Even in this enlightened age, many team players present themselves at the beginning of a season in the blind belief that ‘dear old coach’ is going to get them fit, teach them and polish the basics of their game, add the extra skills and play them competitively at one and the same time – successfully. Making a silk purse from the pig’s ear or trying to win a Grand Prix with a car that’s been sitting on the roadside for six months might be simpler.
So what do we get? We get, on the eve of the season, a crash course in running – and, if there are hills around the ground, the crashes come heavily – in sprinting, in basic game techniques. All crowded into viciously vigorous sessions which tend to produce, in the majority, exactly the wrong kind of physical condition – a sweat-achieved artificial or superficial fitness (measured in terms of aching muscles), which can lead to early serious injuries, to mid-season staleness or, at best, a mediocre all-season effort in which true fitness is always a wish away.
Fortunately, the trend is slowly away from this masochistic approach to the enjoyment of sport. You don’t now see quite so many oddly-garbed footballers trudging their summer stomachs along the streets, gasping in the gathering dusk which kindly obscures their apoplectic expressions, over-dressed in a desperate rush to get the surplus weight off. You don’t see quite so many of those half-hearted sprint sessions on the training paddock – half-hearted because the players can’t sustain the pressure they are forced to submit themselves to just to get reasonably ready for their first game of the season.
In the past, though, it wasn’t too bad. Any other team you were likely to meet early in the season could be expected to be in the same semi-prepared state, so it all evened out. You could safely gamble that when you kicked the ball out of the field of play or delayed a movement to give yourself and your team-mates a breather, the other side was just as relieved and you could all stand about with your hands on your knees, gulping for oxygen in a great spirit of companionable suffering.
The secret was, if you had the strength left, to kick the ball as far as possible into the grandstand or the next paddock and hope that whoever went to fetch it took his time. In the sphere of amateur sport, played – theoretically – for fun, this may not seem a situation of much concern. But when the circumstances apply to the gilded heights of professional or international football, even in lesser degree, we’re looking at a disaster scene of human endeavour. And even the amateur game, through rising overheads and sponsor-ship demands, has a thickening veneer of seriousness about it these days.