In the past few years, English football has acquired some continental habits. The ability to pass the ball to someone wearing the same coloured shirt is now quite highly valued. The replacement of beer by pasta in the diet continues apace. Mainland European coaching is taking hold at the highest level. And now the momentum is at last building towards the implementation of a winter break. The Premiership should follow its counterparts in Italy, Germany and France and give the players three weeks off.
It’s an idea whose time has come. Before the widespread adoption of undersoil heating and improved drainage, when the old First Division was almost as badly affected by the weather as the three beneath it, it would have been madness. To have taken time off which was then followed by a month of snow and rain would have made the fixture chaos that could dog a season all the worse.
Today, though, the matches lost to the weather in the Premiership each season can be counted on one hand, or at most two. That entirely practical obstacle has been removed. All that remains is to discuss the benefits.
The big reason why coaches such as Arsène Wenger, Gérard Houllier and Sven-Goran Eriksson want to see a pause in the season is tied in with their call for a cut in the number of matches played by the top clubs: to give their stars a rest. As soon as you mention the stresses and strains put on modern players, you can guarantee someone will start droning on like a Hovis advert about just how hard they work in their jobs and that no one suggests giving them such a break.
But in how many occupations are you physically up against the opposition, who are trying to stop you doing your job? Policing and teaching, possibly. In football, every match will depend to some extent on the fitness of the two sides. At European level, English clubs face sides that can recharge their batteries in mid-season, and when the prizes are handed out in May are nowhere near as weary. The same applies to the crucial internationals played at season’s end.
People say that burnout was never such a problem in the past, that 25 years ago 90 per cent of First Division teams would be the same, week in, week out, while English clubs were dominant in Europe. However, today’s game is played at a far higher pace, by players who run much further and faster than before. The new backpass law introduced ten years ago has helped cut down on the number of opportunities to catch your breath.
I want to see our best players at their best, not shattered by a season on the treadmill. It isn’t about cossetting players, but giving them every chance to compete equally with those who do get that break, and about giving us, the fans, something as close to value for money as is possible in these crazy days.
It’s just common sense to give a break a try. Play up to the first Saturday in January – the FA Cup third round – and then give the Nationwide clubs the stage to themselves until the fourth Saturday, and the return of the Cup. This would give the lower leagues a bigger share of the limelight, for a start.
Of course a winter break would only work if the number of Premiership clubs were cut, something that is overdue anyway – it was in the original Blueprint back in 1991. It would need strong enforcement, too, with a simple penalty for playing friendlies in the first two weeks, or outside Europe – a loss of all league prize money for that season. That should concentrate the finance directors’ minds.
In an ideal world there would be a greater reduction in the number of games, and perhaps the G14 will be persuaded to accept the proposed culling of one of the Champions League stages. But the extra games that entails are at least a reward for success; the punishing schedule we have at present is routine.
A winter break will give a solid opportunity to rest those limbs, cut down on stress fractures on those precious metatarsals and recapture some mental freshness. Generally, we could improve the quality of what we see, especially in the months when the trophies are handed out – the most important time of the season, but paradoxically when all too often the best players are weary or broken, and the football prosaic rather than inspired. Philip Cornwall
The main thrust of the argument put forward in the past few weeks by the proponents of a winter break seems to have been provoked by England’s failure to win the World Cup. Sven-Goran Eriksson pleaded that his players were too tired and beset by injuries to perform to their potential in the far east, while Michael Owen was deemed to have added his name to the campaign with his controversial comment that “a few England players would have performed better if they hadn’t picked up an injury going into the tournament or just had a tough season”.
That is undeniable, but it is hard to see how a winter break would have made the situation any better. Quite the reverse, in fact, if it meant that the Premiership season had finished later, leaving even less recovery time before the start of the World Cup. Nor is it necessarily the case that the players had had “a tough season” in terms of the number of games they played. A good number of the World Cup squad spent large parts of it on the treatment table, which may not be fun, but should not have left them exhausted.
There are other possible reasons why a break might be desirable, of course. Perhaps the main concern is really the harsh winters that cripple the fixture list every year? Yet for the past two seasons most postponements were due to waterlogged pitches in the autumn, not frozen ones in January. And even if the winter weather is particularly bad, there is of course no guarantee that it will conveniently do its worst just after the new year. If it snows in December or February, the players will find they are cramming in even more games towards the end of the season.
Apart from Eriksson and Adam Crozier, the main advocates of a winter break have been managers and chairmen of some of the top clubs. Have they suddenly lost faith in the under-pitch heating systems that, until now, have ensured that Premiership match postponements are a rarity? Or perhaps they only have the concerns of the chilly fans in the stands at heart? Ferguson claimed he could see it coming “because there’s only so many times England want to run into a wall at World Cups and European championships”. But if fatigue is the issue then surely taking a midwinter break and thus allowing less recovery time before and after the summer tournaments will only add to the problem.
In fact, of course, the clubs have a completely different agenda from the national team. Both would really like fewer games in the calendar altogether, but while Eriksson wants to see a smaller Premiership and a cut-down Champions League, the clubs want fewer friendly internationals and “meaningless” qualifiers against smaller countries.
It’s perhaps for this reason that talk of a winter break has resurfaced, since it apparently gives all the parties a common agenda, without actually coming up with a logical result. If such a break really did come into force, we would quickly see once again that they are in conflict. While Eriksson no doubt envisages a relaxed England training camp in the south of Spain, the clubs have other plans, such as stroking their merchandising markets by playing friendlies around the world, as has been the case since the break was introduced in Scotland. And you can guess who would win that particular tussle. It’s not being done for the fans, the players or the long-term good of the game. It’s being done for those who will profit from it.
So what will become of the season if the FA does agree to a break? Well, you can forget the FA Cup, unless the bigger clubs are allowed to join in a much later round – and don’t think that won’t happen either. The Premiership will kick off at the start of August (possibly only three weeks after the end of the European Championship or the World Cup) and run until Christmas. After a month off, we will hit the second instalment of games which would go on until June, or later if the autumn floods become an annual event. I am at a loss to think of any positive effects of a shorter break in the summer, when conditions least suit the English game. Michael Freeman
From WSC 188 October 2002. What was happening this month