Generally, in Academy football you do have a short break at Christmas and back in 2013 I was working in the Academy at Swindon Town before stepping up to work with the first team as well as my academy commitments in 2014 at which point you knew you would be working on Christmas day in preparation for the Boxing Day game.
I’ve never really had an issue working at Christmas though it can be more difficult for your family. In many other trades people also work over Christmas so I’ve certainly never been one to moan about it, you get used to it, and try and have some fun with it.
It’s nice though this year to have that break I must admit, though it could have been so different just 8 weeks ago. I was approached about going back into first team football when I was approached about a first team goalkeeping coach position. I’ll admit, initially I did think about it. I won’t lie, part of me feels I have unfinished business at first team level. Having coached over 300 first team games across League One, League Two and the National League I set myself a target a few years ago to reach 400 games. However, having not long joined Coventry City Academy and as I’m currently enjoying working with a great group of staff, something which I have found to be important through my experiences in the game over the years, I didn’t feel it was right to move on at the time.
As I say it’s nice now to be having a break as at first team level the Christmas period can be a challenging time with the number of games that you encounter, the cold and miserable weather and the time you are away from your family not just in terms of training but travel for away games.
Here are just a few memories from my Christmas past:
Christmas 2014 I was working with goalkeepers Wes Foderingham and Ty Belford at Swindon Town. At the time we were training at the old Allied Dunbar site at King Edward Place, Wanborough. This was just a ten-minute drive from the County Ground where we would get changed and drive up to train. I remember it was a typical cold and damp day and the goalkeepers had a light session with me and with the team but still had to get back in their cars, wet and muddy, something which Wes always grumbled about LOL
Thankfully this was a positive Christmas with us travelling to Walsall on Boxing day and winning 4-1 with goals from Michael Smith, Massimo Luongo and 2 from Andy Williams
Christmas 2015 I was now working with goalkeepers Lawrence Vigouroux and Ty Belford at Swindon Town. This season we had left the King Edward Place training ground and we had struggled for facilities so at the time we were training at the new 3G pitch at Wootton Bassett sports facility. Again, it was a cold and damp Christmas morning and I remember as a fairly new facility, there was a muddy lake behind the 3G which I ended up having to fish footballs out of! (No not from my service!) Who said professional football was glamorous!
This wasn’t such a successful Christmas as the next day in front of 9,228 fans at the County Ground we lost 3-1 to Gillingham with Jon Obika getting our only goal.
Christmas 2016 I was working with goalkeepers Sam Russell and Jonny Maxted at Forest Green Rovers. It was decided that we wouldn’t train on Christmas Day BUT that we would travel late afternoon to the hotel in Exeter ready for the game on Boxing Day at Torquay Utd. That was a strange one as it was nice spending most of Christmas Day with my wife but it was hard then getting up and leaving our warm Christmassy home at 4pm and leaving her home alone to travel in the cold down the M5 to meet the bus for the journey.
The next day, Boxing Day at Torquay we lost a 4-3 thriller!
Christmas 2019 I was working with goalkeepers Lewis Ward and Jonny Maxted at Exeter City. At the time I was renting a room in Exeter and mixing up staying down a few nights and travelling back to Swindon which was roughly a two-hour journey (120 miles). We had training on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and playing on Boxing Day. I was going to stay over after training Christmas Eve but in the end, I didn’t want my wife to wake up on Christmas day alone. I drove back the two-hour journey to her surprise, woke up early Christmas day morning, drove back to Exeter and we trained on a very bitterly cold day where the pitches were hard, limiting the amount of work we could actually do. I then drove two hours home again for my Christmas day dinner.
The following day I drove once again back to Exeter for our Boxing Day clash with Newport at St James Park in front of 5,968 fans beating Newport 1-0 with Lee Martin getting the winner. In the end all the driving was worth it both from a family and football point of view!
I have saved my toughest Christmas in the game till last……..
Christmas 2018 I was working with goalkeepers Daniel Iverson, Zeus De La Paz and Ewan McFarlane at Oldham Athletic. Oldham was a 164-mile 3-hour journey for me and I was renting a room in Rochdale at the time and again mixing up travelling and staying over.
I signed for Frankie Bunn the manager of Oldham and a club legend in November, he earnt my respect as a man and a manager quickly and we had a great backroom staff. Through November and going into December we were on a good run, winning 3 and drawing 3 before we played Exeter at home on the 22nd December. We started well and went 1 up, but it turned out to be the Jayden Stockley show as he bagged a hat trick and we lost 2-3. Straight after the game the owner had a blazing row with Frankie for bringing off one of the players the owner had signed (the correct decision in my opinion to bring said player off).
Christmas Eve morning I went into training not even knowing if Frankie was still in place, thankfully he was though there was no communication with him from the owner.
We trained on Christmas Day morning but as we had Carlisle away the next day and as Oldham was a 3-hour drive back home and then I’d have to get all the way to Carlisle I simply couldn’t get home on Christmas Day to see my wife. After training, I went back to my room in Rochdale and my Christmas Day meal was a microwave meal for one!
As we only had a single day off after the Boxing Day game and before training on the 28th and game on the 29th I couldn’t get home at all in the Christmas period. Therefore, we arranged for my wife to travel up Boxing Day evening while I was coming back from Carlisle. My landlord allowed her to stay in my room Boxing Day night and that following day off we would spend the day together. On Boxing Day at Carlisle, it was a strange day, we started brightly but they broke away and scored, this happened twice and we were 2-0 down at half time. Second half we crumbled and ended up losing 6-0!
The next day, after a shopping trip to the Trafford centre, my wife and I were walking round a lovely lake in Rochdale when my phone went off and Frankie rang me to tell me he and his assistant had just received an email sacking them!! I was gutted for them and worried for my own position. I checked my email account quickly wondering if I had been sacked, no email. I rang the secretary asking what on earth was going on, he stuttered and stumbled and just said report in tomorrow as normal. The owner then rang me saying the same but didn’t say who I was reporting in to!
My one day off over Christmas and one day with my wife was ruined at that point, with worry over my own job and sadness over losing Frankie and his assistant it was all that was on my mind. Pete Wild the Academy manager stepped up for the next month and then Paul Scholes came in for the month of February.
That was without doubt my toughest Christmas in the game, being away from home and my wife over Christmas, losing two festive games, one heavily, and losing Frankie who I was enjoying working under.
Different managers look at Christmas in different ways. Some feel you have to treat it like a normal day, preparing for a game. Some feel its important players are in, to try and limit what the players eat and drink. Some feel players should be at home on Christmas Day and not train to keep the players happy. I don’t think there is a right or wrong way, I can understand all the different thoughts on it and could make a case for each. I have tended to find the session at times has just ended up being a “token” session just to say outwardly to fans and media that the players have been in. Again though, I've never really had an issue being in personally on Christmas Day, I have always viewed it simply as part of the job.