Football's silly season takes its toll
More and more young players are looking to the big leagues in Europe – especially the English Premier League - to plant the seeds of their football dreams.
More and more young players are looking to the big leagues in Europe - especially the English Premier League - to plant the seeds of their football dreams. And at this time of the year, the dreams of Aussie kids get stronger as they turn on the TV and the glamour games come thick and fast. The matches go by in a blur of venues - Etihad Stadium, Stamford Bridge, the Emirates, Anfield, Goodison, St James- Park.
But the reality for players across the professional divisions in the UK is something different, entirely. Christmas for players is all about getting through the most hectic period of the season, setting up your respective team for a strong finish, or dragging yourselves away from the relegation doldrums.
As a player who has experienced the cut-and-thrust of festive football, my God, does it hurt. It takes an incredible amount of mental and physical toughness to get through such a difficult period. All the cumulative knocks and niggles that you can-t get over, the physical and mental fatigue of having to give your all to win and the sacrifice that you need to make as football takes precedence over family, all adds up. It can make or break your season and every player in every team knows it.
When I was playing in the UK, I spent three successive Christmas Days in a team hotel. I would wake up and have fun with the family until about 3pm when it was time for training. After that, I would travel with the team to a hotel for dinner and rest before the game. It got to the point that Christmas was so hard for my wife that she would come back to Australia around that time of the year. While I had teammates around me who were going through the same thing, she had no-one. On the occasions when players are lucky enough to spend the day at home, it-s still not your usual Christmas. While everyone else is eating and drinking to excess, players will be nibbling their usual bowl of pasta and sipping on electrolyte drinks; no turkey and trimmings. As for champagne: no chance.
But, as a player, you really look forward to it. The atmosphere at these games is electric and it seems to bring out the best in players. Everyone is full of excitement and it adds to the volume inside the grounds - full houses make great theatres to perform in. And with all the Christmas cheer, this time of year is also a huge money spinner for clubs. The ticket sales, merchandise, corporate events and the numbers through the turnstiles make the club ledger look a lot better, so it-s probably not surprising that they don-t appear to be too concerned if players are feeling close to exhaustion.
One particular year when I was at Luton Town, we played six games in 14 days. We were flying high and in that period we took maximum points in five of the six games, which helped cement ourselves as title favourites. The consequence was that the morning after a game you could hardly walk and you can imagine how hard it was to then go out and train while still not being able to move freely. Your body seems to age a decade around Christmas as you push it to levels you didn-t think were possible.
I remember occasions travelling five or six hours on a bus from the south of England to the north-east for a game and then travelling back the same night and getting home at close to midnight. And there would be no day off the next day. It would be straight back into it. What it meant was that you-re actually going into games already super-fatigued and the likelihood of injury is extremely high. This is not meant to sound like a whinge but merely to point out the discipline and desire required to get through this time of year.
When you compare this kind of schedule to what A-League players face, it-s a dramatic contrast. Six games in two weeks is more than a quarter of the games an A-League team would play in an entire season.
There is a more scientific approach to the game these days and players are better educated in looking after their bodies. Medical personnel also play an important role in making sure players don-t break down at such a crucial time of the year. But make no mistake, living the dream hurts and the consequences of putting your body through this annual toil can still be felt years later.