‘Christmas can be a lonely time for an Irish player away from home’

For all the riches bestowed on a professional footballer, the one downside they’re guaranteed over their career is the necessity to work throughout Christmas.
‘Christmas can be a lonely time for an Irish player away from home’

Armchair fans, or those in England attending matches, are sure to have an annual set of fixtures on St Stephen’s Day as part of the intense programme. It has long been established that the players form part of festive entertainment for punters.

Unlike some European league where a winter break removes the Christmas fixture list, English football is synonymous with a busy schedule of games at this time of year.

Fans can roll out of bed today safe in the knowledge a jam-packed feast of televised matches from noon to night can occupy their day.

The props in the act don’t seek sympathy for having to leave family life behind during this period.

That’s what they signed up to and have to sacrifice in the profession they’re part of.

As they’re shuffling around the frosted training pitch or stuck in a hotel on Christmas Day preparing for today’s game, they can take solace from the extended summer holiday they’ll enjoy once the season ends in May.

Corkman Billy Clarke and Ireland centurion Kevin Kilbane have each experienced enough Christmases to consider it part of their normal lives.

Now 29 and a Bradford City player, Clarke joined Ipswich Town at 15 and within two years was part of the first-team picture.

The return trips to Ireland that his peers and friends enjoyed in December were no more for the striker. For being elevated to the big-time, there would be demands on his time, irrespective of dates and days.

Training on Christmas morning became the ritual. Depending on the fixture list, that could be followed by a long journey to a hotel for an overnight stay. Entering the corridors to reception, they’d brush by families savouring the festivities in their glory. No such indulgences were permitted for the players. Instead of gathering in the bar for a sing-song, they’d assemble away from the fun and frolics for a tactics session on the task awaiting the following day, usually a lunchtime kick-off.

“Under Jim Magilton at Ipswich Town, we’d tend to train at Portman Road on Christmas Day and then head to the hotel,” recalled Clarke. “It all depends on what division you’re in and where the fixture is.

“Christmas can be a lonely time for an Irish player being away from home. I was used to having a busy house back in Cork with lots of activity and that’s what I like. After I went on loan to Colchester United, I was due to spend Christmas Day alone but Chris Iwelumo invited me around to his house for the day which was brilliant.

“He had a family and it felt like an occasion. I’m now at that stage of my life myself, with two young boys, so I did the same for a young lad at Bradford City last year.”

Due to the pressures of management, bosses have historically tended to exert a degree of control over their players, dubious on the capacity of charges to resist the temptations offer on the biggest family day of the year.

Clarke believes trust is a vital element to striking the balance and, in his case at least, the arrangement has worked out well. “Luckily enough, I’ve managed to have Christmas Day off in the last few seasons,” he said. “If we were called in, thankfully I live nearby to the training ground, so the commute is nothing like the two-hour drive some players have to face.

“The atmosphere is generally good if we do train. The manager would allow us come in that bit earlier, say 9.15 instead of 10am, so we can get our work done and be back home before lunch.

“For recent years, we’d do all our preparatory work on Christmas Eve but we’d be expected to go out the following day for a light jog to limber up.

“It’s not as if we can sit on the couch for hours after the Christmas dinner! In fairness, whereas we used to play four games in eight days between late December and early January, I think one of those fixtures has been removed, so managers can usually give us one day off.”

Veteran Kilbane had a slightly longer career than Clarke, 16 years in total, and remembers plenty of Christmas Days spent cooped up in hotels.

His four years with north-east club Sunderland were particularly corralled around this time, not that he was complaining.

“As a player, you just got used to it,” he reasons. “Different managers did it their own way. Sometimes, if we’d have a home game, the boss would give us the morning off to spend at home and we’d come in for trainin, then travel to the hotel.

“Of course, you want to be at home with your kids. Every parent does. It just so happened that the quietest time of the year for most people is our busiest and we had to be focused on the games.

“St Stephen’s Day is a big one in the football calendar. I played at different times of the day and usually had another game within a few days.”

Since his retirement in 2012, the former Everton and Wigan Athletic player has delved into punditry, ensuring he continues to be kept active within the game.

He was in Dublin until Thursday evening as part of his commitments to Newstalk radio and will be in the BBC studio throughout today for analysis of the full-times.

“I don’t have to work on Christmas Day anymore but it’s still a hectic time of year for anyone involved in the industry,” he explains.

“I had a great playing career and knew from my early days that there would be some sacrifices to be made around Christmas times.

“We didn’t moan about it.”

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