops yesterday - a lot of people were stopping us, saying, 'welcome Newcastle'," he added. "The support out here's been incredible and we can't wait to see a lot more of the fans.

"It's nice because it shows just how big the club's growing, how well we're doing as a club. I think that's credit to everyone that's working here. That's the reward you get; the bigger the club gets, the more well-known it becomes around the world."

There are billboards featuring Bruno Guimarães in Saudi Arabia's capital city, which has a population of 7.6m, to promote Thursday's Diriyah Season Cup clash with Al Hilal. Brands are clamouring to be associated with the club (pioneering digital provider stc have joined SAUDIA, Saudi Arabia's national airline, and, United's official sleeve partner and the Middle East's leading online retailer, as tour partners) while the squad and staff are being ferried around on a coach emblazoned with the faces of Allan Saint Maximin, Miguel Almigon, Joelinton and skipper Jamaal Lascelles.

"To be fair, it took me a day to notice," laughs Targett. "When we got out of the airport, I didn't actually see it - we just walked on the closest bus because we were all shattered from the travelling.

"But it's incredible when you're driving to training and you see the big boards of Bruno and the game that's getting promoted on Thursday. It is massive, and it is nice to see."

United have trained twice now in the Saudi sun, on Monday and Tuesday morning, and will do so again on Wednesday ahead of Thursday's prestigious friendly against the most decorated club in Asia and reigning Saudi Pro League champions.

"It's been a very warm first couple of days, which is good," says Targett, speaking to after Tuesday's session, which appeared to be even more intense than the previous day's. "It makes you work a little bit harder, so it's nice to be out here and working hard. It benefits you, for sure; especially when you get back to to England where it's a bit - well, a lot - colder."

Targett and his team-mates have already enjoyed some sun on their backs of late, with Eddie Howe giving his players time off to recharge following the 1-0 win over Chelsea just over three weeks ago.

Targett went to New York and the Maldives - "it's funny because when I landed at the Maldives, there was a lot of Newcastle fans at the airport saying 'we're coming to Saudi to watch the game.' I was like, 'oh, wow' - straight away, as soon as I landed, they knew who I was and that blew my mind too," he smiles - before returning to the club's training ground, still undergoing renovation, at the beginning of last week.

"It's a complete reset," explains Targett. "You go away, you rest for a bit, but you can't rest too long because you're back to work and we want to pick up where we left off. I felt like we were a very fit team before the break so it's very important that we return at those high levels we showed at the start of the season."

As well as the Al Hilal game - "a good test - as you've seen in the World Cup, if you underestimate a team you get punished," warns Targett - and a number of fan events in the city, the week also gives the players an opportunity for team bonding, including a meal in the centre of Riyadh on Monday night.

"The group here's fantastic, so trips like this help everyone," said the 27-year-old. "We've got a few young players coming up, so it's nice to get to know them and see what they can do, and then obviously for the new players like (Alexander) Isak, that helps.

"I think the trip benefitted me a lot when we went to Dubai when I first joined. It's a real chance to get to know everyone that much better."

But for all of the advantages of the visit to Saudi Arabia, Targett - who started the campaign as Howe's first choice left-back before losing his place in the starting XI due to illness - is itching to return to domestic action, with a Carabao Cup clash with AFC Bournemouth on Wednesday, 21st December followed by the return of the Premier League on Boxing Day.

"I think the break came at the wrong time for us, but it's just another challenge that we need to rise to," he says. "It'll be important that we kick off where we left off.

"In that first part of the season we did unbelievable, so we'll take it game at a time - I know it's a horrible saying, but we go into every match wanting to win, so who knows? We haven't set ourselves any targets, but we're in a very good position and it's our job to try and maintain that. I'm sure it'll be a special season."

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