No matter how much ex-footballers tell you they hated pre-season, you’d have been hard pushed to find much evidence of back-to-school-blues come that first day back to training.
True, there was always the excited buzz of trepidation in the potential terror that lay in store, but it was far from dread. Not these days anyway.
Back in the early 90’s, that fear came from a cocktail of knowing your body wasn’t prepared for the battering that was to come and the hard work presented itself more like a punishment than an essential process to be ready come the opening game of the season.
You didn’t arrive back to training in peak condition then because that’s what pre-season was for, stupid.
Try not to eat too much and stay off the drink for the week before you went back. That was basically the mantra to follow.
The only real nervous faces were the ones underlined by an extra chin that had been acquired over the course of eight weeks.
One thing worse than rolling into that first training session of the season packing more timber than B&Q is not rolling in at all of course.
There will be hundreds of of players who won’t be returning to training this week, or even next for that matter. Players whose contracts won’t be renewed and are about to expire wait nervously by the phone.
It’s worth reminding people that football isn’t all adulation and photoshoots for the majority of footballers.
Panic will be setting in. That last wage packet moves on to the horizon as the expiration date of 30th of June on your contract approaches and wants now become needs.
You’ve had your period of power where you can turn your nose up at offers and now it’s not about what club you’d like to sign for, it’s about getting a contract, any contract, anywhere.
This is where you see how good your agent is, whether you have the right one for you and exactly why you need one you can trust. You don’t need someone to give you mights and maybes, someone to fill you with false hope in a bid to inflate their own ego. You need someone who deals in facts.
As a friend of my mine who is on the look-out for a new club told me recently: “I’ve told my agent I don’t want to hear from him unless he has something concrete for me.”
They think they are doing you a favour by keeping your pecker up. Luckily, he still has a year left on his contract, so he has time on his side.
The loneliness of a long distance runner is nothing compared to the isolation of the free agent.
You’re a spare part waiting to be added to the car, redundant until fitted.
Without a club, you’re just another gym member putting yourself through the paces. Without a club, you’re just another jogger in the park trying to keep fit. Without a club, are you even a footballer at all?
It’s a test for your motivation. How much do you really want this?
The worst case scenarios run through your head making you pick up your pace and push that little bit harder. You’ve arranged that playlist you’re listening to include “Eye of the Tiger” from Rocky III and every banger that will help you fight your way out and escape your comfort zone. That’s your immediate battle. The internal one.
In a group environment, motivation is everywhere. You want to impress the manager and his staff.
You want to be better than the other players vying for your place in the side. You want to avoid the embarrassment of failure and push yourself up towards the top of the list when the results of the fitness tests are pinned on the dressing room wall.
When you’re cast out from the game, temporarily or permanently, the motivations lie in the eyes that stare back from a mirror. But it’s hard to fight the doubts and the voices holding you back. “What’s the point? There’s a reason why you’re training by yourself. Your race is run, mate. You’re done.”
But you keep going. You pound the miles around a farmer’s field where no one can see you. You take a ball to the school field that hasn’t had its grass cut for months and kick it around like you did when you were a seven-year-old kid.
You jump from one part of the gym to the next, pushing yourself harder and harder so the sweat pumps out of you and everyone is staring at you.
All the while, waiting for that phone call that may or may never come.
Is it time for Plan B?