Lee Dixon: Christmas football: It's at this time of the year that I most wish I was still playing

The Weekend Dossier

I retired eight years ago but part of me misses playing football over Christmas.

I still wonder if I should be having that second glass of wine with my turkey on Christmas Day, or should be tucked up in bed at 9pm on New Year's Eve.

Because, in my experience, the vast majority of players love playing over the Christmas period. Footballers love playing football, and over Christmas you play more football than at any other time of the year. If you ask players if you would rather play or train, I'll guess they will all say they want to play games. It's what they do.

People say it must be hard for footballers to rein themselves in over Christmas but I never found it hard. That wasn't always true of my team-mates however. When I was at Arsenal the manager George Graham used to get us in for training at 5pm on Christmas Day, if we were at Highbury the next day, so you could spend some time with your family before leaving.

One year, one player who shall remain nameless turned up for training having had a bit too much to drink with his Christmas dinner. He came around the lads shaking everyone's hand. We all thought we'd better keep him away from George, but the manager noticed something was up and came over.

He asked him if he'd been drinking and the player said "No". But George said: "Yes, you have, I know because you're still wearing your slippers." And he had. He'd forgotten to put on his trainers and was there in the slippers he wore at home. Needless to say, George left him out of the team the next day.

Most players, however, are happy to restrain themselves. It is part of the sacrifice of being a footballer and if you can't stop yourself over-indulging at Christmas then chances are you will be the same for the rest of the year.

Playing two games in two days is tough but doable. My dad was a professional at Manchester City and he played Christmas Day and then Boxing Day. The fixture list now is at the whim of TV companies and although clubs can moan about what days they have to play, or playing two games in 48 hours, they don't mind taking the cheques from Sky, so they can't have it both ways.

I think Christmas is a great time of year for footballers. You can't beat the special atmosphere of a Boxing Day fixture, there's simply nothing like it. People talk about having a winter break but what if you get some terrible weather just before it, like we had this year? We'd be having four weeks off instead of two.

Christmas is a headache for managers, who have to juggle their squads and try to strike a balance between making changes but also putting out a strong enough team to get a result.

Some foreign players, when they arrive in English football, find it hard to adjust. When Patrick Vieira and the other French lads came to Arsenal we told them: "You know the amount of games we play normally? Well, double that over Christmas." They couldn't quite understand it.

When the fixtures came out in the summer it was always one of the first things I did: see who you get at Christmas. You'd want to be at home on Boxing Day so you could be with your family on Christmas Day and you'd hope your nearest rivals had a tricky game or two.

There's something very British about playing football over Christmas. Most people get the time off so working makes you feel special. It's nothing important like nurses, doctors, emergency services, or the armed forces, but you do feel different. It's brilliant. And although I can now eat and drink as much as I like over the festive period, I do miss playing. I hope they never change it.

Five Asides

1. Refusing a handshake is a serious business

When a manager refuses to shake another manager's hand, like Tony Pulis to Mark Hughes, then it usually means there is something serious going on between the two men that we don't know about. I once refused to shake a player's hand, a centre-half from San Marino who had spat in my face during an England game. That is an extreme example but it shows that refusing someone's hand in public is not done lightly.

2. It's still early days so give Hodgson a break

The Liverpool fans booing Roy Hodgson wouldn't be doing it if they knew he was going to be in the job for the next two seasons, irrespective of results. I think all managers should be given time to make the changes they want, and it is way too soon to judge Hodgson. Things are bad at Anfield but supporters need to get behind the manager, not jump on his back.

3. Free-scoring Berbatov can hit greater heights

Sir Alex Ferguson always said Dimitar Berbatov would come good and, with the Bulgarian top of the scoring table with 14 goals, he was not wrong. What's more, I think Berbatov has the capacity to get better and better.

4. Hammers meet Wolves in a real six-pointer

Wins for West Ham, Wolves and Fulham over Christmas have tightened up the lower half of the table, with just five points separating the bottom 10. West Ham today host Wolves, who somehow won at Anfield, and neither club can afford to lose.

5. I'm making the most of Ashes bragging rights

I haven't watched much of the Ashes, but that hasn't stopped me reminding my Aussie mates of the score. Well done, lads.

Dixon's verdict on all the weekend action

West Bromwich Albion vs Manchester United

Dixon's verdict: West Bromwich's form has tailed off a bit while United, even after the slip-up at Birmingham, remain unbeaten. I feel the visitors will have more than enough to begin 2011 with three points.

Kick-off: Today, 12.45pm (Sky Sports 2; Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Away win

Liverpool vs Bolton Wanderers

Dixon's verdict: Just when you think Liverpool have turned a corner, they lose at home to Wolves. That display was pitiful and I can't see them getting more than a point, however many players Bolton have missing.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Setanta Ireland; Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Draw

Manchester City vs Blackpool

Dixon's verdict: City were poor against Everton but have impressed since, and now look genuine title contenders. For all Blackpool's impressive form on the road this season, there is no way they will get anything at Eastlands.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Home win

Stoke City vs Everton

Dixon's verdict: Stoke had a mixed festive period, winning at Blackburn before becoming the first side to lose at home to Fulham in over 16 months. Everton have looked in better form recently and could well get a point.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Draw

Sunderland vs Blackburn Rovers

Dixon's verdict: Steve Bruce will have been disappointed with two defeats this week but will have had this down as a home banker. Rovers are in a bit of a mess after the sacking of Sam Allardyce and things look bleak.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Home win

Tottenham Hotspur vs Fulham

Dixon's verdict: Spurs took six points from two games this week to stay in the title hunt. Keeping 11 men on the pitch will be an achievement for Harry Redknapp's side, but they will win today against poor travellers Fulham.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Home win

West Ham United vs Wolverhampton Wanderers

Dixon's verdict: What an important match for both teams. West Ham had a fine win at Fulham before Wolves shocked Liverpool and both will fancy their chances of victory. I feel they could end up disappointed, though.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Draw

Birmingham City vs Arsenal

Dixon's verdict: Lee Bowyer's fortunate goal against Man United will have done a lot for City's confidence and they could cause another top team trouble. Arsenal still struggle at the back and may drop more points.

Kick-off: Today, 5.30pm (ESPN; Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Draw

Chelsea vs Aston Villa

Dixon's verdict: A win over Bolton in midweek may have been enough to get Chelsea's campaign back on track and, with some favourable January fixtures, Carlo Ancelotti's side can begin to recoup lost ground.

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 1.30pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights BBC 2, 10pm)

Prediction: Home win

Wigan Athletic vs Newcastle United

Dixon's verdict: Wigan performed well against Arsenal and their fine home form should be enough to overcome Newcastle. The loss of Andy Carroll to injury will have a big impact on their game plan and they could struggle.

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 4pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights BBC 2, 10pm)

Prediction: Home win

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