Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.
I don’t like football clichés, but that one sums up how I approached my career. On paper, I wasn’t built for professional football. I was nine-and-a-half stone when I played in the Premier League, and it’s fair to say I wasn’t the most technically gifted of players, so I had to do everything in my power to give myself a chance of making it.
My matchday started 48 hours before my game. In my mind, if I prepared perfectly two days beforehand, I knew that I could have no excuses if my performance wasn’t up to scratch and would be able to sleep well knowing I’d done everything right. From Thursday onwards, I made sure the food and drink I put in my body was perfect and I’d even sleep in a separate bed from my wife so I got 8-9 hours sleep on those two nights.
My routine on the day of a game was like clockwork. I’d rise at 9am and my pre-match meal would always be chicken, pasta and baked beans. I’d arrive at the ground at 1:30 pm ahead of a 3pm kick-off and the first thing I’d do would be to run a hot bath and let my muscles soak for 20 minutes. I played professional football for over 20 years and didn’t once pull a muscle, which I put down to the thoroughness of my preparation.
It wasn’t always that way, though. At the start of my career there was no nutrition culture in English football and I’d regularly have a fry up on the morning of a game and stop off at the shops for chocolate bars on the way to the ground. Afterwards, I’d pick up some fast food in my car on the way home. I don’t know how I managed to run up and down a pitch for 90 minutes on that diet, but that was the way it was back then and I knew no different.
The influx of foreign players in the Premier League during the 1990s and the appointment of nutritionists and sports scientists changed the approach of British players and clubs and also the way the game was played in this county. Footballers became athletes, who were fitter, faster and stronger than those of previous generations. I adapted to this new world, which enabled me to play at the top level for over a decade and captain four Premier League teams.
The stadiums and pay packets of professional footballers are a world away from the amateur game, but if you’re serious about your football, the way you prepare for and approach a game should be no different. It doesn’t matter what level you play at, you should always focus on your strengths and what you can do that will help your team. You might not be able to beat three men and stick the ball in the top corner but there are many other ways you can gain an advantage.
I had great energy and could run around all day long, but I could also tackle. For me, it was massively important to win the first tackle in every game and try and affect my opposite number psychologically. It was also a weapon I used to try and change the tempo of a game if my team was struggling. I remember playing Middlesbrough away while I was at Birmingham, and we hadn’t really got going. I spotted Danny Mills near the corner flag and thought ‘everything is going up in the air here’. I smashed him and then there was a bit of pushing and shoving afterwards. I got a yellow card but it injected some life into the game and we went on to win 2-1. The moral of the story is, you don’t have to be talented to be effective.
My other mantra is to control the things you can control. My youth team coach, Eric Harrison, drilled the basics into me and the rest of the Class of 92 from an early age. Turn up on time. Respect everybody. Listen. Work hard. Eat well. Be disciplined. Do your dressing room chores. If you’re prepared to do all of those things, you’ll become a better footballer and team-mate. If you don’t, you’ll probably find yourself on the bench or on the losing team on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.
Remember, fail to prepare, prepare to fail.