Footballers share festive period secrets on booze, food and ‘tactical’ bookings

Christmas is the time for eating and drinking too much, letting your hair down and spending time with family and friends.

But while many industries shut down over the festive season, for professional footballers it is the busiest time of the year.

Premier League teams face the traditional Boxing Day and New Year's Day games, two of the biggest dates in the football calendar, normally with another match sandwiched between the two.

The Daily Star chatted to former Arsenal and England star Paul Merson to discover what a 'normal' Christmas looks like for top footballers in the English top tier.

We also looked at stories from other top-flight players, who gave shared insider secrets on food and drink, hotel stays on Christmas night, wild festive parties and even suspicious suspensions over the festive period.

Merson was involved in professional football for 21 years from the age of 17.

He said he was so used to the "Christmas routine" it became "second nature" to spend the night of the 25th in a hotel away from your family.

Merson, 52, said: "For 12 years at Arsenal I would spend every Christmas night in a hotel.

"We'd train on Christmas morning before going home to spend some time with the family and have Christmas dinner.

"The club was pretty relaxed about what we could eat although they didn't want us to stuff our faces too much.

"If you think about it, the food is mainly meat and vegetables – back in those days it was the perfect diet for footballers!

"And we were expected not to drink with a game the following day (Boxing Day).

"I remember the one Christmas I was at Arsenal when Arsene Wenger was there we were allowed to stay at home and it was the same at Middlesbrough."

While Merson's Christmases were hectic during his playing career, the former midfielder insists he didn't mind travelling away from home on Christmas Day because "it's like being with your other family".

He admits his mindset would be influenced by his form and whether he was in the first team at the time.

Merson said: "The Christmas schedule was a lot easier if you were in the team.

"If you weren't, it could be really grating.

"New Year's Eve would normally be a quiet one – I wasn't a big fan of it anyway and the club wanted us to focus on the job ahead the following day."

Merson claimed Arsenal would shun a traditional Premier League Christmas party – because the players did enough drinking in the rest of the year to make up for it!

The Gunners' traditional Tuesday Club would involve a heavy-drinking/team bonding experience every week.

But that wasn't the case at some of Arsenal's rivals, particularly at Liverpool who were renowned for their boozy festive drinking sessions.

Former defender Neil Ruddock said their Christmas bash would normally "turn into two days".

'Razor' said: "You would turn up to training and they would run the legs off you for an hour, then everyone would go and put on their fancy dress – they you would be in the pub for about half 10.

"It just spirals out of control. All of the lads come.

"By about mid-afternoon, all of the players used to have dancers. And then when the dancers finished, all your mates would come and you'd have a great laugh.

"We used to stay in a hotel because the missus wouldn't want you coming home in that state.

"You think, it's just two days before a game and it must have affected us. At the time, it's just how it was done."

While footballers normally play three or four games in a short period of time over Christmas, it is rumoured that some Premier League stars have gone to extreme lengths to enjoy the festivities.

Martin Keown once claimed that his and Merson's Arsenal teammate once got deliberately suspended in December to get Christmas off.

Keown said: "I remember Ray Parlour being on four yellow cards and trying to get a booking against Newcastle in December 2001 to take him over the yellow-card limit.

"He ended up getting two yellow cards and was sent off which he wasn't trying to do."

Former Nottingham Forest and QPR defender Joel Lynch once missed eight out of nine Christmas programmes through injury or suspension.

And Ruddock himself missed six festive periods during his career, although he insists he never got suspended on purpose.

He said: "People used to say that I got sent off on purpose, but you just want to play football – especially at that level.

"If I got sent off and the team wins, I am not getting back in that team.

"If the team won, nothing changed. You don't change the systems."

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