St Stephen’s Day football is a beloved feature of the Christmas schedule for fans in the UK, but it can prove a tricky time for the players.
That’s partly because those in the English football league system have to contend with festive football, as opposed to the extended breaks that teams from Europe’s top leagues receive.
The country’s top players are often required to train on Christmas Day to stay sharp for the glut of league fixtures that take place immediately after December 25, something they think about well in advance.
“When you look at the fixtures as a player you’re looking at Boxing Day and New Years’ Day, to see ‘are we home or away’,” said former Newcastle and Manchester City goalkeeper Shay Given, who was speaking at the opening of the new DW Sports store in the Metrocentre in Newcastle.
“There was a period where Newcastle had about seven or eight consecutive away games on Boxing Day,” he continued. “It felt like we’d been totally jinxed!”
An away game on St Stephen’s Day invariably requires not just training, but also travel on Christmas Day – for Fulham captain Tom Cairney, who faces his fourth consecutive St Stephen’s Day away game this year, that takes the magic out of the holiday season.
“We had to travel to Ipswich on Christmas night and stay in a hotel last year,” said the 26-year-old.
“It wasn’t that glamorous, and you’d rather be doing other things, but it’s your job.”
(Nigel French/EMPICS Sport)
Given last featured in a St Stephen’s Day match in 2009, keeping a clean sheet in a 2-0 win for Manchester City against his then-future club Stoke City. He agreed that hotels are not where footballers want to be on Christmas night.
“The hotels are normally very quiet, and you’re looking at the staff who have been working on Christmas Day and they’re not very happy either!” he said.
Furthermore, Cairney explained that, in his experience, the festivities don’t extend to the training pitch either.
“It’s literally business as usual,” he said. “Maybe there are a few chocolates but that’s about it really.
“We’ve got Cardiff away on Boxing Day this year, so I’ll wake up, have a few hours at home, have dinner and come in about four or five o’clock. Then we’ll train, gaffer says merry Christmas, then travel. That’s about it.”
(Chris Radburn/EMPICS Sport)
Given is currently without a club, having been released by Stoke at the end of the 2016/17 season.
The 41-year-old said that while it’s not a case of missing out on everything Christmas related, as a footballer you have to hold back.
“Normally I’d try and have the dinner,” said the former Republic of Ireland international of his playing days. “I wouldn’t be drinking, and I’d be having smaller plates than everyone else. They’d be cracking open a few drinks whereas I’d be on the water.”
That means controlling yourself when the roast potatoes make their way round the table, and limiting yourself to just a couple of pigs in blankets if you’re Lincoln City goalkeeper Paul Farman.
“On Christmas Day I do tend to have the dinner but you just hold back,” said the 28-year-old. “I’ll probably have two pigs in blankets, but if I didn’t have a game I’d probably have six!”
And while missing out on bread sauce and extra gravy might seem unappealing, according to the players it’s the lack of time with loved ones that hurts the most.
“It’s obviously a huge time with families and if you’ve got kids it’s a problem,” said Given. “At least if you’ve got a home game you can train as normal on Christmas morning and get back and see the kids.”
“You just miss being at home with everyone,” said Cairney. “Obviously everyone’s at home together and it’s being apart from that. That’s the entertainment business at the end of the day though.”
But not all footballers are subjected to a day at the office on the 25th. Farman has spent five years with Lincoln City, a lot of it in the National League, and he revealed that he has often enjoyed the day off… sort of.
(Dave Howarth/EMPICS Sport)
“Last year we weren’t in training, but we got given a programme that we had to do,” he said. “It was basically a warm-up and a couple of runs, which obviously isn’t something you want to do on the day.
“Luckily in my career, though, I’ve never been called in on Christmas Day. All I’ve really played is non-league football, and the higher you go, the more you’ll be in on Christmas Day.”
Farman’s luck might be about to run out. After winning promotion last season, Lincoln are flying high in League Two in the play-off places. The Imps face Stevenage at home on St Stephen’s Day, and Farman has no qualms about working this year if he’s asked.
“I’d miss the lie-in, and being able to spend the full day seeing my family,” he said. “But I’ve been quite lucky, and if I do get called in, well, I think I can swallow it this year.”
For some footballers, having the day off remains something of a dream. But what exactly is it that they dream of when they think about a post-retirement Christmas?
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing being a footballer,” said Cairney. “I think when I retire I’ll just enjoy Christmas Day a bit more, relax more, eat and drink like everyone else.
“I’d just do what my friends do, maybe go out on Christmas Eve and eat a ridiculous amount on Christmas Day.”
And for Given, Christmas 2017 is going to mark something of a new chapter in the former goalkeeper’s life.
“This is my first Christmas I’m not going to be going anywhere,” he said. “It’s all going to be very strange for me, but it will be great because I can spend some time with kids and family.”