Christmas is typically a non-event for a professional footballer and, in my 19 years as a player, eventful festive celebrations were few and far between (more of which later). On the big day, there's training, travelling, and not much food – and certainly no getting drunk like the rest of the nation. At best you might get half a day with the family, but even that's disrupted.
At best you're up on Christmas morning, off to training, home for a short while (resisting the temptations of alcohol), then back out again late afternoon to meet up with the squad.
If there's a home game on Boxing Day, you tend to stay in a hotel Christmas night before anyway, and if there's an away game you'll probably travel on Christmas afternoon – then stay in a hotel again. It's especially hard on players with kids – and I've got two. Last year was my first Christmas in memory with the family: a nice seasonal drink, then off to Egypt with the kids for New Year. A world away from a player's Christmas.
So if anyone thinks festive nights in hotels with Manchester United was ever a laugh, think again. Can you see Fergie in a Santa costume, ambling through the corridors giving us all presents? Yeah, right. It was business as usual, simple food, water to drink, early to bed, results the next day all important.
There was once a time when I was a Newcastle United player under Kevin Keegan that some of the lads smuggled in hip flasks to the hotel we were staying in before the match. I'm not going to grass anyone up, but a nip or two of brandy did take the edge off an otherwise dull occasion.
But my strangest ever Christmas as a player – and this was almost surreal – was at Sunderland in 2007 under Roy Keane. The incident happened on Christmas night, on the eve of our Boxing Day home game against Manchester United at The Stadium of Light.
Our pre-match hotel was Ramside Hall, a country pile set in 220 acres in County Durham: log fire, the works. And after we'd all checked into our rooms, Roy called us downstairs to for a meeting. We all wondered what on earth the famous disciplinarian. Extra training in the dark? (Please, no.) Press-ups? A stern pep talk about how tough the next day's assignment would be?
But it was nothing of the sort. It was, said Roy, Christmas, after all, so did we want a quiet drink before we go to bed?
The thought that went through my head was: "Bloody hell! This is a day I never thought I'd see." Roy was always such a committed player and captain, no room for anything but football when it came to games, and here he was saying we could have a drink or two if we wanted. Compassion at Christmas – blimey.
The upshot? We played United the next day... and lost 4-0, with two goals each for Rooney and Saha. For the record, I was an unused sub. Not exactly a case of all's well that ends well.
Still, it's my view, shared by many players, that a mid-winter break of around 10 days from just before Christmas wouldn't go amiss. The weather's usually terrible anyway, and I can't stress how much I hate the snow. I think a break to recharge the batteries and come back fresh would be good all round, as many countries find.
Equally, I accept it won't happen. In the old days, Christmas was bonanza time on the turnstiles, when walk-up cash was integral, thus so was the festive programme. It's still part and parcel of the holidays for the fans. And it's a key time for the clubs too. Those who thrive now can launch great run-ins.
Thanks for reading, by the way, and have a very merry one yourself.
Cook came off worst, not Hughes
Manchester City's treatment of Mark Hughes is nothing short of a joke. Of course, it's the prerogative of any club to change a manager, and if City think that two defeats all season, sixth place in the league at Christmas, the semi-final of the Carling Cup, with the FA Cup still to come, is grounds for dismissal, then fine, more fool them.
Look at the two longest-serving managers in England to find the two most successful. And the best of all, Sir Alex Ferguson was right when he said recently that the best asset a club can have is an understanding chairman. But let's leave aside opinions about whether Sparky had achieved X, Y and Z. It was the manner of his sacking that sticks in the throat.
And chief executive Garry Cook just made himself look very silly at that press conference. Nothing to hide? Then answer questions. Disgraceful.
The fee for Andy Cole's column is donated to Alder Hey hospital and sickle cell anaemia research. He works on charitable projects with the sport and media team at law firm Thomas Eggar.Reuse content