THERE’S always a feeling of slight trepidation when the first day of pre-season comes around. Leeds United’s squad will be feeling it today.
Players don’t let themselves go during the summer in the way that they used to but you still get that bit of doubt about how you’ll cope when the fitness work starts and how you’ll match up to everyone else.
Over the years I’ve seen even the most senior of players in a manager’s ear on day one, trying to find out what’s in store and trying to get their head around the work they’re about to do.
It’s much easier to get yourself through a long run if you’re mentally prepared for it. Hill sprints and cross-country running; some of those concepts are very out-dated now but if the man in charge tells you to get on with it, you’ve got no choice whether you like it or not.
Football changed in the 1990s, around the time that I was coming through as a kid at Nottingham Forest. The idea of coming back to pre-season to get yourself fit had gone. We had Paul Hart in charge and his attitude, not to put too fine a point on it, was ‘if you’re not fit on day one you can **** off’.
I’d have been 16 in my first pre-season and Paul started by sending us out on 12-minute runs around a track by the City Ground. That Forest squad were young, hungry and ambitious and because of that, his approach was what we needed. For me, it set a template for the way I looked after myself every summer. I tried to come back in the best possible condition, to avoid the stress and humiliation which comes with being obviously out of shape.
Come the night before the start of pre-season, it does feel a bit like creeping death. On the odd occasion, pre-season was surprisingly easy.David Prutton
Even to the uninitiated, you can imagine how it goes: a group of young lads standing around in their pants getting weighed, having their body mass and fat levels tested and taking a ribbing from each other. Players look after themselves these days so it’s pretty clear if someone’s come back overweight. You really don’t want to be part of the ‘fat club’; one of the guys who’s either not bothered to follow his summer programme (we invariably had one of those) or didn’t quite get it right.
The summer, in reality, is a time when it’s very easy to switch off and drift away from football. When I was at the start of my career I made a conscious effort to avoid drinking or forgetting that I was supposed to be an athlete.
As I got older, I mellowed a bit and realised that those five or six weeks of holiday are an important opportunity to have a bit of fun and get away from it all.
I’d never describe football as anything other than a brilliant, rewarding career but for 10 months or so you’re forever at the mercy of a phone call.
You make plans with your kids for Sunday but then you and the team have a shocking day on Saturday and Sunday is cancelled. Rather than heading to the beach or whatever, you’re in for extra training and some harsh words.
Come the summer, you can be with the kids and the family in body, mind and spirit rather than just in body. A lot of players will know what I mean by that.
Not many people are lucky enough to have a six or seven-week stretch away from work and there are days when you think ‘I could get used to this’.
Come the night before the start of pre-season, it does feel a bit like creeping death. On the odd occasion, pre-season was surprisingly easy. I’d get to the end of the schedule and think we could, and probably should, have done more than we did. But, typically, the training was brutal.
Gordon Strachan at Southampton stands out as someone who worked us extremely hard. He was like Paul Hart in that respect: this is what we’re doing and there are no deals with individual players, no excuses and no exceptions.
If you couldn’t do what Gordon wanted you to do, he’d find someone else who could.
From a manager’s perspective, he can’t afford anyone to cut any corners. He’s permanently at risk of the sack and staying in the job means getting everything right. A team simply can’t afford to have a poor pre-season or not if they’ve got any ambition. If you do, you never catch up and nobody wants to be playing catch up on day one.
One of the reasons I prided myself on maintaining high fitness levels was because charging around the pitch was one of my strengths.
If that side of my game went, there wasn’t enough left. That sinking feeling of knowing you’re off the pace and behind everyone else is quite something and if that’s you on the very first morning of pre-season, you already start to fear that your place in the team is under threat.
Because, in terms of fighting for places, this is where it all begins.