Such is life in 2020 that I was only really made aware Christmas is almost upon us courtesy of a jolly gentleman, complete with Father Christmas hat and four-pack of lager, who accosted me in the street recently and shouted: “Alright Santa?!”
I dare say he’d devoured several cans of Scotland’s finest brew before stumbling across me, but he obviously wasn’t aware my beard is actually for life and not just for Christmas – just ask my fisherman friends.
Needless to say I, like everyone else, was saddened to hear of Diego Maradona’s recent and premature passing. A player I admired greatly and not just because of his exploits against England at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
The tributes paid around the world were a testament to his global appeal, not least in Naples, where Napoli fans gathered to give their idol a dramatic send-off with thousands of flares forming a ring of flames around the stadium he graced on so many occasions. A sight not lost on my son, who after seeing the dramatic and moving scenes asked: “When you go, dad, do you think they will do the same at Old Trafford or Celtic Park with thousands of fans clutching chocolate eclairs?”
It seems every time I turn on the television at the moment I’m greeted by Jurgen Klopp bemoaning the fact his side, who are currently flying high in the league and on the brink of another assault on the Champions League, have to play three games in a week.
Well, I’m sorry, it’s an argument I just don’t agree with and one many managers – and not just Klopp to be fair – are always keen to roll-out, usually when things are going against them. Especially as we head towards Christmas.
When I first came down to England I’d think nothing of playing on Boxing Day and then again 24 hours later when the festive season fell on a weekend – that’s what this feast of football is all about.
I clearly remember playing Chartlon Athletic on New Year’s Day in my first season at Old Trafford and then getting straight on the bus to go down to Watford for a fixture at Vicarage Road the very next afternoon.
The pitch was so bad, none of us expected the game to go ahead, but it did. And when yours truly forced home the only goal of the game, my momentum on that mud heap meant myself, the ball and Hornets ‘keeper Tony Coton all but ended up in the back of the net.
The playing surfaces are a hundred times better today and games would never take place on the type of cabbage patch we were expected to perform on at Vicarage Road back in 1987 now.
Combine that with the fact that players have greater training facilities available to them, more fitness coaches, higher-quality equipment and I really don’t see what they’re moaning about.
The top teams also have huge squads to call upon, allowing them to rotate if needs be, especially when you have a midweek cup game followed by a league game. Ironically, this was a ploy Alex Ferguson embraced many years ago and proved to be very effective, despite the huge amount of criticism he received.
I can’t help feeling that the more these managers tell players they’re tired or unable to play a number of games over a short period, they start to believe it themselves. But as I’ve always said, I’d rather be playing games than training any day.
Much of Klopp’s anger has been directed at the broadcasters, who also happen to pay handsomely for the privilege of covering Premier League football with the clubs and their owners seemingly more than willing to take the millions waved in front of them.
The argument is that fans are being short-changed such is the demand on the players, but surely that’s for the paying public to decide. I think the’d be more likely to complain if they were seeing less football having paid such high subscriptions to the likes of Sky and BT as, for supporters, this truly is the most wonderful time of the year.
Maybe the solution would be for the likes of Messrs Klopp and Solskjaer to meet with their respective chairmen and suggest they return the vast amounts of cash in return for the precious players getting a few extra hours in bed. I’d love to be a fly on the wall during that discussion.
Of course, football is an entertainment business these days, something which has been highlighted by the recent takeover of Wrexham by Hollywood stars Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney.
A message from our owners-elect…
— Wrexham AFC (@Wrexham_AFC) November 16, 2020
Understandably, there’s cynicism surrounding the move as such high-profile takeovers can end in tears. Something I’m all too aware of having been there when businessman Michael Knighton took to the Old Trafford pitch in full kit, having claimed to have purchased Manchester United for a cool £20 million.
History famously tells us this particular sale never went through, probably due to the fact he didn’t have the money – and there have been similar moves that never saw the light of day. But I don’t see any reason why fans of the Welsh club shouldn’t be optimistic.
If the pair, who for all I know, have a keen interest in football then combine that enthusiasm with a series for Amazon or Netflix, it wouldn’t just bring a huge amount of exposure for Wrexham, if done properly, it would generate vast sums of money too, which you’d hope would be reinvested into the club.
Sadly for them, however, I won’t be watching due to my dislike of this modern fascination with behind the scenes or fly on the wall shows about football clubs such as Sunderland ‘til I Die or All or Nothing.
Maybe it’s because I’m an ex-player, but I’ve always found them to be somewhat cringey and embarrassing as I can’t help feeling they’re always looking for a story or an angle, rather than capturing the actual day-to-day running of a football club.
Intentionally or not, they tend to put clubs and players at the mercy of editors who can then use the footage however they wish, often out of context and at the risk of making individuals appear stupid.
I remember when I was at Celtic, I was approached about doing a feature for a brand-new publication called The Sunday Sport, a newspaper in its infancy that, at the time, I knew nothing about.
Having agreed to the interview, you can imagine my surprise when the feature eventually appeared on the back pages of a newspaper that was little more than a platform for soft porn and scandal, with very little interest in sport.
My annoyance, however, was nothing compared to the shock and horror experienced by my father, who had headed to the newsagents early that Sunday morning in order to buy a copy he could proudly show off to his pals – he never did accept my side of the story.
Funny then that I should actually “star” in two documentaries myself in the 1980s and ‘90s while at Manchester United, though mostly in a cameo role that Hitchcock would be proud of.
I don’t recall much about Manchester United: The Inside Story, a straight-to-video number following the club’s fortunes during the 1988/89 season.
I’m told there’s footage of me playing golf with Mark Hughes and a few other fleeting appearances of little interest to anyone, but that’s about it as, if truth be told, I was never one to seek the limelight.
As a kid, I always wanted to play football, but not necessarily be a footballer. I would have been happy getting the bus to Old Trafford or Parkhead to play a match and then leave at the end of the game with the supporters and have a pint. My overriding thought of being caught on camera or in the papers was, “what would my grandmother think?”.
So when we were asked by ITV to take part in a fly-on-the-wall documentary in 1993 called Captain’s Log, I jumped at the opportunity to take editorial control, mostly because our skipper – and host of the show – Steve Bruce, didn’t have a clue how to work the fancy camcorder we’d been given.
This was my big chance to be my usual mischievous self, seeing how much I could get away with, all the while maintaining my anonymity and putting my teammates in the spotlight to humiliate themselves – all in full view of the eagled-eyed manager.
Alex Ferguson was very keen the club, along with its values, history and traditions, was portrayed in the right way and would have the ultimate say in what made the cut and what didn’t, with very little getting past him.
To this day I wonder what happened to the footage that ended up on the cutting-room floor because I’m in no doubt whoever has those outtakes is sitting on a smash hit the likes of Ryan Reynolds could only dream of.
I want to take this opportunity to wish everybody a very happy and peaceful holiday season, whatever you’re doing.
Here’s hoping you all have a very Merry Christmas and prosperous New Year, which probably won’t be difficult after the past 12 months.
So look after each other and don’t do anything Choccy wouldn’t do!