Christmas Can Bring The Cynical Worst Out Of Professional Footballers

Christmas may be the most wonderful time of the year; a time to love, a joyous time of peace on Earth and goodwill to all men.

But for the hungry young professional footballer it also happens to be a time of rich, career-sparking opportunity.

Any kid that’s worth his salt would be wise to selfishly snatch that gift this week, if it falls in their direction.

Looking back at my own playing career, I’d like to think I was deserving of all my first team opportunities with Arsenal. However, it’s possibly no coincidence that my debut and full league debut for the Gunners both occurred in and around the festive period, when the squad was stretched.

On New Year’s Eve 1994, ‘the day that John Jensen finally scored’, a home encounter with QPR was Arsenal’s third match in six days. With a north London derby around the corner on January 2, George Graham was looking to shuffle his pack, and the boy Clarke was a handy new sub to have at his disposal while others put their feet up.

Just under a year later, after several involvements on the bench, I got my first start under new manager Bruce Rioch on Boxing Day. This time, three days after a disappointing defeat to Liverpool at Anfield, with players suffering from bruised bodies and minds, another home game against QPR was the ideal time for the boss to shake things up. In the right place at the right time, I stayed off the turkey and trimmings and was buzzing to get the chance. Ian Wright got us off the mark before half time (picture above) before we went onto a comfortable 3-0 win.

I needed no second invitation to play that day, yet it's worth noting I had also positioned myself nicely.

While it’s impossible to deliberately time a run of form, even as a teenager there was an awareness on my part that should I be fit, on-fire, and knocking on the first team door in December, I’d come under consideration. Striving extra hard to catch the coaching staff’s eye at a time when they need to widen their senses, is never a bad idea.

It’s the same at every club. With matches coming thick and fast, players will always drop like flies. Managers need to consider fresh options. Just like me, hundreds of other young pros down the years have seen their Christmas wishes granted by being sharp and on-song in December, and the same will happen this Boxing Day.

Rest and rotation is one thing, but injuries and suspensions are also rife in the festive season too.

That said, those who say Christmas absences are purely down to a heavy workload are naïve.

Christmas is not the greatest time for footballers. The matchday squad must train on Christmas morning before staying at a hotel or traveling through the day to the far away town or city they'll be facing on Boxing Day. Frankly, it can be pretty darn miserable. Which is why some seek to stay home and 'rest up'. 

Now, I played at every level from the top flight down to the sixth tier, and it was the same everywhere... Niggles that weren’t normally enough to cry off with suddenly became needy of a rest, while hard-to-diagnose back problems arose and illnesses cropped up left, right and centre. Oh, and those guys on four bookings 'inadvertently' picked up a fifth that left them suspended.

Footballers aren’t by and large the sharpest tools in the box, but when it comes to Christmas-related ‘deceit’ many of them have it mastered!

Hand on heart I never did it, but it was obvious to me every year that at least one team-mate had conveniently bagged them self a normal Christmas, free from the sacrifices to which they were accustomed. It happens. We’re all human.

Fortunately, and perhaps rightly so, it’s the most promising young players of the next generation who tend to benefit from these cynical old tricks. For them, the thought of a Christmas spent at work, is mouth-wateringly exciting.

Now that I’m old, retired, and beginning to show signs of grey, I get to enjoy as much Turkey, pudding, wine and port as I fancy on December 25. And you won’t hear me complaining about it.

But give me half a chance and the opportunity to whizz myself back in time to the days when I had the chance of playing three matches in a week over Christmas, and I’d be there in a flash.

The crisp air, the cold turf, the happy festive crowds, the adrenalin; it’s a magical time to be a footballer. And most players, especially the young, love it to bits.

This time of the year will forever hold memories of the dreams which became reality for me in the mid-90s; a time when opportunity knocked and I grabbed it with both hands.

Watch out for the kids who get their first chance this week. All over the country, several Christmas wishes are about to come true. For them, it really is the most wonderful time of the year.

Bet on the Boxing Day fixtures now.

Read more from Adrian Clarke.