Spending Christmas on your own isn’t much fun. I can testify to that. 22 years old, 300 miles from home, I didn’t even bother to put up a Christmas tree or any decorations in the flat I was renting in Aberdeen city centre.
Yeah, I know. Get the the violins out.
Christmas Day was just like any other, apart from we began training a little earlier so everyone could get back to their loved ones and families to enjoy their day together. I, on the other hand, just had Stuart McCaffrey. And he only had me.
The two of us were the only ones who couldn’t make it home to be with their families, or didn’t have anyone else to spend the day with in Aberdeen. So we decided to book ourselves a table in a restaurant. Just the two of us. Party hats on. Tucking into our turkey.
The planned mid-season break to allow us to celebrate the Millennium didn’t start until we’d played on the 27th so we were stuck with one another. We were good mates by that point so it wasn’t the worst scenario. At least we weren’t alone. Eating cold beans out of the tin. Pulling our own crackers. It wasn’t a total disaster but it hardly filled me with a festive feeling.
Boxing Day morning, a Sunday, we were in training to prepare for the game and I was in first for my usual cup of coffee and a read of the newspaper. I sat flicking through the back pages of the News of the World to catch up on the football and surprisingly, there I was.
If I thought my Christmas couldn’t get any worse, I was wrong. Ally McCoist had a column with the paper and it was the time of year to be handing out awards and picking teams of the year. Unfortunately for me, the team I was looking at was “Flop XI of the Year” or something similar to that. Maybe it was “Worst SPL XI of the Year”. It’s a minor detail but the main issue here was that I was devastated.
I thought to myself “how can I be in the worst team of the year? I’ve been here for five months out of 12 and only played nine league games. How can I be judged on that?”. Quite easily as it happens. So I finished training and went back to my temporary home to mope, and pondered on my new title of “Worst SPL Goalkeeper 1999”. Alone.
When something like this happens to you, particularly when it’s the first time, it has an effect. But it’s up to you as a player to decide how it affects you. It might have been an accumulation of being young, struggling to cope with the step up and being away from my family at Christmas for the first time but I was finding it hard to laugh it off.
Eventually, I decided against the McCoist voodoo doll I began making and took the newspaper home to cut out the article and place inside my diary. That was me, David Preece, 22 and a third years old.
This way, looking at it every day would be a reminder to myself that I had to improve to make sure I wasn’t in the that team of turkeys when McCoist came to pick his XI again.
And was I in his Worst XI Players of 2000? No. But that was mainly because I only made one appearance that year so technically I had proved him right. But that’s not my point here. My point is that I’d felt embarrassed thinking that that everyone reading that newspaper would think I was rubbish too so I took that criticism and worked even harder to prove him wrong.
I’ve actually still got that cut-out, tucked away in a scrapbook somewhere. Looking back, you can laugh how much that kind of put-down gets under your skin but forget these things as you grow older. You forget what it was like being that age and not having the skin of a rhino you later develop that, in turn, almost makes you immune to criticism. Or at least the more unsophisticated critiques.
That’s why this week, With Jurgen Klopp, the Nevilles and more, has surprised me. Watching the bouts of verbal ping pong being played out in public by people who should know better serves good to nobody but people like me who can then write about it. You can win a war of words but there will be scars left that don’t go away so it proves better to step back from the tetchiness.
I’ve been a staunch supporter of both Loris Karius and Claudio Bravo for different reasons. I’m willing them to do well. Just as I do for Joe Hart in Italy. But at the very top level, every minute detail is scrutinised. It doesn’t even have to be an error, it might just be a case of pointing to what they might have done differently but whatever pundits say, they say it because it’s their job and someone pays them to say it.
If what they say is critical, as players, we should just accept that and reply to criticisms with performances.
There’s no need to get in to public spats which only heap more pressure on your next performance. Everyone has their right to reply but at 23, establishing yourself at a club like Liverpool is enough to have on your plate. You don’t need any afters.
Managers should know this more than most too, and have skins of asbestos. Fire retardant from the scorching remarks, so when they’re asked their thoughts on what a pundit has commented on his team, he should simply ask “next question, please.”
To most people you’re either good or rubbish anyway. Results and goals are a bite size way of evaluating players, managers and teams. But to those who know or at least want to understand, there’s a massive grey area in between, filled with its many nuances that mean analysing something is a nine course tasting menu. Too time consuming.
Just as we forget what it’s like to be a young player, those of us who work in the media forget we are more part of this establishment than the football one. You can’t sit on TV or behind a laptop and blame “the media” for whipping up a storm over something we’ve said. Amnesia kicks in again and we forget that it’s our own hot air that’s swirling inside, powering the storm too.
There’s no denying that Karius and Bravo aren’t playing to their expected levels but there are more reasons than just being useless. And Manchester City have dipped under the weight of expectation, but if you don’t understand what Pep Guardiola is doing that maybe the problem isn’t with Pep. And if a manager feels he needs to react to what someone says on TV then perhaps they’re allowing their focus to be distracted.
Why don’t we all just get back to talking about the football again, instead of about each other?