Christmas is a time of celebration and festivities for most people, but not for football managers, player and staff. It’s the busiest period of the season, without a doubt, with so many games to navigate and contend with. There are usually 15 points up for grabs over Christmas and New Year. Have a bad one and a manager could possibly lose their job. A good one and the league table could look promising going into the New Year.
For everyone involved in football, Christmas is a time of work. I haven’t had Christmas off since 1987. Former Arsenal and England physio Gary Lewin recalled his first Christmas off after 22 years with the club when he was into his first season being full time with The Football Association and England.
“We opened all the presents with the kids in the morning, and I turned to my missus and said, ‘What do we do now?’ I had no idea.
“I would normally get in the car and go to work and my kids would not see me until the following night.”
If you’re a player, it’s a time to be dedicated at whatever level you play at – three games in seven days mean if you’re not looking after yourself, you haven’t got a cat in hell’s chance of performing.
Thankfully, players at our level won’t have the inconvenience of training on Christmas Day and will be able to spend the day with their families – a complete contrast to their full-time counterparts.
A professional footballer’s Christmas is very different from that of a normal family man – especially when your dad was involved in the game as well.
“I don’t suppose I’ve ever had what people would call a normal Christmas Day,” said Nigel Clough, whose Mansfield Town are away at Scunthorpe United on Boxing Day.
He told the Football League Paper: “When I was a lad, dad was always away on Christmas Day and once I started playing, I was away as well.
“We always used to have our Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve, then we handed the presents out after training on Christmas Day.
“But the most difficult part was leaving your family at tea-time to go to a hotel on Christmas night.”
Neil Warnock, now manager of Middlesbrough, said of the Christmas period: “I always let the players celebrate Christmas at home usually, sometimes you may get a game moved to the 27th for TV.
“But when we play Boxing Day I allow the players to have lunch at home. If we are away then we have to travel that night, but at least they can open the presents with their kids. I don’t see the point in getting them in.
“They don’t want to be there, you never do that much so they often spend more time travelling than training. It’s a waste of time for everyone.
“These days, they can be trusted not to overdo it at home on Christmas pudding and booze. And just to make sure they stay sharp we give them a fitness programme to do on the day and tell them to wear heart monitors so we can check it.
“I don’t think anyone will let me down and amazes me how much restrictions they put on footballers these days.”
It’s a tough schedule playing two games in three days with Middlesbrough being at home to Rotherham on Boxing Day then away at Sheffield Wednesday on the 29th.
Other clubs and managers preparations will vary. The younger managers especially are mindful of being seen to be doing the right thing, sensible or not, especially if the team doesn’t perform on Boxing Day. You get all the nonsense like the players must have been out Christmas Eve or had too much turkey.
Training on Christmas Day varies so much – Manchester United, for example, will hold a short carol service prior to training.
Other managers will bring the payers in late-afternoon or early-evening prior to boarding the coach for the overnight stop. Some will give them the whole day off.
Most managers, though, like to have the players in a hotel because the pressures are so high.
Former Aston Villa physio Jim Walker comments: “Graham Taylor had a set routine. For home Boxing Day fixtures we trained Christmas Eve, and then the players reported to the ground at 6pm on Christmas Day for a very light training session before staying overnight in a local hotel for the game the following day.
“If our next game was away, which it usually was, and some distance, we travelled immediately after the Boxing Day fixture. For an away Boxing Day game, we travelled on the night of Christmas Day.
“I tried to get the right balance between work and family and always tried to give the majority of Christmas Day to the family. I think it worked.”
A family Christmas takes second place to getting three points – most footballers accept that and the fans love Boxing Day games, so there is nothing we can do about it.
Former West Bromwich Albion defender Ally Robertson said: “When Big Ron [Atkinson] was Albion manager he would gather us all in a hotel around 3pm on Christmas Day,
“This was for a home game, and for an away game, we would set off even earlier to be in a hotel in the afternoon.
“So =, the squad was all together but they couldn’t drink, or stuff their faces – basically they weren’t able to do what the rest of the country was doing.
“Ron wanted to keep an eye on the squad and make sure no one was tempted by the drink or the food their families would be enjoying.
“There isn’t much to do in the hotel. Watch the television and have a bit of a laugh or play cards before popping a couple of sleeping tablets around 9pm and getting your head down before the game.
“Players have it pretty good at other times of the year.
“They just knuckled down over Christmas. Ron allowed us a beer after the Boxing Day game but they couldn’t go too mad. There would always be another game around the corner. “
Keeping players away from temptations of revelry, particularly at New Year, on away trips is a major concern. Managers are always keen to find hotels where functions are not taking place, as much for peace and quiet as making sure players don’t become involved.
The idea of a Christmas break is a favourite topic of discussion, as is the belief we play to much football in this country. Last season it was highlighted at the number of injuries picked up of the festive period Newcastle United picked up three serious injuries in one game, raising the debate again. From a physio’s perspective, you are hoping and praying you don’t get injuries that can seriously disrupt the season. For example, an injury in early October may mean a player misses one game, over Christmas they might miss four.
The practicalities of it are difficult. It is a lucrative period for clubs at all levels as attendances often increase at a time when many people are in the mood for leisure and recreation.
The powers that be would be unwilling to lose that revenue.
The problem about Christmas from a managers point of view is twofold – the professionalism of the players and whether they will stay disciplined when everyone else will want to indulge in parties, which are a menace for a manager and there have been many a headline over the years. You now have the added inevitable nature of a transfer window and speculation about the biggest and best players being linked to a move in January – it can be disruptive.
There are probably too many games too close together. It is tradition and the supporters like it, but it is another thing that plays into the hands of the big clubs with large squads who can rotate.
Yet while the crowds become mellow on the festive atmosphere. We all know essential services keep watch, nurses and doctors are on duty and the world ticks over like an idle car engine. Sport, however, asks for maximum commitment and full-throttle effort. We all accept the festive period. We have to get on with it but it is crazy. All it does is increase the risk of injury and dilute the quality of football.
To the players, the prospect of Christmas is as enthralling as it was to Scrooge. A chorus of “Bar, humbug!” Replaces the favoured rap on the team bus stereo and it is business as normal. But then given what footballers earn, there are many who would say they deserve a little inconvenience now and again.
But is important they get a couple of days off or managers often take them away for warm weather training in January. They will play flat out knowing there is a bit of recuperation and something to look forward to.