Whenever I’m questioned about pre-season and the hours of toil it entails, that’s usually the signal for me to break out the old ‘I hate running, that’s why I became a goalkeeper’ line.
It’s a classic reposte I’ve trotted out for years, guaranteed to draw a nod of agreement as if to say ‘Yeah, you obviously play in goal because you’re crap at running’.
There is an element of truth to that, I was never going to be a threat to Steve Cram, which is a shame really, because I found out the hard way it might have come in handy as a footballer.
My induction in full-time football as a 15-year-old, fresh out of a GCSE Geography exam, was being dropped off in South Shields with Malcolm Crosby and the rest of the youth team, where we were told to run back to Roker Park as fast as we possibly could. For those without Google Maps at hand, that’s six and a half miles.
Seeing as the farthest I’d been used to running was from my goal-line to the edge of the 18-yard box, this was some stretch for me.
Thus began years of coming home from training in July and falling asleep whilst eating my dinner when I finally arrived home, very much like someone who suffers from narcolepsy.
That’s even if I ever felt like eating. Quite often I couldn’t even stomach the thought of food, which of course is counter-productive to the next day’s work.
It didn’t get much better for me plodding up and down the sand dunes under Terry Butcher or when I finished behind Peter Reid during his first full pre-season at the club.
Goalkeeper or no goalkeeper, never letting the manager beat you is a rule of thumb and shouldn’t happen.
I’ve read much this week telling us how much pre-season has changed over the years, but of course it has. What players in England should be thankful of is that pre-season only lasts four or five weeks here.
During my time in Denmark, we had two pre-seasons, a short summer one because of the quick turnaround between the end of the season and the beginning of the next, and a much longer second which stretches from the beginning of January to mid-March when the Superliga resumes after the winter break in December.
Okay, it’s quite nice to have Christmas and New Year off, plus a fortnight’s training in the winter sunshine of Spain, but for the most, it’s long distance runs in minus degrees temperatures and friendlies on ice-laden 3G pitches.
Only fun if you’re a short black and white animal that shuffles around smelling of fish. No, not them, I meant penguins.
The record low temperature I trained in was clocked at -16 plus wind chill, so cold I could hardly catch my breath.
So, it was exactly the same as every other pre-season for me in that respect.
The one thing that hasn’t changed since I started is the shout of ‘Money in the bank!’ from the physio, making a reference to what effort you put in then, can be withdrawn when needed during the season.
However quickly the game changes, the patter never does. Not for the better anyway.
The positive influence of sports science has had is undeniable, but along with the professionalism, it has administered to the game, it has banished the one thing that was holding many teams back.
During many of the more arduous runs, there was always a sneering attitude towards anyone who tried really hard, a bit like a bully would look at anyone they’d class as the teacher’s pet.
In this case, it would be the older heads in the group making sure they weren’t being showed up by any of the younger lads, who might leave them in their wake.
There’d always be an order of ‘Somebody put the reins on him!’ during the first couple of weeks, back before those older players had had time to lose their summer excess.
Now that everything is looked at in minute detail and players are continually tested and retested, players are urged to be in a constant competition with themselves to better their own statistics.
Whether it be setting a personal best on a yo-yo test or lowering their BMI, that’s exactly how it should be, but it wasn’t always as looked at that way.
Of course, it was the older players’ way of trying to protect themselves from the young pups snapping at their heals, but it bred an environment where personal success was discouraged and stunted. It might be a team game, but not when you’re a 30-year-old in the final year of your contract.
You might call it bullying, you might just call it peer pressure or pure selfishness, but I’m sure many a young footballer was held below his potential and stayed there because he wasn’t allowed to flourish.
So for all the stats, strength machines and fitness tests that have been integrated into the game now, a change in attitude towards wanting to better yourself individually might be our biggest step forward yet.