It’s that time of year again. As Spain’s footballers go on their holidays until the second weekend of January and other countries follow suit, here in Britain the traditions run deep and rather than rest, the football authorities cram in as many games as possible, with Premiership games for six consecutive days around the New Year, which sees Manchester City yet again having to play twice in three days, with the small matter of three big cup games and another five league games to squeeze in too. Only the Portuguese league carries on throughout outside British shores.
As a nation we are genetically designed to show disgust at the thought of a mid-season break. It goes against everything we stand for, and games every two hours is part of the festive season, as traditional as Santa Claus, turkey dinners or vomiting in dark alleyways after a Xmas do.
This is a game of the fans, and the fans benefit from wall-to-wall football. The players are paid £200,000/£400,000 a day/minute/week, so they should stop complaining. It’s a squad game too, so managers should use their squad. Agreed?
I’ve always held a fairly similar view, but there is serious evidence to suggest that a break benefits players. This is especially true when there is a summer tournament for players to prepare for. So don’t complain when Wayne Rooney breaks his metatarsal in March – it’s all your fault. You, the consumer. It doesn’t matter how much they are paid, how primed they are as athletes, how good their club facilities and physios are – it is logical to give players rest occasionally. It is not just a case of players picking up injuries later in the season through fatigue – but it’s also an opportunity for players to shake off niggling injuries they’ve been carrying through the season – a common occurrence (Manchester City have at least one player currently performing with such a concern). With harder and poorer pitches at this time of the year, injuries become more likely, a point Alex Ferguson has made in the past. A UEFA study 10 years ago showed discrepancies in the injury rates of leagues that did and didn’t have winter breaks. I don’t think I need to point out which leagues had more injuries. There’s even some stats that suggest that after a winter break, teams score more.
Of course there is one big problem of having a winter break, even if you agree with the principle of one – when do you have it? It is currently a barmy 12 degrees (centigrade) outside, and will continue to be mild for the next week at least. In previous years it has been minus nine and I walked to work across a frozen canal. There is no way of knowing how the British weather will pan out over a single week, never mind a whole season. The packed Christmas schedule shows that the FA already struggle to fit in all the games that are played over a season – if we had a winter break it would make things near-impossible. If we had a winter break then hit a bad spell of weather, it would be utter carnage. If we were to have a break, there would have to be fewer games – it’s really that simple.
Martin O’Neill this week advocated a break, but he sees it from a different angle – that the effects of a break can be psychological, not just physical. O’Neill said: “My personal view is that I would love to see it happen, even for a week or two because psychologically, I believe when you start off the season, it’s pretty long and it gives you something to think about during that time. Even if it was only for a fortnight, I think psychologically, it would help everyone – that’s my view. When we were in Scotland, I experienced it twice in the five years I was there and one of those years, Celtic reached the UEFA Cup final. I didn’t think it was a coincidence myself.”
It’s not surprising that many managers want it. Sir Alex Ferguson wants it. So does Fabio Capello. Capello’s logic should be obvious – he wants a fresher squad come the summer, rather than a group of players who have mostly exhausted themselves after a gruelling nine months of non-stop football. Simon Kuper’s Why England Lose also cites the lack of a winter break as why English players are generally more run down and prone to niggling injuries come summer tournaments.And back in 2004, the then FA chief executive Mark Palios told the BBC that a league winter break was the target, but his words were ultimately empty.
The break may well never happen in England. With so many games to play, there is simply no room for manoeuvre. Even if there was a break, in a game where money rules, many teams would probably take advantage by arranging high profile foreign friendly games anyway. Unless Leagues reduce in size or the Carling Cup bites the dust, it seems nothing more than a pipe dream. And if the fans demand entertainment over the holiday season, do they not come first?
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