Idea of ‘winterlude’ looks like complete non-starter
A fortnight of bone-chilling weather has resurrected the debate over whether English football should introduce a winter break.
Norwich City boss Paul Lambert spoke fondly last week of his winter in Germany as a Borussia Dortmund player when he enjoyed the extraordinary luxury of 10 weeks without a match.
Dortmund’s last pre-Christmas game in 1996-97 was on December 7 and their league programme did not resume until Valentine’s Day. There were clearly benefits – they were suitably invigorated to go on and win the Champions League at the end of the season.
The Bundesliga still operates a winter break, though this season it amounts to a more modest four weeks off, starting after the two matches scheduled for Sunday week.
Slightly closer to home – or perhaps not if we are talking about northern Germany – the Scottish Premier League is reported to be considering the reintroduction of a mid-season shutdown as part of a package of reforms. The last eight scheduled matches in the SPL have been postponed.
SPL chief executive Neil Doncaster, the former Carrow Road chief, suggested this week that an earlier start to the season would allow time for a winter break.
If it happens in Scotland, should England follow suit? The problem, of course, is when do you have a break?
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Few would have suggested the last week of November and the first week of December as the most vulnerable period and yet 26 of last Saturday’s league matches in England were off, plus the whole of the Conference programme and all but one game in the four divisions in Scotland.
Germany has a consistent mid-December to mid-January shutdown, but we in Britain can be hit by Arctic conditions at any time over a period of at least three months. We’ve had snow at Easter more than once.
A season running from spring to autumn, as adopted by rugby league, is another option, but quite apart from impinging on other summer sports, there is the added complication of a major international tournament – World Cup or European Championship – taking place during the English summer every two years.
Doncaster said there was “a lot of misinformation” going around about the idea of a summer season.
“There are only three leagues within the top 25 in Europe who have a summer-based season and one of those is, I think, returning to a winter-based season,” he said.
“If we were going to a summer-based season, then you would be having the climax to your season round about now, which would be far from ideal.
“There are a lot of people who believe that an earlier start to the season might be worth looking at, and that could create the scope to create a winter break.
“Statistically the games that have been most at threat over the last 12 years have been in January, so these conditions are hopefully very exceptional.”
Lambert experienced the winter shutdown both in Germany and in Scotland, where it was scrapped after the 2000-01 season, and argued that one of the major benefits of a few weeks off was the fact that players had more time to recover from injury.
He said: “I think we played 17 games in Germany then it broke up for a couple of months. But the winters in Germany were severe, really, really cold when you get snow like they had in the south, plus the ice. It’s a beneficial thing because everybody has a chance to come back from injuries, whereas in Britain it’s a hard, long season.
“I loved it. For me as a footballer, it was great because you could go wherever you wanted, go on holiday, take time off, like another pre-season.
“It is really tough here because you’ve got a succession of games, then you’ve got the Christmas period and then the New Year period and the games are on you thick and fast. You’ve got to recover and get players back on the pitch again where in Germany you have that period of time when you stop and come back like in pre-season.”
A major obstacle to a break in the English game is the sheer volume of matches – 38 per club in the Premier League and 46 in the Championship compared to 34 in the Bundesliga.
But at least the wider use of undersoil heating has spared clubs such as Norwich City some of the chaos of seasons past. The Canaries have not lost a first team home match to the weather alone since January 1993. Their heating system was installed later the same year, midfielder David Phillips memorably asserting that he had been sold to Nottingham Forest to pay for it.
It was not always so. In the severe winter of 1963, City played just one fixture, home or away, between the home games against Middlesbrough on December 29 and Rotherham on February 23 – and this at a time when professional footballers were sent out on surfaces they wouldn’t dream of playing on today.
Their FA Cup third round tie at home to Blackpool was postponed 11 times and City were reported to have used flamethrowers on the pitch to try to defrost it. In the end, the Canaries played five FA Cup matches in less than four weeks in March and had to play seven fixtures in April and five in May to complete their Division Two programme.
As recently as the 1980s, pitch-clearing operations involving supporter volunteers helped rescue games at Carrow Road that would otherwise have been postponed.
When did we last hear an appeal for fans to turn up armed with shovels?
Winter break or not, we’ve never had it so good.