London – I had not missed being a footballer since quitting almost two years ago until this week, when I saw the video clips of Shinji Kagawa singing Gangnam Style at Manchester United’s Christmas party. And of Robin van Persie singing ‘Glory, Glory Man United’. Like many former professionals, it’s the camaraderie in the dressing room that I miss. And never was the team spirit more tangible in my time at United than at the Christmas parties.
It’s a real shame that we’ve seen a lot of teams cancel their parties out of respect for the fans – sides such as QPR and Reading – and other clubs banning them because of the potential trouble they can cause if they get out of hand or the way they might be reported in the media.
I understand why clubs and managers feel they have to take that step. When every phone is a camera, it’s almost impossible to allow yourself a night out. Even something relatively innocuous can cause problems for the club or the players in the media. And it’s always possible, as at any Christmas party across the country, that a serious incident might occur.
But when people pinpoint the moment they thought Manchester United would win the Treble in 1999, most analysts will point to the amazing FA Cup semi-final win against Arsenal or the comeback in the Champions League against Juventus. But noone in that squad would underestimate the importance of December 21, 1998, the date of the Christmas party.
As a squad, we would work hard all season, living disciplined lives, but would always have an eye on two events: the pre-season tour night out and the Christmas do. For years we would start the Christmas party in central Manchester for lunch and then move on to The Old Grapes pub by around five o’clock. An acoustic guitarist would be on stage and for two or three hours we would sing non-stop together as a group before going on to a private party which would go past midnight for as long as you could keep going.
And if you could give me back 15 days of my life, then a good few of them would be in that pub singing those songs with my team-mates. By 8pm the pub would be full with Manchester United fans, which now seems like a throwback to another era. Looking around at people like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer or Jaap Stam singing United songs at a traditional Manchester pub with the fans was a great bonding experience.
And you got to see people as you never normally would. We found out in 1998 that Dwight Yorke could balance 25 cocktails on a tray on his head and walk round the club serving every player. We heard Roy Keane deliver one of the all-time funniest speeches that no one will ever forget.
Occasionally comments would come out in anger and there would be arguments but even that could break some of tension. When done properly that helped to provide a level of accountability among the team that we needed.
And you would also have conversations that broke down barriers. Peter Schmeichel gave me a terrible time when I broke into the first team. And it was on a team day out two years later that he sat me down and said: “Look, I’m sorry. I thought you were a risk to our performance level and would make too many mistakes.” And then he shook my hand and said: “I was wrong.” And he would never have said that in the dressing room.
At the 1997 Christmas do, Eric Cantona sat down with a group of us younger players and told us that we would win the European Cup that year. He was a year off in his prediction but he gave us that belief that we could. And we couldn’t have had that kind of conversation with Eric at that stage outside of the Christmas party.
Not everyone in that group got on. Famously, Roy Keane and Peter Schmeichel never did, nor did Andy Cole and Teddy Sheringham. But to create a team dynamic, there has to at least be a level of tolerance. They have to all be wanting the same goal so that when you have disappointments you can rally round each other. And there has to be accountability among the players.
And I genuinely believe that the Christmas parties were pivotal in creating that. In 1998 we had been disappointing up to Christmas. We had lost against Arsenal, Sheffield Wednesday, Spurs and to Middlesbrough at home. But after Christmas we were unbeaten until the end of the season
Don’t get me wrong. The main reason you have success on a football pitch is down to what you do on the training ground. It’s down to dedication and determination and concentration during a match. But just as important is the mentality of the squad. And that means being able to call out your team-mates when they’re not delivering. The best teams police themselves.
Sometimes those exchanges among players after a match can be brutal. But hearing those harsh truths becomes more acceptable when you understand each other better as people and understand where they’re coming from. Once I realised that Peter Schmeichel didn’t actually dislike me but merely wanted what was best for the team, I appreciated why he had been hard on me.
Times changed and we had our watershed moment in 2008, when a party I had organised at a hotel ended up with a player being arrested – though he was eventually cleared. But it created a situation that made life difficult at the club and parties were banned – though they have clearly made a comeback in a more understated fashion.
So it’s much more difficult to create that kind of atmosphere now. And it’s very lazy to suggest that you just need a few beers to bond. Anyway, most elite footballers hardly drink now because if you do you’ll quickly fall behind in the pecking order. The old school can’t work any more.
Managers such as Sir Alex Ferguson and Harry Redknapp have said recently that they have had to mellow as they grew more experienced because footballers have changed and don’t respond to blunt dressing downs. You need to find new ways to motivate, to build a team and to make sure the players hold each other to account.
Because, in an era when all teams have taken advantage of the advances in sports science, technology, statistics and training, where will you get that added edge? It has to be in the collective strength of the mentality of the group.
Maybe sports psychologists can help. The manager’s speeches and leadership will help to build that. But ultimately it’s a difficult dynamic to impose. You create it yourselves as a team and that means you have to make the effort to go out together.
The easy thing is to go out in your own groups but if you want to create a team spirit then you have to make space for people to relax and get to know each other as a team three or four times a season. I genuinely believe that can give you the kind of edge you need when you’re 1-0 down against Bayern Munich in a Champions League final with just three minutes of injury time to play. – Mail On Sunday