Football: It seems commercial demands, the root of the problem, will always outweigh concerns for the players' physical well-being

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The old argument is set to resurface once again, that's if it had fully submerged in the first place. Should footballers forgo the needs of their country for the sake of their clubs, or vice versa? We often find ourselves in a no-win situation. Of course we feel honoured to represent our countries, but eventually and inevitably it will have an effect on club form. Every club manager I have played under swears blind that the domestic game following a big international frequently produces insipid, lacklustre performances from the returning national team players.

Physically there are good reasons why this should happen. You have played an extra game during the week, your opponent may not have, so he will be fresher than you. Travelling itself is tiring, and if you have come back overnight from a hard-fought Eastern European tie on the Wednesday, you will not get to bed until 5am or later on Thursday morning. It is almost impossible to get your body back in peak condition in time for Saturday's game.

Psychologically it isn't always easy either. Wednesday might have been the glamour of the Azzurri in Rome and Saturday you have to get yourself mentally attuned for a dour away trip against a team of scrapping relegation strugglers. It is also worth asking any top track and field athlete how often he can "peak'' in any one season, it usually isn't more than half a dozen times. We are asking some of these lads to peak upwards of 60 times a season and often three times in one week. When representing your country everyone expects you to dig to the very depths of your resources, to go through pain barriers and drive yourself to exhaustion, Scotland will even use the film Braveheart before a game to help you squeeze out every extra bit of energy. The problem is that exactly the same is demanded three days later for your club.

Quite simply too much is being asked of some players and unfortunately it will continue get worse as the increasing number of domestic games each season become ever tighter and faster. It seems commercial demands, and these of course are the root of the problem, will always outweigh concerns for players' physical well-being. With the number of internationals being played continually rising too, something has to give. Sadly it is often the quality of play.

Continentals play fewer games than their British counterparts and at a less frantic pace. It is now the accepted wisdom in the game that our players go into vital international matches and important European club competition games more jaded than the opposition.

Managers are aware of this, so while Messrs Hoddle, Brown and co try to get a hold of players as often and for as long as possible, people like Alex Ferguson and Walter Smith are acutely aware of the draining effect the international week will have. This is the perfect recipe for friction and of course the player is caught in the middle.

I have a great deal of respect for Ferguson and the way he deals with the international dilemmas, which plague the domestic manager. He suffers from them more than most, but also manages to deal with them better than most. He has the experience, the wisdom and importantly, enough money to be able to cope with the inherent problems.

Player burn-out at the end of a season has cost many a championship and it is accentuated by international appearances. Ferguson well understands these physical demands, hence the size and quality of his squad and the frequency with which it is rotated. The idea is to be able to rest any player who is beginning to look jaded and also to give any injured player the opportunity to recover properly.

Most clubs have to play with two or three players carrying injuries at any one time. Apart from slowing them down, it affects the style and obviously the standard of their play. To have real aspirations towards winning the championship, the Manchester United manager knows that carrying players for any reason cannot be tolerated these days.

He has also been able to prioritise regarding which trophies he really wants to go for. Contrast the relaxed reaction of Ferguson when losing to Wimbledon in the FA Cup and Walter Smith's similar body language after losing in the Scottish Cup to Celtic with any other manager in the country going out at the same stage. They know that the championship and Europe are the real prizes these days for clubs with high aspirations, especially financial. Indeed Fergie's attitude towards the Coca-Cola Cup seems to border on contempt, more an opportunity to blood youngsters than a serious competition to be fought for at all costs.

Like other managers Ferguson is quick to protect his proteges, especially the most precocious such as Ryan Giggs. He has nurtured this talent too lovingly for too long to allow it to be ruined by short term overuse. He has steadfastly taken the position of flak-catcher when Ryan has been withdrawn (NB not Ryan has withdrawn) from Welsh squads. The Scotsman is doubtless happy to accept the criticism that he doesn't care enough for the Welsh national cause, because he knows how much more difficult it would be for the flying winger to live with such allegations.

Andy Roxburgh was so concerned about the problem of clubs withholding players, that he often urged the Scotland squad to have clauses written into their new contracts which ensured they were to be released for international games. If truth be told, though, the final decision always rests with the player these days, albeit allowing for a certain amount of coercion form the club.

Some players have such a strong national pride and feeling of duty and honour for their country, that the club is always considered second, without a moment's hesitation. Others are more pragmatic, all too aware who actually pays the wages at the end of the week. Most however simply acquiesce, and endeavour to give their all to everyone, every time, everywhere.

This happens even if it does lead to the odd tired, under par performance, which has the "experts'' bemoaning the poor quality of our game, its players and their technique.

Olivia Blair is on maternity leave

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