Blinking like a pit pony: it can be hard to reacclimatise to the British gloom after a spell in the sun
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The Fan: the pointlessness of “warm-weather training”

Does sending the boys out to Dubai to kick balls around really achieve anything?

Last week the Chelsea manager, José Mourinho, explained that Oscar, one of his stars, has suffered a loss of form because of our dreadful weather. Everyone nodded. Poor petal, coming from Brazil, must be an awful shock to him. Forgetting that this is his second winter here.

Both West Ham and Man United have just come back from a warm-weather break in Dubai. At the end of the season, we’ll see how much good it did them. Norralot, I guess, but Big Sam returned with a rather fine tan. Looking for close-ups of David Moyes, I couldn’t see much evidence of his sunny sojourn – even his hair is going grey. I remember him in his youth as a redhead, or have I imagined it, confusing him with 10,000 other journeyman Scottish players?

They call it warm-weather training but what is the point? Before a world cup being held in sunny climes, I can understand the need, but not when they immediately have to come back here and play in the rain and cold. Then there’s ten hours each way on a plane, which is a total waste of their highly paid time. The average Prem player spends more of his life travelling than he ever does playing. I reckon that for every 90-minute game, they do up to nine hours’ travelling. And that’s just in England.

When it’s abroad, playing in Europe, or their pointless long-hauls to Asia in the close season to make the clubs even more money and sell tat, or their warm-weather jollies – sorry, intense training – I don’t know how they cope with the problem of jet lag. After my January break in the West Indies – which I need in order to escape our depressing winter weather, oh yes, how else can I remain on top form, just ask José, Dave and Sam – I can’t see for three days. It seems so dark, after the tropical sun and blue skies. I am blinking like a pit pony. Takes me a week to recover.

The players, I assume, have become inured to these long trips, their bodies hardened. It’s what they have been doing all their lives. Wayne Rooney, when he was just 13 and in the Everton Academy, went to Dallas to take part in a football tournament. He also played in Switzerland against 13-year-old kids who had come all the way from Brazil. They start them travelling young, in the modern football battery farms.

No wonder footballers have always been gamblers – at cards or the horses. Gives them something to do on those long, tedious journeys. Personally, I would pay money not to have to go to Dubai for a week. But managers believe it breaks the routine, the grind of a long, hard season, freshens up their fragile minds and tired legs.

The thing about blaming bad weather for making players depressed, or praising good weather for revitalising them, is that the weather can always be used as excuse. And dear God, managers need all the excuses they can find at this stage in the season,whether it’s at the top or bottom of the league. I think I will scream if another manager slags off the referee for his stupid/biased/half-witted decision that lost us the game.

Another excuse players and their managers use, which follows on from our shit weather, is acclimatisation. Foreign players, bless them, need time to settle down, get used to our funny ways, funny food, so you have to forgive them. Today, of course, it is the same for both sides, unlike the old days. In every Prem game, the vast majority of the players have come from abroad, and have been acclimatising since the age of 13, moving round the globe.

Wenger is now saying that Mesut Özil, his star signing, is not just having problems settling, but is awfully tired. I was at the Emirates for the Arsenal-Bayern Munich game and the Gooners round me were so abusive I had to cover my ears.

Mostly, when they cite the weather, problems settling, dodgy lasagne, pizza being thrown in the tunnel, wrong studs, itchy shirts, unlucky underpants, all of which I have heard being blamed for defeats, the true explanation is very simple: uselessness. 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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