It’s Christmas, but not as you know it

As most people break up for their Christmas holidays this weekend, the football fixture list goes into overdrive.

I’ve been playing football for so long now that I don’t really know what a “normal” Christmas is any more..

A lot of people advocate a winter break, arguing that there shouldn’t be so many games over the festive period, but I’m a big fan of the busy schedule. It’s a tradition that I think should stay as it is.

In the Championship, games come thick and fast all season long anyway, so the next two or three weeks aren’t a whole lot different for us at Bolton. The teams that normally do well over this period are generally the ones that have strength in depth in their squad and are fortunate enough to be able to rotate a little bit to keep players relatively fresh. I reckon we are one of those teams who have good balance and size to our squad, so I’m confident of a rewarding points return over the next couple of weeks.

That said, it’s not entirely all work and no play for footballers at this time of year. There have been reports in the papers in the last week or two – and a few headlines as well — about some teams having Christmas parties and others not being allowed to do so by their managers. Last season, while I was at Ipswich, the manager, Paul Jewell, felt it wasn’t the right thing to be seen partying when we were on a bad run and at the wrong end of the table.

I could see exactly where he was coming from because if fans of the club had heard the players were out enjoying themselves, it could have been perceived as if we didn’t care about where we were in the league. Against that, the one point I would make is that every successful team I have ever been a part of has had a good team spirit and it’s amazing the bonding that is done away from the training ground.

When I first started playing professional football, nights out were a weekly occurrence, at least, which in hindsight was too much, but having the odd night out does bring a squad closer together and definitely helps create a good atmosphere.

At Bolton, we had our Christmas party a couple of weeks ago, before our schedule got too busy. The vast majority of the squad attended and, I have to say, the mood amongst the players has been fantastic since.

There seems to be a perception that footballers’ Christmas parties are all wild affairs, with everybody getting completely intoxicated, but that’s not the case. Some lads don’t even drink but, in the interests of team spirit, they still come along for the meal and, of course, the traditional ribbing of each others’ clothing or dodgy hair styles.

Admittedly, there are no great juicy headlines in that which, I suppose, is why you only ever get to hear about the exceptional occasions when things get out of hand.

Although we footballers don’t get to celebrate Christmas in the traditional way, I still love it. A few years ago, while I was injured at Blackburn, I was able to briefly let my hair down and partake of a few glasses of wine and dinner with the rest of the family. But it wasn’t long before reality and frustration set back in and, despite my enjoyment of the festivities, all I wanted was to be fit for the game on the following Stephen’s Day.

In my opinion, the sacrifice which the professional footballer makes at this time of every year is a very small price to pay. Just this week alone we have had a kids’ Christmas party at the stadium, a kids’ hospital visit and finally a visit to the local children’s hospice in Bolton – and if experiences like those don’t make you feel blessed then there has to be something wrong with you.

When I was a younger player, I felt very awkward in situations like we encountered this week when we visited the brave kids at the hospice, but that was only because I wasn’t used to it. In recent years, I have started to do a lot more charity work, especially with children, and I absolutely love it. To think that some of these youngsters we were playing with and giving presents to might not even make Christmas absolutely breaks your heart and puts everything into perspective.

Looking ahead to the big day, we will be training on Christmas morning so there won’t be any fried breakfasts or Buck’s Fizz for me. Fortunately, we are playing at home on St Stephen’s Day so we won’t be in a hotel on Christmas night. That means that, once our training is done, this coming Tuesday will be a very relaxing day for me at home with family, with a traditional dinner — albeit not as big as I would like – and, since I’m hoping someone will leave the DVD for me under the tree, a chance to catch up on ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’.

Meantime, I’d like to wish you all a very happy Christmas.

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Wednesday, March 3, 2021

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