In this week’s column, Petr Cech looks at how unexpected situations like the current Covid outbreak can provide opportunities for younger players, recalls his experiences of playing during the hectic Christmas fixture schedule and explains why he can enjoy this time of year a lot more after hanging up his gloves…

Sometimes unforeseen circumstances bring an opportunity for some people. For the game last night against Brentford in the Carabao Cup we were missing eight players with Covid or isolating, and we have other players who just came back from injury, like Mateo Kovacic who couldn’t play longer than 45 minutes.

It was really difficult to prepare for the game in those circumstances, and even the game before in the league, but that opened up an opportunity to bring in younger players and give them the chance to play for the senior team in an important game, because it was a cup quarter-final. So for them it has been an unbelievable experience and they did well.

I have to say, it’s not been easy in recent days to prepare for games because there has been so many unknowns, where you basically every day sit and wait to find out who you have available. But this one turned out to be a perfect game for Harvey Vale, Jude Soonsup-Bell and Xavier Simons to start their senior careers.

It is never easy when you just get called up for a couple of days and you start and there is responsibility on you as well. Their Academy games were cancelled for Covid, so they didn’t train much. They were on leave having a break and then got called up, so they needed to get back in quickly and prepare, but they were really happy I can tell you. For them it was definitely a special moment they enjoyed and they did really well. Making your debut is a very good reason for cancelling your Christmas break and I don’t think the guys complained!

The game itself was not easy, but you could see them playing allowed the manager to spread the load over the players, as Mateo got his 45 minutes and N’Golo Kante, Reece James and the others came on in the second half. It’s good to be safe because we have the game on Boxing Day, then we play on 29 December and 2 January, and then now the semi-final around 4 or 5 January and it carries on like that.

Obviously it’s going to be a very busy period and a very important period. We will see how things go, but hopefully the situation improves and we will get some players back, they will be able to get their fitness back sooner rather than later, and then we will have more options looking forward to the next part of the season.

It is a bad time to lose players

This time of year is always challenging, regardless of the Covid situation. The games come thick and fast and it’s always an important period of the season. Now, with Covid, it’s brought it to a completely different level, because some players have to be isolating, they lack the usual fitness.

Usually over this period you rotate a lot of players to spread the load but you can’t really plan for it now, because you have some obviously out of 100 per cent fitness and some still isolating, so some players will have to be overloaded and there’s a risk that you accumulate another injury.

It’s a challenging time but so far the team and everybody has found a way around it. It’s obviously not as easy and not ideal, but you have to do your best in those circumstances. So far everybody’s been doing so and it’s great to see.

There’s nothing else quite like the Premier League at Christmas

Obviously Christmas is a completely different feeling for the players and the staff who are directly involved, but it has a special atmosphere. You can feel it at the stadium that people are more relaxed and enjoying the mood. It’s a really special couple of weeks.

One thing that was usually nice is that my family and my parents came over to visit for Christmas, so I’d have them in the stadium as well. It’s not that often they all came and watched me play, and then I could spend some time with them, so it was nice.

Of course I remember the first Christmas I was in England, because we played Aston Villa on Boxing Day that year too, but luckily it was at home. The advantage to that is you don’t have to travel to Birmingham on Christmas Day, because then you see your family in the morning and have lunch, then you pack your stuff and leave to the hotel. While everyone else is enjoying the festive mood, you go to prepare for the game.

That first year we played Villa on Boxing Day and then we were away in Portsmouth on 28 December and at Liverpool on New Year’s Day, so from Boxing Day onwards for us there was literally no rest. We arrived in Liverpool on New Year’s Eve and I remember everybody said ‘let’s meet at midnight and have a little toast at least’. Nobody came! There were almost no players because everybody was knackered and so happy to be in bed that we ended up doing nothing.

I can make up for lost family time now

That’s the difference when you are outside of the team and not playing and actually preparing for the game. As a player, you always try to feel Christmas Day in the evening. Once you come home from training you have a nice lunch or dinner or whatever you can have with your family and spend some time with them, but your priority is clear and you need to find a way of doing it around football.

That’s when I really notice the difference between being a player and not a player. The games still come thick and fast and I still go to every game and every training session, so it’s partly the same, but I will go the day of the game, so that’s one extra day or night at home, which makes a difference. This is something which is obviously more pleasant for me now, that I spend more time around Christmas at home.

For us Czechs, it’s the evening of 24 December that is the main time when you have Christmas dinner and then after the dinner you open the presents. We don’t have Santa Claus or Father Christmas, Baby Jesus brings the gifts, so that’s a slight difference. As a native Czech we still keep the tradition in our house, but we do Christmas Day as well with the kids, so we have both and spread the gifts over the two days.

However you celebrate at this time of year, I hope you are able to enjoy it and spend some time with your family too.