The last week of the holiday this year was dull and cool, but, unsurprisingly, the temperatures in that first torturous week back in training consistently soared above 80 degrees.
Around the country, different teams have different regimes for that first day back. Some coax the players back to fitness slowly and gently. This measured, delicate build- up is said to minimise injuries and strains, and the players seem to like it, too. But other managers prefer the good old-fashioned technique, an approach which might be summarised as working them until they throw up in the sand dunes in the morning, before making them chase Michael Johnson's times on the track in the afternoon. At Tranmere, they favour the latter method.
It isn't too bad for me, being smaller and lighter. I can skip fairly easily up and over the sand dunes. It is the thick-set centre-halves and the like who have it tougher. The thought of the horrors to come must eat away at the back of their minds all summer. Nagging whispers remind them that every extra beer, slice of pudding and day without training will have to be paid for eventually. On that first day back, the scales won't lie and you can't cheat a sand dune.
Looking around at the faces as we arrive at the dreaded dunes, various stereotypes are clearly visible.
There's the Beginner. A youth trainee, who probably arrived back from his holiday in Magaluf late last night, still a bit tipsy. His morning will end with him on all fours, throwing up in the sand, to general applause and laughter. In some cases, I have seen it end up in hospitalisation, to slightly less mirth.
Then there's the Sensible Pro. He has been ticking over all summer and has gradually built up his training regime over the last two or three weeks in preparation. He will do plenty of sweating, but because he is a fairly natural athlete anyway, he is unlikely to see this morning's breakfast again.
The Old Stager knows that he isn't a good runner, but he gives everything none the less, even if he finishes two minutes behind the natural athletes. He probably gets more benefit from the dunes than anyone. Generally a journeyman, career player, he gets and deserves much of the respect but little of the money.
The Lazy Git wouldn't know a pain barrier if he tripped over one. A dying breed in the modern game, this endangered species only survives if he is an extraordinary and exceptionally talented individual. Or a goalkeeper.
The Smarm is usually a youngster who says he hasn't done a thing all summer and tells everyone that he is really worried about it all. Omitting to mention that he was the county cross-country champion for the last two years, he effortlessly finishes way ahead of the field. This lad has a great first week, but suffers during the next week when the balls are brought out, since most of the others enjoy kicking smug brats.
Over the years I've tried countless methods of preparing for pre-season. At 18, I trained hard all the way through the summer without a break, setting off on 10-mile runs every other day. Youth can be so energetic, so zealous, so ... totally stupid. If I had kept up that regime, I would have to have retired before I was 30.
A couple of years ago, for the first time, I took a complete rest over the summer, having picked up a few injuries. Never again: the pain of trying to get back to peak fitness in three short weeks, from a state of flaccid torpor, was hell.
Another little-known problem with the first day of pre-season training is that it usually coincides with the first day of the school holidays. Any hopes of lazing about all after-noon in a bath or recovering by slobbing in front of the television are replaced by some harsher realities, like trudging around the zoo, a long walk in the forest or running after the little darlings at one of those new indoor kids' playzones. A visit to the swimming pool is a good compromise, as it's entertaining for the kids but also relaxing for a weary footballer's legs. I rarely complain, however, because I know that some of the lads suffer far more than I do.
I knew one who slept downstairs on the couch because it was too painful to drag himself up the 14 steps at night. At those times, a visit to the toilet for him meant negotiating those stairs on all fours, although for most of us, coming downstairs in the morning means doing a fair impression of Frankenstein's monster with haemorrhoids.
Keeping with the lavatorial theme, following one especially heavy and unexpected weights session, a player confessed to me that he had so much pain in his chest and arms that wiping after a visit to the loo was impossible. I hope he took care of his own laundry.
After that same training session, another player almost crashed his car at a roundabout because he was unable to turn his steering wheel due to the pain. Before that, I'd often wondered why so many professional footballers needed big cars with power steering; now I knew.
It doesn't matter if you cost pounds 15m and earn pounds 37,000 per week, the human body can only take so much. Suffering during pre-season training is unavoidable because you cannot stay match fit for 52 weeks a year, every year. Injuries that have been carried have to be given time to heal correctly. Muscles have to be allowed to strengthen again because over-tiredness leads to strains.
At the Professional Footballers' Association, we witness the effects of the stress, burn-out and injuries, with the high numbers of players who are forced to retire early from the game every year. There are just too many matches now. With play-offs, World Cups, European Championships and pre-season tours to Outer Mongolia, if the money is right, the seasons seem to merge into each other.
It's not all gloom, though. Training at a high level is addictive, and the adrenalin rush gives a real buzz. The weather is good and it is still a relatively short working day, so there is time to do other things. The season's worries are still in the future, there aren't the worries about last week's result, next week's result, the league position or even your own position. There are also the delights of the pre-season tour.
Sadly on last year's tour, my room-mate returned one morning blind drunk. Mistaking my bed for the toilet, he relieved himself all over it with me inside. At that moment, even the sand dunes seemed like a great place to be.Reuse content