THAT’S THE WAY TO DO IT: Steve Claridge turned out for Salisbury at the age of 51 during pre-season last summer (Image: Paul Paxford/Pitchside Photo)
By Gregor Robertson, National League play-off winner turned journalist
So, it’s that time of year again! Yes, the World Cup may be in full swing, but for those footballers who are mere mortals the joy of pre-season is upon them.
Ask any player what the worst part of the job is and invariably the answer will be pre-season. And, given the weeks of sweat and toil, can you blame them?
When I think back to some of the pre-seasons I endured I can’t help but shudder a little. How does being strapped into a harness suspended above a treadmill, with an oxygen mask on your face, then being asked to run until you drop sound? That was the VO2 Max test, and it was just as much fun as it sounds.
Not every club has the means to go to such lengths, of course. But all find a way to test just how much you have enjoyed your summer. The dreaded din of the beep test is perhaps what strikes fear into the hearts of players more than anything – a 20-metre shuttle run to a gradually quickening intermittent beep, until your legs can’t keep up any longer.
Sport science means pre-season is no longer quite what it used to be, but in my experience many managers are still keen to find room
for a little old-school flavour: a trip to the seaside to visit some towering sand dunes, perhaps; a drive to a country park with similarly torturous plans in store; or perhaps a day or two at an army camp lugging sand bags and logs around with a sergeant major screaming in your ear.
All of which is an attempt to push you to your limits, and break the month-long cycle of long, hard days in the sunshine, with double or triple sessions, and ending with a jump into a wheelie-bin full of ice water in the hope you have the reserves to start over again the next day.
Not everyone does though. I saw one tweet from a player this week with the scene from the Wolf of Wall Street in which Leonardo Di Caprio’s character is dragging his limp legs along the floor, with the caption, “How I feel this morning #preseason”.
While I’ve never seen anyone lose the power of their legs I’ve seen plenty moving like they’re an
80-year-old pensioner. Taking on a flight of stairs after the hardest days can be an ordeal. Thankfully I never qualified for ‘fat club’, but I’m sure you can guess what the month of July is like for those poor guys. Given all this, would it surprise you to hear that I miss pre-season terribly? And, no, I’m not some twisted sadist…
When you hang up your boots, you’re asked every other day what you miss about football. The actual ‘kicking a ball around’ bit? Not really. The changing-rooms then? No, and I’ve managed to get by without the banter too.
The thing I have missed, more than anything over the past two years, is the competition; having something to fight for or against. Team-mates, opinions, opponents, but most of all, yourself. That constant thread in your life disappears with the click of the fingers. And at no time is that more acutely felt than at this time of year.
At no time do you push yourself to the limits to such an extent day after day. Competing for a place in the starting line-up on the opening day of the season. Striving to impress in every training session or game. Fighting to be at the front in every run. Battling against the voice in your head that’s telling you to stop.
It’s pretty hard to replicate that when your football career comes to an end. And, when the aches and pains and burning muscles of pre-season subside, you never feel healthier or fitter in your life.
On a more prosaic level, too, pre-season can define your campaign – individually and collectively. When I look back at my career, in which I suffered more than my fair share of injuries, the seasons in which I missed out on a full pre-season were often those when I played the least number of games. It is a foundation for the rigours that lie in store… for nine months of sweat and toil.
And, it’s a time when you find out a hell of a lot about your team-mates. If I ever saw a player cutting corners during a run, or turning a few yards short of the line, it registered and stuck in my mind. Just as I always noticed who could push themselves to their very limits when others around them wilted or simply pulled up the handbrake. It’s not always that straightforward, but it’s an early clue as to whom you would rather play alongside when the games come thick and fast in August and September.
So, if you are about to embark on pre-season this week, at any age or level, the starting point of another season filled with hope and optimism, just remember: as much as it hurts, you might just miss it when it’s gone.
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday
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