6 January ~ In WSC 40 (June 1990) Phil Gibbins argued the case for a winter break. Younger readers may be confused by references to the Full Members' Cup and Man Utd's inability to win the League
A modest proposal started taking root while standing one afternoon on the open away terrace at Elm Park as Sunderland got dumped out of the FA Cup by Reading's right-back. It was a wet and windy Saturday: the kind of which mothers around the country say: "Eeh, you'll catch your death out there." However, having read a newspaper article saying that colds and flu had no connection with going out in the cold and wet, I had taken up the suggestion of a north-eastern friend to feast my eyes on the future of English football in the shape of one Marco Gabbiadini.
Not only did "Wor Marco" fall well short of his billing, but I did indeed catch my death while watching a scrappy match in the mud. During the sodden second half my initial thoughts of "Why, oh why, am I here?" gradually changed to "Why, oh why, do the British insist in attempting to put on games of football in January and February?" My proposal, therefore, is to initiate a two-month winter break in the footballing calendar. And the sooner the better. Why should British supporters brave the winter elements while their continental counterparts toast their toes by the fire and wait for the frosts to thaw? If the French FA see the need for a break at this bleak time of year, why do our administrators force supporters to watch those bloody awful winter matches when the only winner is the weather?
Most TV commentators agree that the ice and mud and wind are "great levellers". I can't believe that some great desire exists among the football watching public to see "levelled" matches. Surely what most fans would love to see is football played at its peak: within, of course, the relative capabilities of the players engaged in combat. The only reason that may explain why football leaves the major part of the year's decent weather free for cricket to hold centre stage is that, historically, many football clubs were formed as something for cricketers to do when the rain got too frequent. However, football has long outgrown its older cousin and, with the exception of Northampton, the two sports' interests haven't really crossed since the days of the Compton brothers. The time has come, then, for football to forget its cap-doffing past and lay claim to large chunks of June and August, leaving a six week break between seasons and a two month winter break.
The move would benefit everyone. The clubs would have their summer cashflow problems greatly reduced: the players would have the opportunity to display their talents on a decent surface for a greater percentage of the season: and we, the fans, would be able to watch games in the pleasant English summer sunshine in exchange for those in the chilled depths of winter. As a strategy to attract more floating fans to marches, I can think of nothing more likely to succeed. Imagine the following scenario: you are in the pub with Bob, the floating fan. Your thoughts turn the following afternoon's activities and you ask Bob to accompany you to the match. "Crewe at home is always a cracker," you exaggerate. There are two possible conclusions to this familiar scene.
Conclusion A: At that moment the door opens to allow entrance to a shirt-sleeved couple strolling in out of the June evening sunshine. Bob turns to you and replies: "You're on. Pick me up at half one, and don't be late." Conclusion B: At that moment the door blows open, giving refuge from horizontal February sleet to a couple encased in 14 layers of thermal Bob turns to you and replies: "Sorry, but there's a great Judy Garland film on BBC2 and I've got a fascinating jigsaw."
Another good reason to plump for winter break is that it would make the Pools Panel virtually redundant. I can't believe other countries allow the gambled wealth of their citizens to be presided over by a panel. Don't let the relatively mild recent winters allow you to forget the frustration of filling in your coupon by pitting your wits against the vagaries of football fortune, only to find that your wits are, in fact, pitted against a bunch of has-beens whose idea of recent form is the 1972 Cup final.
These benefits apart, I'm sure a lot of readers have got major reservations about this proposal, but having considered the matter for a while I can think of none that is insurmountable. The sunshine is certainly not a problem, for even if the raging heat of a June afternoon in Oldham became too much for the players, kick-off times could simply be put back to later in the day, as they are in southern Europe.
The brevity of the close-season could be seen as a problem, but I think that a break lasting from mid-June to the first weekend in August would be long enough to allow teams to rest and brace themselves for a new season. They would, after all, have the recompense of a sizeable rest in the injury-prone winter months. European and World Cup years would be difficult, I accept. However, if the disproportionately large number of cup matches in the season was reduced, the league programme could be completed without prejudicing the needs of the national team managers. Personally, I would cast a critical eye over the dubious merits of both the League Cup and the Full Members’ Cup in their present formats. They could be combined to provide a cup competition solely for the top two divisions and run alongside the Leyland DAF Trophy for the lower divisions.
I must, at this point, declare a vested interest in the matter. As a Manchester United supporter, the only enjoyable parts of the season are at the beginning when they usually start quite well and can dream of the championship, and at the end when they've mathematically ceased to stand a chance and the carefree players can frolic gracefully in the spring sun. The intervening period is invariably a nightmare – much to the joy, I'm sure, of those who do not share my passion.
However, fellow supporters, do not stand by the present system merely to spite the Stretford End. You know, as well as I do, that whatever else may change in the world, United will continue to finish no higher than second. You also know that a winter break would make sense so crack open the celebratory sun cream and let the Ice Age pass into oblivion and a new age of sunshine and blue skies commence.