Holidays? Not for footballers

For the players, family and festivities take second place to the demands of the busy Christmas-New Year schedule.

Sir Alex Ferguson, pictured on the field with Andrew Cole, enjoys serving Christmas meals.
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Last Christmas was the first I'd ever spent with my two children. I'd retired from football a month earlier after close to 20 years of playing. If you play football for a living, you don't get any breaks over the festive period. Instead, it's one of the most intense times of the season. It was no consolation to my kids that every top-level footballer had to make the same sacrifice. When I stopped playing, my family and I went to Egypt on holiday where we relaxed and did everything that I hadn't been able to do before.

We loved it, because when I played, I'd have six weeks off in the summer when I had to cram in Christmas, Easter and the summer holidays with my family. This is one of the most concentrated parts of the football calendar, with games usually taking place on December 26, December 28 or 29, and again on New Year's Day. They used to play on Christmas Day in England, with the same teams meeting the following day. Imagine facing Liverpool at Old Trafford one day and then at Anfield the next?

Christmas morning wasn't spent opening presents with children, but training with my teammates, usually in freezing conditions. Christmas night wasn't spent in front of the fire eating good food, but in an anonymous hotel as we prepared for the following day's match. Sometimes we'd stay in hotels which were full of families who were delighted to see the entire Manchester United squad walk in. If we helped brighten up the Christmas of a few kids then great, but it would have been better seeing our own.

And other times we'd stay in hotels where people were partying. We sober footballers didn't always mix well and one story was legendary at Manchester United. The initial cause of the incident was Gary Pallister's insatiable craving for chocolate. The team were staying at the Midland Hotel in Manchester when Pallister, Mark Hughes and Clayton Blackmore went for supplies in the packed lobby. Pally accidentally nudged a large man in the back. Hughes and Blackmore mistakenly got the idea that the man was a friend of Gary's as he followed him to the lift, until he knocked a soft drink carton out of Pallister's hand, kicking it away when he tried to retrieve it.

Hughes and Blackmore still didn't cotton on, until Pallister faced up to the aggressor who was trying to get into the lift with them. A fight broke out and the two tumbled into a glass case. Blackmore jumped on the stranger from behind and tried to restrain him just as Pallister hit him with a terrific punch, winning the Welshman's respect. Sir Alex Ferguson arrived in time to see the aggressor kicked out of the hotel, while the United players sang the Rocky theme tune at Pally in the dressing room the next day.

We usually had our fun in the weeks preceding Christmas. A players' night out around Manchester was followed by a pantomime at the training ground where the younger players would mimic the first teamers using props like wigs and brushes. It was great for team spirit as players like David Beckham, Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs would sit there watching 16-year-old youth team players earning £29 (Dh171) a week ripping them to shreds.

The manager loved to see egos being popped, and he wasn't above the jokes himself. To get in the spirit, he would often help out by serving meals from the canteen. The young boys did a caricature of me who never stopped swearing. What could I do? Perhaps I did swear too much! We all had young players who cleaned our boots and used to give them a Christmas present, usually £100 (Dh592) which was four times their weekly wage. I still keep in touch with my boot boy Leon, though he no longer plays football.

He is Wes Brown's best mate, a friendship which started when they were both young players. Some make it, some don't. That's football. I could remember being a boot boy myself and while I didn't enjoy it at the time, it was character building. The young players today don't have to clean anything. Instead, they have companies offering them free boots. United had a reputation for putting the turbo chargers on after Christmas each year, starting an unbeaten run which would more often than not end up with a league championship.

That was partly because we took the festive period so seriously. There was a time to relax but it wasn't at the end of the year. It's probably different for many of you reading, so I'd like to send you my very best wishes for 2010. It promises to be a very exciting year with the World Cup finals, but also the closest Premier League race we have known for years. Andrew Cole, a former Manchester United player, is the second all-time Premier League top scorer, with 187 goals