"Football is not a matter of life and death, it is more important than that."
Ready for Christmas?If you are looking forward to Christmas with a week off work and a lot to eat and drink, spare a thought for sportspeople for whom Christmas is just part of another working week. With a full programme of games on Boxing Day, footballers will expect to train on Christmas Day and in many cases spend Christmas night in a hotel.
Exeter City must travel 179 miles to fulfil their fixture at Wycombe on Boxing Day. Huddersfield face a 140 mile trip to carlisle while the Premiership Manchester City have the longest journey ñ 96 miles to Hull. For many of these players it will be training the morning, home to open presents and have Christmas lunch before spending three hours in a coach to a hotel near the opponents' ground.
Linvoy Primus of Portsmouth, now in his 17th season as a professional footballer, points out that even the Christmas lunch has to be eaten in moderation. "In my house Christmas morning starts with opening presents. Then for me it is off to training before coming back for Christmas lunch. I will be focused on the game next day and therefore find it hard to enjoy Christmas Day. It is frustrating to watch everyone else having a great time while knowing that you have to be disciplined - watching what you eat and getting to bed early. When we have an away game it is a case of leaving the family in the afternoon".
Gavin Peacock is a second generation footballer - incidentally his father Keith was the first ever substitute in English professional football, in case it comes up as a trivia question. "I have very happy memories of childhood Christmases. However, after we opened the presents Dad would always have to go to work. As a professional footballer, he was training on Christmas Day for a Boxing Day match. When I became a player myself, it was the same thing. I always looked at Boxing Day when the football fixtures came out. One year when I was at QPR we were away to Norwich, such a long drive on Christmas Day!
"When I was at Chelsea I was living over an hour from the training ground. One Christmas Day I remember training on Christmas morning, back home at 1 for Christmas lunch and then off at 5 again because the manager, Glenn Hoddle, wanted us in a hotel the night before the game. Christmas lunch with the family was a challenge too. They are stuffing themselves with turkey, roast potatoes etc and I am having pasta - and no wine!"
In the days when football was played on Christmas Day, Sports commentator, Gerald Williams, spent a memorable Christmas travelling from London to Cardiff to cover a Cardiff City game. When he got there he discovered that his newspaper had sent someone else to cover the same game! He turned round and went home again.
Wasn't it Decathlon Gold medallist, Daley Thompson who used to train twice on Christmas day to gain the edge over his opponents who only trained once.
Olympic 400m champion Christine Ohuruogu is another who will be donning the trainers as the rest of us put our feet up on the sofa. She said: "As athletes we all know how important the next four years are and nobody wants to look back after 2012 and say they didnít give it their best shot. Every day is important preparation. My priority on Christmas Day is spending time with my family and enjoying the Christmas spirit but I'll still find time to go out for a run and a light training session."
Olympic 800 metre runner, Marilyn Okoro - like Christine a follower of Jesus Christ - says she is happy to train through the festive season. "There are medals to be won this winter and I want do well next year and continue to be competitive. I love my training and I will be training on Christmas day. I have to keep on improving to be where I want to be."
This year England's cricketers are on a break - back from India on Christmas Eve. Other years they have been away for Christmas with a test starting on Boxing Day. Vic Marks, former test cricketer now a journalist recalls Christmas on tour: "The Christmas day programme might involve a midnight service, some kind of turkey and the team taking it in turns to entertain each other! Christmas resembles an obstacle course, something to be survived with the minimum of discomfort. We feel obliged to enjoy ourselves yet we would all prefer to be back home shivering in the English winter. It is a kind of enforced merriment."
And it isn't just at the top level. Luther Blacklock, golf professional at Woburn will have Christmas Day off. "All of it", he says with a grin. "Christmas is just a normal week for us. With everyone on holiday, you tend to get more people playing than usual. It is the problem of working in the leisure industry - you work when everyone else is on holiday. I don't mind that too much but it can be lonely for the wife, especially when everyone else is together as a family. So it will be Christmas Day with my wife Janet and Tom and then on Boxing Day it'll be back to the practice ground in my usual four sweaters three jackets and thermal underwear, giving lessons to the members".
The challenge for the sporting Christian is not to lose the meaning of Christmas. In the midst of the busyness it is easy to lose sight of what Christmas is really all about. Christmas is not about wearing a Santa Claus hat, eating too many mince pies or trying to buy presents for relatives you don't really like and spending as little as you can on them.
Linvos Primus puts it well, "Christmas is a momentous time in history when Jesus, the Son of God, came into the world. It is a time of new beginnings and for thanksgiving for God's gift." Christmas is about Jesus. The whole Christmas story has the stamp of God. It changed human history forever. Nothing will be the same again. God became man. That is the message that will be in some players' thoughts as they are at work this Christmas.