“Here you go Easty.” I look up from my newspaper as my manager, Paul Sturrock, places two plastic shopping bags on the table in front of me. One is full of an assortment of fruit and veg and the other, which has three foil wrapped slabs inside, has the distinct and wonderful aroma of a roast dinner. He hands me a small, dangerously sharp, knife and gives me the following instructions. “I was up last night doing a wee bit of cooking, so could you sort me out a salad or something, then share the rest among the boys?”. Before I’ve had time to reply, he’s back in his seat at the front of the bus before we set off on our five hour journey north for an away match the following day.
As a captain, if the gaffer asks you to do something, you carry out his instructions to the best of your ability. I’d already had a fairly large task to deal with as the new skipper of Southend United in the first few months of the 2010 season. Attempting to bring together a brand new squad of players (myself included) for a good crack at promotion from League Two under a new management team in the wake of a financially driven clear-out the season before was a formidable challenge, but this was a test of my leadership skills I hadn’t expected.
The lads spent the next hour laughing while I sweated buckets; trying to avoid serious injury as I attempted to ‘chop’ onions, carrots and peppers onto a plate which would slide around the table every time the bus rounded a corner. I found a couple of slightly less lethal knives from the bus cutlery drawer and did what all good captains do – delegate.
Paul’s son Blair sliced a mango and left back Peter Gilbert helped with the salad as I started on the meat – a full roast chicken, along with huge joints of lamb and beef! By the time we’d reached the M1, we’d prepared a ‘rustic’ chicken and mango salad, and the meats had been sliced up and served with some roast veg re-heated in the microwave. The gaffer was sleeping.
Not surprisingly, the days of consuming roast dinners and steak and chips before games are a thing of the past and I think that nowadays footballers at all levels have a reasonable understanding of sensible sports nutrition. Players at top clubs collaborate with nutritionists who tailor a menu to the individual’s needs, and the canteen often resembles a michelin starred restaurant with food to match. The once dreaded body fat tests have become standard protocol, usually taken every two weeks with an acceptable ratio being between eight and twelve percent for an elite player to avoid membership of the ‘fat club’ and some extra sessions. No names mentioned, but I’ve played with some who struggled to get below fifteen, saying that, they could still play a bit.
Sports science and nutrition have increasing importance in elite football, however, even the experts admit that whilst it’s paramount that players are putting the right foods into their bodies, it’s also important that they enjoy what they’re eating and get the balance right. This isn’t always an easy task and it’s difficult to maintain discipline and consistency, especially when you’re on the road (as evidenced quite literally above) or, on the odd occasion, playing in a foreign country. As a young player in the Scotland youth set up, I was lucky enough to play in many European countries and I found out very quickly that if I didn’t eat whatever was in front of me, then firstly I would go hungry and secondly, I wouldn’t be preparing properly for the game. I was one of the more experimental eaters in the squad, (mainly because I’m always hungry) but there were some cases where the food served was too exotic even for a teenager from cosmopolitan Airdrie. I recall an occasion where I instigated a mass burial of Hungarian meat-filled pancakes in a hastily dug hole at the back of our hotel; being mindful of upsetting our friendly hosts, but also fearful of what our coaches would think if we didn’t eat our dinner.
At Leyton Orient and Torquay United we were responsible for our own lunch and the gaffer made it a competition to see who could come up with the best/worst packed lunch box. Seeing our hard man skipper, John Mackie, carrying a Bob The Builder cool bag to the lunch room is a sight I’ll never forget. The manager, Martin Ling, would have random spot checks and players were fined if they didn’t show that they were making a genuine attempt to replenish their energy stores before leaving the training ground. Unfortunately for some, a tin of beans, a mouldy sandwich, or an out of date yoghurt hastily retrieved from a bin wasn’t the gaffer’s idea of a suitable post training meal.
Luckily for me Paul Sturrock’s take on post match meals for the return bus trips after away fixtures wasn’t as inventive as his impromptu pre-game menu for that journey up north. He left that up to our strength and conditioning coach who had phased out what was becoming the league standard of a pizza delivery to the team coach from the local Domino’s. Instead, we feasted on individual pasta meals and slices of hand made pizzas, prepared for us by our masseuse’s mum and dad’s Italian restaurant on the Friday and re-heated in the bus oven as we travelled home.
The latter was a popular choice on Barcelona’s post match meal menu which was leaked to the press following an away game against Malaga a couple of months back. According to the list Messi, Xavi, Busquets and Iniesta all enjoy a couple of slices after a match, while Rakitić and Piqué don’t follow the crowd – they order sushi and a nutella sandwich respectively. Sushi might not be the first choice of many League Two players, but I suppose it’s refreshing to see that, for the most part, these legends of our game refuel in a similar manner to us mere mortals. However, what I really want to know is whether or not Xavi, Messi and Alves could rustle up some tasty tapas if Luis Enrique felt a bit peckish en route to the next Clasico?