The best Christmas party I have been to as a footballer was the first one I had at Newcastle in 2002, when Sir Bobby Robson was manager.
All the players had gone out in fancy dress to the Quayside in the city centre – I was Superman, Carl Cort was Batman and Kieron Dyer was Austin Powers.
Then we found out that the club’s directors were having their own party at St James’ Park – a black-tie do with their wives.
We decided we would gate-crash it, so we all piled into taxis to the stadium, ran upstairs and burst through the doors.
It was a bit surreal. We were all running about this posh dinner and ball dressed as superheroes, then found Sir Bobby, said “alright gaffer” and sat at his table. Someone had his pint.
He just looked at us and said: “Right, have one drink and get the hell out of here.”
Nobody ever had a go at us for it. Even the next day Sir Bobby just laughed about it and said “you lot are a nightmare”.
Social media has killed the Christmas party – at least for footballers.
Sir Bobby was always a big believer in the players enjoying themselves and building team spirit.
On the day I signed for Newcastle I was sitting in the boardroom with him and the then chairman Freddy Shepherd, and he told the chairman’s son to take me out that night.
Obviously not all managers are like that and, besides, things have changed a lot in the last few years. You could not have Christmas parties now like we used to, when we used to all just hit the town together.
From a club’s point of view, nothing good comes from them – it is always pictures in the papers of players drunk, or doing something stupid.
I think some of the fun has gone out of them in the last few years. As well as the press looking for stories, because of social media there is no hiding from anyone any more, so you would not even try.
They still happen of course, and I saw that Leicester went to Copenhagen recently. But you are almost better off putting the photos out there yourselves, like the Foxes players did, showing everyone behaving themselves.
The not-so-secret Spurs party
The only trouble I have got into around a Christmas party came when I was at Tottenham and we went for a night out in Dublin in 2009.
Nobody got into any scrapes and we really enjoyed ourselves, but the problem was that our manager Harry Redknapp did not know about it.
We knew he would say no, so we did not ask him and just went anyway on our day off.
To avoid being spotted at an airport we booked a private jet and hired private cars to take us straight on to the runway, where the plane was waiting for us. We landed and were driven straight to a pub.
We thought we were like secret agents but, looking back, I don’t know how we thought we would get away with it. I mean, who is not going to notice the entire Tottenham team out together in Dublin?
The newspapers found out and asked Harry afterwards whether he would be letting us have a party that year. He said no, not knowing we had already had one.
It made him look stupid so he got upset with us, which was understandable. He knew where we were coming from, but he just did not like the fact it was done behind his back.
Robbie Keane was our captain and, being the kind of skipper he was, he stood up and said: “Any punishment that is going to be dished out, you can stick it to me. I make the decisions for the team.”
Because he is Irish, because we had gone to Dublin and because he was the captain, Keano had got the blame in the papers. In truth, he had sorted out which nightclub we went to, but making the trip was actually something we had all decided on together.
Once you commit to something like that you do it as a team and we all faced the music together too. That was one of the positives that came out of it.
I think it is a real shame that these parties don’t happen in the same way anymore because, even when things go wrong, they are great for team bonding.
I have seen them almost be turning points for players at clubs – they have seemed unhappy and almost look like they want to leave, until we all went out and it brought everyone together or there was an argument and it cleared the air.
You can see a different side to people and it can really break the ice. When Steed Malbranque joined Spurs in 2006 he would not say a word to anybody on or off the pitch, but he came out for a Christmas party and we had a great laugh together. We found out what he was really like.
My first footballers’ Christmas – cleaning boots
I am not working this Christmas and it will be the first one in a long time where I will be able to completely switch off.
Being a pundit over the festive season is a bit different to playing, obviously. You don’t have to worry about running around for 90 minutes – I can just watch other people do that, and talk about it.
The reality for a footballer over Christmas is that, when you are not training or playing, you are in hotels or on motorways rather than with your family.
The games come thick and fast and you can’t over-indulge with food or drink any alcohol because, at the back of your mind, you are always thinking: “I’ve got a game tomorrow.”
You get used to it, though, and you just accept it. As footballers, you know you are not going to have a Christmas like most people do – I realised that right at the start of my career.
When I was 15 and at my hometown team Nottingham Forest, the Under-17 league that we played in shut down over the festive period so there were no games.
The players from Wales, Scotland and Ireland all got to go home to their families and had a couple of weeks off.
I was pretty much the only one who lived locally and I thought I would get time off too. It did not work out that way.
I was told to come in on Christmas Eve to do what was known as the 12-minute run, where you have that much time to run two miles doing laps on a track that goes round the Forest training pitch.
Straight after I finished, the Forest youth team manager Paul Hart said: “Well done, you worked hard – I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I was like: “You what?” and basically it transpired that I had to come in to clean the first-team players’ boots on Christmas morning.
I got there early and there was only myself and the kitman in. We were stood on the side of the pitch with a bucket of water and a couple of brushes and worked through them, then polished them up.
Paul did numerous character-building things like that to me when I was a young player, but that was probably the first time he tested me.
I would go home and call him every name under the sun to my mum and she would say: “Look, he is only doing it because he likes you and he wants to try to get the best out of you.”
At the time, I did not see it like that. I just thought why am the only one out of the whole youth team to be dragged in over Christmas to run and clean boots, too. It felt like a punishment.
But now I know it was also kind of the start of it all for me – a realisation of the commitment levels you have to put in to make it as a professional footballer.
I already knew what it was going to take on the pitch, but that Christmas was a wake-up call that I needed the same attitude off it as well.