x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Break for international friendlies or not, no respite for us: Cole

Players will always prefer to compete, even in meaningless internationals, than giving their body much-needed rest.

Andrew Cole, left, admits he was not an England first-team regular under the management of Glenn Hoddle. Stuart Franklin / Action Images
Andrew Cole, left, admits he was not an England first-team regular under the management of Glenn Hoddle. Stuart Franklin / Action Images

International week for me usually meant an empty training ground. With most of the other players away representing their country, I saw it as a much needed rest for my body and mind.

I represented England 15 times between 1995 and 2001, earning my first four caps under four different managers which was hardly ideal.

Despite scoring lots of goals in the Premier League, I didn't become an England regular. That frustrated me and I disagreed with Glenn Hoddle, the England manager, who said that I needed six or seven chances to score one goal.

Statistics would be prove otherwise, but while I didn't give up hope of playing in a World Cup, I became used to not being selected for my country and being around the training ground during international weeks.

Now, most managers let players have time off in the sun with their families if they are not called up for their countries. Most will go to Dubai or the Caribbean to escape the freezing English winter: they are lucky.

Sir Alex Ferguson, my manager at Manchester United, has mellowed a lot, but he would never allow players not chosen for international duty more than two days off.

He would let you have Monday off, but want you in on Tuesday morning. Wednesday would be free again. That scuppered any plans to get away and it used to drive the foreign players mad.

I remember Jordi Cruyff wanting to go and see his family in Barcelona. He had not been called up for Holland and he wasn't getting into the United team, but he was told that he was needed in training.

To prove a point, he flew to Spain, spent half a day there and then flew back to Manchester.

At big clubs like Arsenal or United, the training ground would be like a ghost town during international week, a place for those not selected and the injured.

Any training was light - there were not enough players around to put on a proper session. The doctors and medical teams would try to catch up on their paperwork, while people like me would do some gentle work or maybe join in training with the reserves.

Overall, I saw it as a chance to rest my body. You play a lot of games each season at a big club - that's your reward for getting to the top and being with a team that plays European football and is usually involved in the latter stages of domestic cup competitions. Probably too many games.

A professional will never admit that because all they want to do is play. That's all they have ever done since they've been five years old, play football. Stopping seems unnatural to them, but the body needs rest - it is just that someone else usually has to point it out when a player is 25.

At 35, your body tells you. You get more injuries as you age and recuperation takes longer, but by that time an intelligent manager should be using you more sparingly and in roles which require less running.

But a manager will always be driven by his need to win games - and therefore use his best players. At United, those coming back from international duty may have been tired, but the manager would always say: "If you can feel you can play, then play."

To a manager focusing on his club, international weeks were an unnecessary hindrance, especially if the "international" was a meaningless friendly driven by greed.

There was always the risk of players getting injured and fans would sympathise with their manager.

They also see things from a club perspective, but footballers see things differently: they want to represent their country - although sometimes it was too much on the body.

I would watch Juan Sebastian Veron play a game for Argentina in South America on the Wednesday. It could be an away game at altitude at La Paz in Bolivia, then he would trek half way around the world to be back in Manchester for training on Friday. He would be exhausted from playing and jet leg, but he did not decide the international football calendar.

One concern is the tendency for international friendlies at the end of the season. Your domestic season may finish at the end of May, but you might be asked to represent your country in a friendly in early June. So you start to relax and then have to do a mini pre-season to get fit again - that's after pushing your body to the maximum for nine months of the regular season.

Authorities need to work together and not be obsessed about lucrative friendlies which are bad for the players and which make a short close season break even shorter. The top, top players like Lionel Messi are playing 70 games a year — which is far too much, not that they would admit that.


Andrew Cole's column is written with the assistance of correspondent Andy Mitten