A winter break: what's in it for the Football League?
It comes up every year. Poor weather in the winter months leads to cries for a winter break to mirror the experience of many leagues on the continent. These cries have been especially loud this year, with prolonged snow and sub-zero temperatures already playing havoc with fixture lists. Rich Prew assesses the winter break clamour.
The voices in favour of a break are predominately from the bigger clubs. Google the subject and the page fills with quotes from Premier League managers calling for such a break. These add to the calls of successive national team managers for the same winter interval. The reasons are by now well-rehearsed and the poor performance of the national team in major championships compared to those nations with a winter break is probably valid, though the absence of a break is by no means the only reason for under-performance.
For the British game, the reasons for an absence of a break are deep rooted. The importance and scheduling of Christmas football for one thing, the influence of Sky television and the need for regular games to justify a bumper TV contract another.
Sir Alex Ferguson summarises the top clubs’ complaints:
“Because of the nature of our game and because of the demands from TV to have a programme every week, the idea of a winter break, which I was first talking about 30 years ago in Scotland and have done since I came down to England, nothing has happened about it.
The English season is exhausting. Most Decembers, we play between eight and nine games at the worst time of the year. The pitches are heavier, the weather is worse and then in the second half of the season you’ll find a lot of players at all clubs carrying strains, pulls, but, because of the importance of the games, they keep on playing.
And then when they get to the end of the season and have a major tournament like a World Cup or European Championship, they are not 100% fit. They can’t be”.
There is also some evidence to back up the complaint that players suffer. UEFA research found players in leagues without a winter break are four times more likely to suffer stress fractures or other injuries than those in Germany and Spain, for example.
The strident support of a winter break ignores the fact that of all the British Leagues, clubs in the top league are best equipped to train and play through the bad weather thanks to stadium facilities. Indeed, Blackpool is the only top flight club without undersoil heating. Perhaps it is not the absence of a break that is the problem. Instead, maybe it is the crowded schedule which needs changing?
While most European leagues take a break from the penultimate week of December to the middle of January, such a move would be problematic in England. The Boxing Day/New Year’s Day/FA Cup Third Round combination of games is a tradition popular with fans and somewhat ingrained in the sporting culture, and as such there would be opposition to such a move – not least from television companies who prop up their schedules with live football at an otherwise quiet time of year.
Perhaps an option would be to take the break after the FA Cup Third Round (which takes place during the first weekend in January) until the end of the transfer window — but that would mean re-arranging the Carling Cup semi-finals completely (both legs are usually completed in January), and such a rest might impact on squads’ match readiness for Champions League action in February, something the elite would be desperate to avoid.
Any winter break would only cause even greater fixture congestion elsewhere in the schedule. In reality, it seems unavoidable that the League Cup would have to be scrapped before any such break could be introduced.
But, when push comes to shove, would the clubs or fans really be in favour of that?
For Football League clubs, support for a winter break amongst clubs is thin on the ground. Take two examples. Crewe manager Dario Gradi says a winter break would be unnecessary. Gradi admitted this week that a break may suit the country’s bigger clubs but argues that it would not be practical for those in the lower leagues.
“I don’t know what a winter break is. I mean, we’re having a winter break now but we’re not having a break. What we’re doing is having a break from games. The big clubs would be going off abroad to the sunshine and playing in tournaments to raise money. So what it will do is it will extend the season and I really don’t want to be playing football in the summer.”
AFC Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe is not in favour of having a winter break in England. Howe does believe there are too many games during the course of a season. However, he does not advocate a winter break to give players a rest.
“People talk about a winter break but that would have its own problems. What would happen if you were to have a break when the weather was good and then you came back when it was bad?
“You would set yourself up for more trouble. It’s a non-starter in my opinion.”
“I know the Christmas period is important financially for football clubs and everybody has to think of that. But spectators are paying good money and you want them to watch good football. I think it`s difficult with the number of games being crammed in…”
For the Football League, there are powerful traditional and practical reasons to oppose a winter break, as well as the imperative financial incentive to play games over Christmas, which in most years precedes the onset of bad weather.
Not many struggling Football League clubs would welcome paying players not to play over the winter months, with contracts extended to push the season into the summer. Such a break would have big changes to the way these clubs operate, and lead to unpleasant cash flow consequences.
Speaking personally for the lower league fan, there is something about postponements, orange balls and tricky pitches that is the fabric of our game. Let the Premier League have their break, change their season schedules and cater to a “new” football supporter if they like. For me, leave our lower league season as it is.
Unless, of course, my side is 3-0 down at Ipswich in a snowstorm, in which case I’ll shout for the abandonment. Again, that’s part of the fun of football in the winter months.
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