My initial thoughts on the Christmas schedule for the Premier League teams this year is that it’s not too bad. The main dates of the matches are the 21, 26 and 31 December and 2 January. That’s four games in 12 days which with the size of squads these teams possess nowadays should be absolutely fine.
The only area of concern for managers will be the gap between the games on New Years Eve and 2 January. It is only 48 hours and the players will not be sufficiently recovered to be at their peak fitness for the second match. No doubt you will see a lot of changes to the starting line-ups for the latter fixture.
As much as people say you should be able to play every day and be unaffected that is just not the case. Most clubs in the top flight use a system called Prozone whereby every pass, how far you have run, how many tackles you have made, how many sprints you have done etc, is monitored. There will more than likely be a significant fall in each individuals statistics for the second game in a 48-hour period.
So what’s it actually like to be a footballer during the festive period? To be honest it’s business as usual. Throughout my career I think I only had one Christmas Day off. That was when I was at Bournemouth under the stewardship of Mel Machin. I think he felt sorry for us as we were away at Crewe the next day, which meant a 6am departure from Dean Court!
If I was playing at home on Boxing day then my typical Christmas day would be to get up early with the kids (sometimes having to wake them up) to open the presents and then head off to training about 9am.
It would normally be a short sharp session of about an hour and then return home around 1pm to have lunch. Of course I had to be careful what I ate and drank and certainly no alcohol could be consumed!
Sometimes managers would want you in a hotel on Christmas night to make sure players adhered to the rules so if that was the case it would mean returning to the ground early evening to go to the hotel.
If we were playing away from home on Boxing day the schedule would be slightly different. We would probably have most of the day at home before training late afternoon and then off to the hotel afterwards.
To be honest, I don’t think many players minded being in on Christmas day for training. It’s part of the job and getting out of the house for a kickabout when there was more than likely chaos at home wasn’t particularly a hardship. And when you think about the many heroes of our armed services/nurses etc that don’t even get home/work all day it puts things into real perspective.
There have been calls in the past for a winter break in the football season and maybe a couple of weeks off would benefit the players to re-charge the batteries and allow for one or two niggles to heal, but I wouldn’t want to see it over the festive period.
Invariably the crowds are bigger with great atmospheres at the matches and it’s also a great tradition. If there was to be a break I would prefer it to be in January.
I remember one Christmas when my children were stuck for ideas in choosing me a present. I said not to bother and that a goal and a win the next day would be just fine.
It was during my time at Charlton and we were playing Chelsea at the Valley. We won the game 4-2 and I managed to get on the scoresheet. It was the best Christmas present ever!
I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a fabulous Christmas and, if you are going to a game, that your team can deliver you three points!
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There’s no doubt that the Champions League draw could have been a lot kinder to both Chelsea and Arsenal. Having won their respective groups and ensuring they avoided Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich they would have hoped for more sympathetic ties than they have been given.
The pick of the bunch has to be AC Milan v Arsenal. The Rossoneri are an improved team this year and pushed Barcelona in their qualifying group. However, they don’t have a great recent history against English opposition. In 2008 the gunners sent them packing, whilst in 2010, Man United beat them 7-2 on aggregate. Last year it was the turn of Spurs to take their scalp so they will be hoping to reverse that trend this season.
It is difficult at this stage to pick a winner as there is a long time and a lot of football to be played before the matches take place and so much can happen in terms of injuries for instance. On that note, Arsenal will be keen to keep their skipper Robin Van Persie fit and well and that is something he has failed to do for a complete season in all his time at the club. The most games he has played in a year has been 44 in 2008/09.
He is though in the prime of his career and currently enjoying his most prolific spell in front of goal whilst at the same time breaking all sorts of records. Although I would be the first to say that football is very much a team game he is at the moment the closest the Premier League comes to a “one-man team”. The reason I say that is because where would Arsenal be without him. He has got 19 goals already in all competitions with his nearest rival in the scoring charts Theo Walcott some distance behind on 4. Also when you look at the other striking options at the Emirates, it highlights even more the importance of Van Persie.
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Some cracking games this weekend, perhaps, most excitingly runaway leaders Man City travel to Stamfod Bridge on Monday night.
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Ferguson lacks a midfielder of the highest quality
What a disastrous night in the Champions League for the two Manchester clubs. The exit of Man City from the competition was the more predictable as they were relying on other results to go their way, but the demise of Man Utd was a real shock. For the first time since the 2005/06 season they won’t be competing in the latter stages of Europe’s premier tournament and will instead have to settle for their first tilt at the Europa League.
So where has it gone wrong for these two? Let’s start with United...
For United though this registers high on the Richter scale. They have reached the final in three of the last four seasons and the challenge for Sir Alex has been to get closer to Barcelona. They are much further away today than they were when dismantled by them in May at Wembley. Having been drawn in a group with Basle, Benfica and Galati many saw this as a bye to the knockout stages. Maybe United thought the same and took their eye off the ball.
Or maybe they haven’t solved the problem that they faced in the summer and that is the lack of a midfielder of the highest quality. Last night they fielded a midfield three of Giggs, Park and Jones – that’s two wingers and a defender. They have tried Rooney in that role and Cleverley looks a great prospect but has been injured for large parts of the season. They were linked to Sneijder, Modric and Nasri in the summer and any of them would have made a difference. The manager has said he won’t buy in the January transfer window but if they are to try and stay on the coattails of their local rivals I think they must invest - particularly in the engine room.
Fabio Capello will be a happy man. And the England fans should be celebrating too: they've been given a group that they should be able to escape even if they don't hit their top form; even without Wayne Rooney.
They know all about Sweden, having just beaten them without really having to extend themselves. And France, while they've improved since the last World Cup are coming from a very, very low place. Never rule them out, in rugby or football, they have quality players but they are nothing like the side that once ruled the world.
As for Ukraine, they're quick on the break with a solid midfield but they lack someone up front to make opponents pay.
The real test for Capello and whoever ends up with his captain's armband is that they can't afford to come second. Wembley win or not, facing Spain in a quarterfinal will be the last thing they want.
So it goes without saying that it's a tough group, but actually I think it's good news for Ireland and tremendously exciting for the fans.
Yes, we could have been in Pool A alongside Poland, Greece and the Czech Republic. But how disappointing would it have been if we'd have put in all the hard and potentially missed out on the opportunity to face one of the big names.
I don't see it as difficult, I see it as exciting and I think that's how the players will see it too. Looking back to the World Cup in 2002, the game in which I felt the big pressure was against Saudi Arabia, when we needed a win to progress. It's the game's where you are expected to cruise through that are the banana skins - there's everything to lose. In contrast, when we played Germany we went out pumped up, not afraid to play, and came away with a result.
Ireland are a team for the big matches, as we've shown over the years when we've had the chance.
Taking on the World and European champions, Spain on the big stage, is perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity for players, and the fans won't see many games like it. I would have loved the chance to test myself against Iniesta, Xavi and the like, it's what young lads dream about.
I’ve always enjoyed watching the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. It’s a great show and a great accolade to win.
The 10 nominees for the award form a strong list but my vote will go to cyclist Mark Cavendish. He’s had an unbelievable year, winning the world road race title, claiming his first green jersey in the Tour de France and completing a hat-trick of showpiece wins on the Champs Élysées.
The award is for a sporting personality and, in addition to his great achievements, Cav undoubtedly has a big personality.
Of the other contenders, I’ve got a lot of time for Mo Farah and Alistair Cook. Farah has had an excellent year, winning gold and silver medals at the World Athletics Championships. Cook will definitely challenge thanks to the sheer weight of runs he scored for England as they won the Ashes and became the world’s No 1 test team.
For me, Amir Khan and Andy Murray have had solid but unspectacular years. Darren Clarke’s victory in The Open was a great story but, with fellow golfers Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy also on the list, there’s a possibility of them splitting the vote which has happened in previous years.
My winner would be Mark Cavendish with Mo Farah and Alistair Cook in second and third places.
Although the list of nominees is strong, it’s also controversial. All 10 nominees are male and, without doubt, there are numerous female athletes worthy of a place on the list.
Triathlete Chrissie Wellington has had an unbelievable year, winning the long-distance Ironman World Championship for the fourth time. Open water swimmer Keri Anne Payne struck gold at the World Swimming Championships and became the first British athlete in any sport to qualify for the London Olympics.
I think that one reason they haven’t got the credit they deserve is because they’ve excelled in sports not in the limelight. Next year, I expect to see more sportswomen among the SPOTY nominees. With 2012 being an Olympic year, sports like triathlon and swimming will get much more coverage and the public will be that much more aware of the achievements of British stars.
I also think the way the list of nominees was drawn up was controversial. The 10 contenders were nominated by 27 sports editors from a range of magazines, daily and Sunday newspapers, including lads’ mags Nuts and Zoo.
The Manchester Evening News nominees included Patrick Vieira and Dimitar Berbatov, which I think threatens to make a mockery of the award.
Despite all this, there are definitely a number of really deserving candidates in there and I look forward to seeing how the public votes.
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I was out with my family yesterday when I heard the sad news about Gary Speed. And my first reaction was disbelief, I just couldn’t imagine that something so sudden, so shocking could have happened. It’s a moment that will stay with me.
It’s no surprise that so many former and current players have had so many positive things to say about Gary Speed both as a man and as a footballer. But, as someone who came up against him in midfield time and again, I would like to add what a privilege it was to compete on the same field.
How will you remember him?
I will never forget one game at Ipswich when he gave me a true footballing lesson. After the match, the coach Bryan Hamilton just turned to me and said: "That’s how to play midfield: that’s how you have to learn to play."
He really did have it all: energy, fitness, skills. He got in the box and scored goals but he also did the hard graft, getting back and making the tackles. I used to pride myself on my fitness, thinking I could outrun opponents. Not against him. I thought I wasn’t bad in the air: he was simply brilliant.
We would have been captains together, chatting in the tunnel, on plenty of occasions and I don’t know how many times I played against him but he was always one of the toughest of opponents. As a player in my position, a little bit older than me he gave me something to aspire to.
And since he stopped playing he has enjoyed a phenomenal success for a manager starting his career, encouraging his Welsh team to play a wonderful brand of football and nurturing and encouraging young players along the way. In many ways he had it all in front of him.
But as others have said before me, it wasn’t just that he was a brilliant footballer and manager. In an age when players’ behaviour comes under huge scrutiny he was a great ambassador. Someone the game could be proud of. The perfect player and gentleman, he never courted publicity or sought out the spotlight. Everything he did he did well.
I don’t know about the exact circumstances he was living in. I do have experience of how hard it can be living with the pressure and expectations of thousands of fans but I’ve been lucky enough not to have known some of the really severe downs suffered by others in the game.
My TalkSport colleague Stan Collymore, does have some understanding of what it can be like and his words, written in the early hours of Saturday morning were a real eye-opener for me about how tough it can be. I would encourage anyone to read it.
And finally, we should never forget the human tragedy. Gary Speed’s death leaves behind his wife and two sons: teenage boys who don’t have a father any more.
Every football fan will honour him as one of the most graceful and gracious players ever to play on a Premier League pitch, but those who knew him better will remember him for so much more.
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Arsene Wenger, Harry Redknapp and David Moyes pay tribute to David Beckham as he prepares for his final game.
Date 14 hrs ago, Duration 2:19, Views 945
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