Festive time but not for all

As the nation prepares to indulge in its annual festival of excess-booze, food and presents those masters of the new religion of football practice self-discipline. Whilst the rest of the country sit down to a festive feast on December 25th, the players’ minds will be totally focused on avoiding a stuffing, rather than eating it, in their quest for another three points in the bag.

Christmas for most of us is our busiest time of the year, bumper crowds at matches and the games come thick and fast. That doesn’t stop your family asking where you are when they’re getting tiddly and watching re-runs of Only Fools and Horses!

I always find that when the fixtures come out, there are three key ones to look for: the first, the last and Boxing Day games. Depending when Christmas falls you may get lucky and have a Gaffer who gives an extra day off it has been known for teams to train on both Christmas and New Year’s Eve. For the majority of pro clubs, it will be turkey sandwiches and an overnight stay – usually in a near deserted hotel. The coach trip to a hotel is often ‘fragrant’ with sprouts. So, when it feels like they are the only team in the country staying away overnight- remember it can have its advantages you can at least get the hold of the TV remote control for the evening so you can watch Del Boy in peace!

Football clubs used to be very anti-social places to spend your time over Christmas. It does affect player’s attitudes; some get depressed about spending Christmas night in a hotel

What is life like for the physio at Christmas? The festive fixture programme is busy period for all concerned this season is slightly different with just two games compared to four in seven days in the past, a winning team doesn’t care how many games it plays. 

You tend to get more injuries with losing teams but football is an emotive business. The role of the physio is as much a psychological prop as anything else. The present fixture list is congested enough but had today’s professionals played 40 years ago then the 25th December would have been match day. Most games would take place in the morning ready for players to be home in time for the groaning table. Long term injuries are not affected by the concentration of games over this period. It is the running repairs, the knocks and strains which are not helped over the holiday period. Those are the sort of injuries which become problems with a fixture congestion. It is the trivial injuries which get all our attention. If a player has a broken leg, he has his surgery and it’s a case of go to the gym and ‘I’ll see you later.”

The problems for a physio are heightened at intense periods like Christmas. Easter is almost worse because by then the minor injuries have accumulated and worsened. A keenness to continue with slight injuries can often backfire. If the physio does not put his foot down players will carry on with a slight strain, feel sore after the game then reappear three days later. Several weeks of that and then… snap.

The desire especially for smaller clubs to make sure players are fit for crucial games can cause friction between a manager and his physio. It’s a real problem trying to squeeze more games out of smaller and smaller squads. We have to stay neutral. Our work helps the manager but we do not work for them instead you collaborate with him. We must do what is best for the club and if that means not allowing a player to play because it is too risky, then so be it but at the same time doing everything we can so he has as many fit players as possible for each game.

Gary Lewin, the Arsenal physio for 22 years who eventually became the England physio once said: “I didn’t have a Christmas Day off for 25 years.

“My first one off, was when I went to the FA. We opened the presents with the kids, in the morning, and I turned to the missus and said: “What do we do now? I had no idea.

Before I would get in the car and go work and my kids would not see me until the following night.”

Whilst 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. The fans love Boxing Day it is the traditional time for matches now, with another set of fixtures on New Year’s Day games and sometimes games in-between so there’s nothing we can do about it. The is a much more pleasant atmosphere at Christmas games too. However, this year is slightly different Christmas Day falls on a Saturday I’ll be able to enjoy Christmas Day a little bit more with no game until 27 December and New Year’s Eve with no game until the 2 of January.

The idea of a Christmas break is a hot topic of discussion, as the belief that we play too much football in this country. The job of a physio would probably be made easier by a winter break but the practicalities of it are difficult.

It is a lucrative period for clubs’ attendances often increase at a time when many are in a mood for leisure and recreation and the powers that would be unwilling to lose that revenue.

Yet while the crowd become mellow on the festive atmosphere, 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 usual. 

As a colleague of mine once said… Christmas comes at the end of May! 

Gavin Blackwell

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