PETER CROUCH: English football's mad festive schedule is a tradition we MUST protect

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A confession — I slipped up the other day. Big time. I mentioned to Abbey, my wife, that I miss going in for training and playing at Christmas time. You should have seen the look. ‘Really?!’ 

I’ll use this space to place on record that I love my family time, in case she is reading, and the three festive periods since retirement have been special.

But professional footballer is the best job in the world and that is no different at Christmas.

Chelsea's draw with Liverpool wrapped up another wild set of festive football fixtures - the Christmas period is a unique test in football and we should protect it in the English game

Chelsea’s draw with Liverpool wrapped up another wild set of festive football fixtures – the Christmas period is a unique test in football and we should protect it in the English game

Despite loving family time together over Christmas, I miss being a professional footballer during the festive period - much to my wife Abbey's dismay!

Despite loving family time together over Christmas, I miss being a professional footballer during the festive period – much to my wife Abbey’s dismay!

There is something about going in with the lads to train on Christmas Day. Everybody else is hungover, feeling sorry for themselves and you’re going in really fit. Running around with no alcohol in your system, there is something wonderful about the smugness of that feeling.

One year at Tottenham, the pitches were pristinely white with fresh snow and we had such a laugh, throwing a few snowballs. There would be little games of five-a-side under Harry Redknapp, just jogging about. There wasn’t a huge amount of tactical stuff, more focused on having a bit of fun and ticking over.

And yes, there is something special about all that. Everybody arrives early and then shoots off as soon as possible to see their family. Those were our Christmas traditions.

Speaking of traditions, there is no getting away from the fact the schedule is mad. Jurgen Klopp and others are justified in complaining about it on a player-welfare level — of course they are — but this test sets English football apart.

Jurgen Klopp is among the managers who complain their players are overworked in December

Jurgen Klopp is among the managers who complain their players are overworked in December

Newcastle's Callum Wilson was one of the players who succumbed to injury over the period

Newcastle’s Callum Wilson was one of the players who succumbed to injury over the period

Obviously there is abnormality for all the players and managers who were accustomed to winter breaks. Change is fantastic, and we should all embrace change, but you cannot mess with Christmas. Tradition should be preserved.

Turkey is probably the worst roast dinner you could cook but we have it because that is how we have always done it. As a fan now, I feel an appreciation for watching the games over the festive period as a release. 

You have all the family stuff and can sneak out of the house to go and watch your team. But you are running on empty as a player. That is just a fact. You’re never 100 per cent during a season anyway – there is wear and tear, niggles – but over Christmas it goes up a few levels.

The Boxing Day and December 28 turn-arounds are horrible. Physically it is impossible to remain at the top of your game and that is why you see such strange results. One day’s rest isn’t enough.

I would wake up struggling to walk after a game and thinking, ‘Hang on, I’ve got another one tomorrow’. It is mentally exhausting. There are the ice baths, the massages and you do power through, but it is so tough on the body.

The constant flow of football comes as a release for the supporters over the Christmas period

The constant flow of football comes as a release for the supporters over the Christmas period 

One aspect of intrigue inside a dressing room was always the tactical suspensions from the middle of the month. A red card or fifth booking for anybody left the rest of the players feeling a bit suspicious. 

It happened to me once. I promise you it was not intentional, but you do feel a sense of guilt regardless. I’m also sure there were a few lads who made sure they totted up the yellows to book a home stay for Christmas.

One of my mates, Shaun Derry, told me yesterday that he had the worst Christmas ever this time. Shaun is doing a fantastic job as first-team coach at Crystal Palace under Patrick Vieira and was all alone at home. 

His wife and kids went off to Florida and it was just him with the dog. What did he do on Christmas Day? Made himself a vegetable soup. On Christmas Day!

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some grim ones as well. I remember being in a hotel in Stoke at the Wychwood Park golf club on New Year’s Eve. Terrible food and there wasn’t another soul in the hotel. I went to bed at 10 o’clock that night — and there have been a few times like that.

The much-criticised Christmas period is a special time of year to be a professional footballer

The much-criticised Christmas period is a special time of year to be a professional footballer 

I loved matches in the Christmas run and training on Christmas Day, smug I wasn't hungover like the rest of the country!

I loved matches in the Christmas run and training on Christmas Day, smug I wasn’t hungover like the rest of the country!

My advice for players? Get straight to bed, there is no point seeing in New Year. Otherwise, you have the fear of missing out (the kids call it FOMO). The videos, the FaceTime sessions. Many a New Year I didn’t stay up and woke in the morning to about 18 missed calls.

It is a time to reflect and look ahead, wrapped up in what you’re doing and setting goals for the months to come. Footballers will have set themselves 2022 targets rather than resolutions over the last few days. That is what I always did.

That is what I was thinking at the turn of 2005 when I was at Southampton. The only goal was to make sure I cemented my place in the team and the months which followed were the making of me.

It felt make or break at the time. I managed to score 13 goals from that point until the end of the season and then came my move to Liverpool. Lift off.

If you had said to me on January 1, 2005 that within six months I would make my England debut and secure a transfer to the European champions, I would have asked exactly what Abs asked me the other day. Really?!

That’s the power of New Year targets.

Nobody wins from Lukaku going public 

You could sense for a few weeks that something was eating away at Romelu Lukaku before the big interview came the other day. Body language is always a tell-tale sign. There was something up.

I have to be honest, I don’t quite understand the comments he made. 

For me, you speak out like that when there are no other options and you are desperate to leave a club — not that I ever did that myself, even when David O’Leary wouldn’t play me at Aston Villa!

Romelu Lukaku went early on publicly discussing his unhappiness under Thomas Tuchel

Romelu Lukaku went early on publicly discussing his unhappiness under Thomas Tuchel  

This is the first bump in the road for Lukaku at a new club. He has suffered with injury and tested positive for coronavirus, so there are other factors in his lack of games.

As a top striker, he obviously wants to start every game. I just thought it was a bit early for that sort of public discussion.

Chelsea have improved so much under Thomas Tuchel. The supporters absolutely love him, he is an excellent coach and that interview with Sky Italy wasn’t the right look. 

It cost Lukaku a place in one of Chelsea’s biggest games of the season, too, so nobody wins from it.

Chelsea boss Tuchel has made huge strides and Lukaku needs a little patience at the Bridge

Chelsea boss Tuchel has made huge strides and Lukaku needs a little patience at the Bridge 

Let the ref decide tight call

Hopefully this isn’t too soon for some who are still angry after the Arsenal match on Saturday, but VAR is vastly improved this season. 

It is cleaner and there is more transparency. People forget that when it first came in, nobody had a clue what was going on. Things were happening and nobody understood why. 

There is a steady improvement and it will become better. However, what I did struggle with at the Emirates was why they didn’t simply send Stuart Attwell to the monitor for both tight calls. Why not put the onus on the man out there?

Stuart Attwell should have been sent to the monitor more in Arsenal's controversial City loss

Stuart Attwell should have been sent to the monitor more in Arsenal’s controversial City loss

Concerning the two incidents — Bernardo Silva’s is a penalty for the shirt pull by Granit Xhaka. He went down theatrically but they called that one correctly. The Martin Odegaard incident was open to interpretation.

I think it was a penalty, other people I’ve spoken to say otherwise.

But let Attwell have a look at both. That is one way VAR could be improved. If it’s a 50-50 call, as the Odegaard decision appeared to be, the referee deserves a second glance.

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