The former Blue hopes the current squad are recharged well ahead of a mouth-watering run of fixtures, as he writes in this week’s column…
Slap bang in the middle of what feels like an unnaturally long break for the team, my mind started wandering towards breaks I had during my career. There were very few, but most were memorable and not always for the most positive of reasons.
Back then, and until relatively recently, any break usually meant no competitive games but often meant travelling for a game elsewhere. Throughout my career there were trips to Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Japan and the most memorable of all was the most unexpected.
In season 1985/86, in early March, our chairman Ken Bates thought it might be a good idea to send the team south for some warm weather recuperation. As the players waited excitedly to hear where we would be sunning ourselves after the chairman’s kind promise, the chat in the dressing room was all about exactly where we would be going. Would it be the south of Spain or maybe somewhere even more exotic like Florida. Imaginations floated around the planet, but nobody guessed right.
When Ken announced it was to be a four-day trip to Baghdad, the reaction not surprisingly wasn’t totally positive! On top of that there was a game to be played when we were out there in 100-degree heat against the Iraqi national team. Having a very different outlook to the rest of the team, I was excited by the thought of the adventure, though others viewed it very differently and a number even refused to go. Our midfielder Nigel Spackman was among those who had a simple answer - no chance!
I loved it in the end because of the rare opportunity to see such an incredible, ancient and different culture, and being paid £30 in expenses was perfectly fine as far as I was concerned, though that tiny sum was just as big a gripe with the rest of the squad. There was also the suspicion that it was at the very least, cost neutral for the club! Ah, such changed days.
So much happened in such a short space of time. It was considered too dodgy to fly straight to Iraq, so we flew to Amman and then travelled on from there. The game finished 1-1, but the local media reported it as 2-1 to them in their newspapers the next day, and they say fake news is a modern phenomenon.
We met Saddam Hussein and his brother after the game was delayed nearly an hour until they deigned to turn up in front of the 20,000 crowd. The fans were passionate, the locals loved and still do love their football. There is some very grainy footage out there on YouTube, but it only shows their goal, surprise, surprise! I even managed to get lost in the centre of the ancient city for a few hours the next day with team-mate and friend John Millar after we went out exploring, followed by machine gun toting (not so) secret police the entire time.
When we returned to Blighty there was a little upturn in form, but it petered out after two games in two days, the season ending in a disappointing sixth position in the league. We were far better than that! I trust with a real rest; our current players will have a better outcome.
I wonder if any of our players have had such an interesting sojourn between the Leicester game and the Manchester United one next week? I doubt it and it is probably a good thing, even if Baghdad isn’t that far away from Dubai which seems to have become a favourite haunt of holidaying footballers. Well I say it is close, it is still 850 miles away, so not exactly just around the corner.
Wherever they are they should be resting, as the season has been full on and it is just about to get, if anything, even more intense. I mentioned the other week that I thought one or two of our lads could do with a little break just to get that little bit of zing back into their play and we will find out if it has worked on Monday night.
With defenders, it is usually only about letting little injury niggles clear up but with attackers it is more about sharpness of body and of mind. So the fact that I reckon Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount and Willian could be the biggest beneficiaries of the break is not a dig at them, just an understanding that this is what attackers need more than any other position.
If there is a run of games that includes Manchester United, Spurs, Liverpool, Bayern Munich twice and a resurgent Everton you know every single player will have to be at or close to 100 per cent. It is hugely exciting to have this to look forward to and I can’t even begin to think which one I am looking forward to most.
The first will be a litmus test of how the team has reacted to the break. Manchester United are having a tough time with four points garnered so far this decade (okay, that makes it sound much worse than it is I grant you, even if it is true). They are missing the power of Paul Pogba and the brilliance of Marcus Rashford, but it will still be anything but an easy three points.
There is always something extra special about a big game against one of the big names in world football when it is under the lights at Stamford Bridge. The fans have been starved of football at the ground for nearly an entire month and that will add to the fantastic atmosphere.
United’s old manager Sir Alex Ferguson said that the real chase in the season only gets started seriously after the New Year, well this restart seems even more important than that. The race for the top four is going to be tight, with Spurs hot on our heels and even outsiders Sheffield United looking dangerous coming up on the rails. I went to see The Blades this week against Bournemouth - well it’s only the Chelsea players who get a fortnight off, not the rest of us – and Chris Wilder has done a brilliant job with them. This is not a fluke and looking at their next four matches, they are on-paper much more winnable than ours, so they cannot be ignored.
So welcome back to training lads, and the pressures of the Prem! I hope you had a good rest because this might just be the best part of the season so far!