Professional footballers, as we all know, have it pretty good. Two hours of work a day, hero worship, fast cars, loose women, bumper salaries etc. There aren’t too many drawbacks.
Spending most Friday nights bored stiff in a different, characterless hotel room forcing down bottles of water isn’t one of the plusses. Hearing tales of your friends’ super-fun winter ski trips when you know you’re never going to be allowed to go on one can be a tad annoying, and I guess being jeered by thousands of people if you’re having an off day at work might be construed by some as a negative. In the main though, life as a professional footballer is bloody brilliant, as I well remember.
Aside from at Christmas, that is.
Just as your family are excitedly unwrapping their gifts in front of the tree, it’s time to jump into the car and head to training. The start will probably have been moved forward by an hour or so (frost permitting) so that everyone can dash back in time for their turkey, but it does little to soften the blow. There’s no time for a smoked-salmon breakfast, bucks fizz and a morning of setting up those new toys for the kids.
Bryan Robson recently told me that in the mid-80s he was once cruelly nicked by a copper for speeding en route to Old Trafford for Christmas Day training – which, let’s be honest, sounds flaming hilarious - but more often than not the journey passes without incident.
Once on the premises, the mood will be cheery: handshakes all round and the sound of people wishing one another a ‘Merry Christmas’ echoing down the dressing room corridor. United in unspoken disappointment, there’s always a surprisingly bouncy spirit.
What happens next depends on the extent of bah-humbuggery your manager feels like dishing out.
If the side’s on top form, training will be over before it’s begun. Warm-up, some silly sprint races, a five-a-side compo, and an hour later it is job done. The gaffer’s instructions will be clear: enjoy your day, don’t do anything silly, see you at the game tomorrow.
But it doesn’t always work that way. Managers under pressure can - and will - happily take on the role of Scrooge if they think it will help them claim three precious Boxing Day points.
One year in the late 90s I remember standing and shivering through a couple of hours’ worth of mind-numbing pattern-of-play (football’s equivalent of shadow boxing) while at Southend United. We were so bad that we probably needed it, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t want to throttle the boss for being such a stick-in-the-mud. “Get a life”, we screamed inwardly, but it made no difference.
If I’d stayed on loan at Rotherham United as long as I should have done in December 1996, I would have spent the rest of my Christmas Day in one of the most depressingly cold, dark and joyless B&Bs I’ve ever stayed in. The Millers didn’t push the boat out for loanees’ digs back then, and I doubt they’d have made special provisions for the 25th either. Mercifully I called time on my loan spell early enough to spend the festive period at home instead, but those non-locals who remained weren’t as lucky.
If you know you’re playing on Boxing Day, the rest of the 25th is a serious test of character. There’s no way you can pile up your plate too much, there’ll be just the one serving of Christmas pudding, and you’ll have to make that small glass of wine last as long as you possibly can.
It’s not the end of the world, but you’re basically the designated driver. Every. Single. Year.
That’s not to say you can’t take the odd calculated gamble, though. On Christmas Day 1995 I was pretty convinced I wouldn’t be involved when QPR were the visitors to Highbury at 1pm the next day. I’d been an unused sub at Anfield on the 23rd and with just two outfield player subs named back then I felt I was unlikely to get the nod.
So, I have to confess I stuck my hand up for seconds. I might have sunk two or three cans of beer, and OK, I may even have poured myself a sneaky glass of port around tea time. It’s hardly crazy, but it was naughty nevertheless; for me anyway.
What happened the next day? I walk into the dressing room at 11.30am, peek at the team sheet and there I am; number 29 Adrian Clarke. Not on the bench, but starting. It’s my full Premier League debut!
How did it go? We win 3-0, and I play a blinder. It was, and still is, the highlight of my entire career.
All of which goes to show that a little bit of extra turkey doesn’t harm anyone.