Football: The Blackburn Olympic team of 1883 put their FA Cup victory down to a diet of port, raw eggs, porridge, mutton and oysters

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According to a recent survey of the nation's likes and dislikes when Labour was last in power, our favourite dessert 18 years ago was Angel Delight (although Instant Whip ran it a close second). However, the old Birds favourite took on a new meaning in Stockport this week after the striker Brett Angell scored the goal which won his Second Division club promotion, and gave local newspaper headline writers the evening off.

Unsurprisingly, however, Angel Delight has not been a regular on the menu at Edgeley Park during a season in which the players' stamina, as much as their talent, has been sorely tested. In fact, Alun Armstrong believes that diet has played a significant part in ensuring Stockport stayed a course which saw them reach the semi-finals of the Coca-Cola Cup and the Auto Windscreens Shield, as well as win promotion. Angell's lanky striking partner admits he used to eat "loads of fried food, but this season we got diet sheets and were told to go heavy on carbohydrates and fruit. We have pasta three hours before a game, then fruit, bananas and pineapple before kick-off. It must have made a difference, I'd never normally last a season like this".

Hard though it may be to visualise the Stockport lads tucking into exotic pineapple in a sweaty dressing- room, the days when the pre-match meal consisted of steak and chips, topped up with a Mars Bar at half-time are long gone.

Or are they? At Chesterfield, this season's other Second Division over- achievers, the players often get so hungry in between their pre-match meal and kick-off that they need a Mars Bar to give them an extra boost. "But we don't really bother much about our food," confesses the striker Kevin Davies, whose own meal is nothing more complicated than beans on toast. But he does admit that the slap-up meal of chicken and potatoes before the FA Cup tie against Middlesbrough made him feel "a lot better, and helped me get through extra time".

While it might not be surprising that most cash-strapped smaller clubs have more to worry about than whether their players are eating fried eggs or fettucine, it's still incredible that the importance of diet has, until recently, been overlooked when you consider that the average footballer runs around seven miles and makes at least 20 short, fast sprints during a game.

Incredible maybe, surprising maybe not. Just as football has taken almost a century to face up to its responsibilities as a business which should adhere to business principles, so footballers are only just starting to realise that they are athletes, and should treat their bodies accordingly.

The right diet can apparently improve a player's game by up to six per cent and provide five minutes of extra energy, and we all know how long it takes to score a goal. Despite that, preaching to the unconverted remains an uphill struggle; so much so that the idea of Teddy Sheringham and Ryan Giggs advertising health food products like Quorn burgers and Strike! cereal is at odds with the traditional image of footballers as having plebeian tastes. And despite the increasing number of clubs who employ a football nutritionist (which must currently rank alongside Conservative politician as the most unenviable profession), most players will still plump for junk food over health food, given the choice. For example Matt Le Tissier, whose stamina has been a perennial bone of contention, admits to a penchant for burger and chips despite the promptings of Southampton's nutritionist. The words "leopard" and "spots" spring to mind.

Still, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. It's the skills of players like Juninho, Zola and Ravanelli which have illuminated this season; foreign players who find our stodgy British diet a culture shock. The Napoli youngster Gennaro Scarlato went back to Italy after a recent trial at Chelsea blaming his return on "awful food", and that at a club where changing the diet was among Ruud Gullit's first priorities when he became manager. "At Milan you were always told what to eat: pasta and fish," he says. "Here I can't believe what players eat: sausages, bacon, omelettes. They must have stomachs likes rocks."

Ditto the Blackburn Olympic team of 1883, who put their FA Cup success down to a diet which consisted largely of port, raw eggs, porridge, mutton and oysters. West Ham's consuming of oysters before their 1947 Cup final proved less successful (they lost 1-0); while today's most famous dietary luminary is Gordon Strachan, who, as we know, puts his longevity down to a "revolutionary" diet of porridge and bananas. "It always used to be soup, steak and chips, tea and toast before a game," recalls Strachan, "and we tucked in because in those days it was the best meal of the week. Gradually players started to eat more fish and carbohydrates; when I took over here I changed everything. Now it's carbohydrates galore and water with everything."

Hence the reason why the Sammy Lees, Bob Latchfords and Jan Molbys have given way to a more svelte generation of players.

However, no football club have as yet cottoned on to the recuperating powers of... the Jaffa Cake. High in carbohydrate and low in fat, the orange- flavoured cake with the spongy bottom and chocolate coating has replaced oranges as the half-time snack at rugby club Saracens; according to nutritionist Tony Copsey it replaces energy quickly and is easily digested. McVitie's have since changed the cake's image from "student's friend" to "sportsman's friend", perhaps Carling will one day be ousted in favour of the McVitie's Premiership.

But for all the emphasis on the link between food and fitness, it's worth remembering that fat and football can, occasionally, be beautiful: Ferenc Puskas was described by one England player as "that fat little chap" when he came to Wembley with Hungary in 1953. Puskas almost single- handedly destroyed England 6-3.

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