From Mick Channon to Michael Owen: the players who hated training

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Being paid to play football all day might sound like a great job to most of us, but for many players training sessions are seen as an unbearable chore

10 August ~ One of the few things that kept me going through school was that small window of the week which constituted double games, when I could play football. It gave me the opportunity to express myself far better than I was able to in the classroom. This wasn’t just teenage romance either; I carried this giddy excitement for training right through my local football career, ducking out of work a few minutes early to ensure I was at whatever recreation ground or leisure centre my team used in plenty of time.

Not everyone feels the same about training though, particularly some of those who play for a living. Mick Channon’s career, which is mainly associated with Southampton, spanned the 1960s to the 1980s. He had clear views on training, which earlier this year he described as the most boring thing he ever did in his life. This coming from a man who now earns his living in horse racing.

Success on the field doesn’t necessarily pre-empt a love of practice either. The two League titles current Arsenal assistant manager Steve Bould won as a centre-back for the club under George Graham in 1989 and 1991 were with a team who became notorious for keeping clean sheets. This was forged by Graham’s hands-on approach to training his defence separately from rest of the team every day for four years. Bould acknowledges the results this brought while still describing it as monotonous and sometimes boring.

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The word boring crops up a lot when players complain about training; Jack Colback admitted it is how some of his Newcastle colleagues feel about Rafa Benítez’s training. This, he said, is because they want to play five-a-side at 100 miles an hour, not be stopped mid-flow to address things like tactics, as Benítez is prone to do. This isn’t unique to the UK. On signing for Real Madrid, Mateo Kovacic described training at his former club, Internazionale, as “boring” because they didn’t do enough ball work. Players eyeing up a move to Newcastle take note, as Benítez was Kovacic’s manager in Milan.

Most can run that bit faster when there is a football to chase. Where training was concerned, the ideal for me was always the prospect of an 11-a-side training match – on the rare occasions we had the numbers to make that possible. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea though. Let’s hope Tony Pulis wasn’t looking for gratitude when he tried resurrecting Michael Owen’s career, having brought the striker to Stoke in 2012.

Owen says the training was part of the reason he retired. You wonder what horrors Pulis might have subjected Owen to – I imagined something involving medicine balls, red meat and the bleep test. Instead it was what Owen described as “11 v 11 – constantly, for like an hour”. This sounded like ample opportunity for Owen to rekindle a partnership with old England foil Peter Crouch, but no. Owen described it as mind numbing. “I hated training,” he said. “That finished me off, that place.”

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Owen can count himself lucky he wasn’t playing for Manchester United when Carlos Queiroz was assistant manager. At Juventus Patrice Evra is used to games of 11 versus zero, catered for players to get accustomed to new tactics. This drill wasn’t well received during his time with United. “If you try this in England people will say it is crazy,” Evra said. “I remember Scholesy kicking the ball away when Carlos suggested a little game.” The absence of any opponent left Paul Scholes thinking the exercise was a waste of time.

Like any form of training, its appreciation tends to be gauged by those partaking in it having an understanding of why they are doing it and how it will benefit them. Eddie Howe likes to remind his Bournemouth players what he is looking for during a training exercise. Prior to it he will often question someone about it because what they are about to do is specifically aimed at making them a better player.

It’s difficult to argue with that rationale, but football was never a job for me, it was an escape. We all moan about our jobs at some point in our lives – footballers are no different. That said, I’ll never understand Michael Owen’s beef. A man who is tired of an 11-a-side must be tired of the game itself. Mark Sanderson

This article first appeared in WSC 366, August 2017. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more details here