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NLP Column 21st December 2016

CHRISTMAS is an inconvenience. You can add birthday’s to that list while you’re at it too. It was always a day for other people to enjoy. Not for footballers. Not for me. Christmas stopped being enjoyable in 1992, when, as a youth team player at Sunderland, the four lads who lived the closest had to come in on Christmas Day to be on duty for the first team who were training that morning to prepare for their upcoming game. So when everyone else was opening their presents, filling their face with chocolate and turkey, there we were. Me, and three other youth team players huddled in the boot room like four naughty little elves. Cleaning boots, tidying up muddy training gear down to the laundry, and mopping the corridors of Roker Park.

Happy bloody Christmas.

Then the year after when I’d made it into the first team squad, we were given the luxury of the morning at home but came in for training later that afternoon so the players with kids could spend the morning with them. This is the transitional period into your football life. It feels like a punishment at the time but once you get in the starting eleven, you realise it’s just a necessity. People talk of having to make sacrifices to become a footballer but in truth, it’s small one. The chance to become a footballer can pass you by so quickly. You can handle missing out on a glorified Sunday dinner and a few sherries once a year. No problem.

I’ve always found it weird that the old line about getting suspended for Boxing Day and New Year’s games so that you can enjoy yourself gets trotted out every year. That fact that it’s even a thing just baffles me but it does happen. Everyone jokes about pulling and injury or getting that yellow card that activates a ban. I’ve actually played with lads who are so specific about it, they have gone out of their way to ask the club secretary the possible permutations should certain “incidents” happen – just out of interest of course. For most of us it was hard enough trying to get into the side, never mind picking and choosing when you did and didn’t play. There were times we were given the day off. The manager obviously thinking that a day relaxing with our families was more beneficial to us than training ahead of a packed schedule. I was never comfortable doing that though.

If that Boxing Day game didn’t go to plan then I think you’re leaving yourself open to “What ifs”. I can understand managers thinking it will give his/her players a lift mentally, and rest can be just as important as work. But I couldn’t work like that. If there’s a chance to work and improve, then you have to take it. No stone left unturned.

Birthdays have always been a write-off for me too. I’m aware that I sound a misery here, but my birthday is August 26. Right at the beginning of the season which is always dry. I didn’t want all that hard work in pre-season to go to waste so I put a ban on all birthday celebrations. I mean, what’s the point of celebrating if you’re in the middle of a period of abstinence? Exactly.

I did celebrate my 30th birthday but that was more of a forced celebration. I say “celebration” – it wasn’t really one in the classic sense. More of a fuss made over me than an actual party. I was playing in Denmark at the time and it is tradition that should you not be married by the time you turn 30, your friends take handfuls of pepper and throw it over you. Then they present you with a six foot, home-made pepper mill. That’s right. A six foot pepper mill. Like something that had been made on Blue Peter after they’d been out on a three day bender. And just in case you’re wondering, having pepper thrown at you by 20 people is not only as bad as you think, it’s worse. I’m not sure what Denmark have against unmarried 30-year-old men but it’s a witch hunt if you ask me.

Written by David Preece

Published by Russell Eynon