In this Olympic year it has been impossible to escape comparisons between our highly-paid, awful-to-their-mothers footballers and the squeaky clean athletes who graced track, field, pool, boat, horse etc etc

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Money is usually the centre-piece of the conversations – but there have been the usual claims that footballers are somewhat work-shy. A couple of hours on the training field and off they go home. Easy money, and lots of it. The training field bit gets me, because I am not sure how many of the critics of the beautiful game have ever set foot near a football club’s training session.

These things are a bit of a mystery – clubs who let fans in on a Friday do so because there’s nothing to see. You won’t see players going through routines to cope with whatever team they are facing the following day. You won’t see Chris Hughton at Colney dishing out top secret information in full view of the general public. Because you never know who is watching. And even if you do, you never know what those observers may innocently (or otherwise) post on message boards. Anyone who frequents such places will tell you that there is always someone keen to impress. “I saw City train this morning and I can tell you that Grant Hot will play in goal tomorrow, Wes will be up front on his own and all of the new signings will be on the bench.” It is usually total rubbish.

What you are more likely to see is the older members of the squad playing the younger ones, a bit of six-a-side maybe – but nothing that is going to damage a player ahead of a game, or give away any clues.

The work has already been done, behind closed doors – unless your club is impecunious and trains on the local park. If they have their own facility, they’re safe.

Why all the secrecy?

The answer can probably be deduced from two results: City at Spurs and Manchester United at Southampton.

Hughton had used his training sessions to good effect – he had a plan. A new plan. Not like the Fulham plan. And it worked. City went on the front foot at Spurs. They challenged their hosts, thanks to the addition of a second striker. It made Grant Holt more effective, scaring the bejabbers out of people simply by being there (I love it when he does that – he doesn’t have to score – as long as he scares them I’m satisfied).

Spurs were expecting shy, timid Norwich, a team petrified of leaking another five goals, a team happy to escape with a lucky, lucky point or even a narrow defeat. What they got was gutsy, in your face, hard working, well-drilled, organised and, yes, skilful Norwich. Players proving that motivation can come from within, not just the voice of someone on the touchline.

The plan was conceived in secret at Colney, executed in full public view in north London.

Manchester United’s trick was Paul Scholes, the man who pulls so many strings in the heart of their midfield. Southampton were putting up a hell of a show until Scholes arrived just after the hour mark with Saints winning 2-1. He inspired a reversal of fortunes which saw United win 3-2, with hat-trick hero Robin van Persie insisting that Scholes was man of the match.

It was a plan that has been devised on the training ground for years: Sir Alex Ferguson doesn’t need his players in nine to five to know who to use and when. Which is why he is the greatest British manager of his time.

The thing with football is that the players’ technical skill levels are unlikely to change. On a scale of one to 100, Lionel Messi is a 95, and will perhaps always have been around the 90s. Bradley Johnson is perhaps not as high, but his figure won’t waver. What will change is the intelligence, the ability to take in what a good manager or coach teaches them about playing the game of football.

Not how to do 250 keepy-uppies, but how to utilise an over-lapping full-back, how to neutralise the opposition’s creative midfielder, how to exploit a weakness or a strength.

The margins of error are small. One small change to personnel, one tweak of a formation can make the world of difference.

One player replacing another can have a dramatic effect. Get it right and it’s a great feeling. Get it wrong and suddenly football is the villain of the piece.

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