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Muddy marvels obviously a dedicated bunch

 By Todd R Nicholls

 JANUARY........It should be a month of semi-hibernation involving only work, tv and sleep. And for those of us honest enough to admit it – tv and sleep. But for anyone involved in club football, such thoughts are merely idle fantasies. While family and friends are lapsing into a tranquil hypnosis in front of the box, the club footballer will be slogging his way around a sodden pitch, questioning his sanity with every miserable stride.

The new year, with its rain, sleet and apocalyptic darkness marks the start of pre-season training. For pre-season read stamina, which means running – lots and lots of running over the most energy-sapping, lung-bursting ground known to man. Forget about any romantic ideas of actually kicking a football. The only white, round objects seen at this time of year are snowballs.

Surprisingly, January accounts for the highest numbers at training for the entire year. Men fearing that the spare tyre around their waistline will one day actually explode decide to reclaim the six-pack they imagine they once had. Young players from last year’s minor team will be drafted into the panel while all the regulars and irregulars will be present and correct.

Then there is the usual half dozen new year resolution candidates. They identify themselves after sitting down to change when a fearsome crash disturbs the subdued hush. It’s their pale grey, granite-like football boots crashing onto the hard tiles. After lying hidden in a garage, these ancient relics, with their rotting laces, encased in prehistoric soil will be unearthed for one last foray.

The foray generally lasts until February by which time any delusions about recapturing former glory will have completely faded. By March, the boots will be returned to the garage, until the whole process repeats itself next January.

Winter training is a place for the dedicated. It is a spectacle which many fair-weather supporters, often more than willing to criticise a team, never witness. There is no sunshine on your face, hard ground and a dry ball. The footballer arrives in darkness and leaves in darkness. Under a steady mizzle illuminated by the floodlights’ orange glow, a human train of hats, gloves and sweatshirts will sludge its way around the darkest corners of a heavy pitch.

Commands will be bellowed by an isolated figure in the centre of pitch. Through a symphony of whistle blows and instructions the manager conducts his sporting orchestra. Each night this solitary sole camouflaged in waterproofs will set out to torture his troops using only luminous cones and barely visible white lines.

A few weeks ago, he will have held the team meeting and laid out his yearly plan. Words like sacrifice, commitment, ambition and of course ‘hunger’ will have spurted from his lips like gunfire. The player who still harbours thoughts of silverware will take up the challenge. He knows that for success to prevail during the distant, hazy days of summer then the winter slog is a prerequisite.

And it is these thoughts of the summer crowds and the adrenalin rush of championship football which will occupy the private thoughts of the heaving, vapour-blowing footballer as he struggles through the soft, sucking, winter mud.