By now, most people will be relaxing after the chaos of Christmas, enjoying the peaceful lull before the New Year celebrations get underway.
But for the footballers and managers, the days after the festive season are the most hectic of all. As they face two games in just three days – which for fans often means long journeys in frozen conditions and added expense after an already costly December.
Christmas football is regarded as one of the great traditions of the British game, up there with Abide With Me before the F.A Cup Final, Match of the Day and a half-time pie. But none of those customs regularly falls victim to foul winter weather – creating injury problems for players and asking fans to travel the length and breadth of the country on icy roads. That is what Christmas football in Britain does, and the reward is minimal. Other European leagues look to play less, not more in winter, and they rarely have to suffer the same scale cold snap Britain provides.
Numerous games scheduled for Boxing Day and the following days are claimed by the treacherous frost, leaving pitches unplayable or pathways surrounding stadiums too dangerous for supporters to use. Under-soil heating can usually ensure playing surfaces are ready for kick-off, but in the lower leagues that is often a luxury – clubs on a tight budget do without, leaving them susceptible to whatever Mother Nature dishes out. Making under-soil heating compulsory is only practical if the Football League or the Football Association are willing to shoulder the bill, otherwise the cost of installing and maintaining the equipment could irreparably damage smaller club’s finances. Under-soil heating is no guarantee for getting games underway either, as matches are regularly called off due to concerns over the areas surrounding the stadium.
Even Premier League fixtures cannot always escape the weather. Wigan Athletic’s DW Stadium was to host Bolton Wanderers and their fans on December 21 – a journey of no more than half an hour from Lancashire into Greater Manchester. But such was the severity of the chill that struck the country the game was postponed in the interests of public safety, even with the pitch passing inspection. It was a similar story at Preston North End on Boxing Day, where the playing field was considered adequate although the footpaths around the ground were deemed otherwise. In previous years the state of the roads around the stadium may not have been taken into consideration and the games would have gone ahead, but today, in an age where public safety is paramount, nothing is left to chance.
On Boxing Day alone, eight games were called off because of bad weather in England’s top four divisions. With 92 teams, there are only ever at most 46 games played across a weekend, so eight postponements represents around a fifth of all games in England during the last few days. Matters were even worse in Scotland where the League programme was decimated. Scotland’s bottom three divisions lost 13 games while the Scottish Premier League did not escape either as St.Mirren vs. Aberdeen was also called off. That is without mentioning the 12 fixtures that suffered the same fate a week earlier, again across all four divisions of Scottish football.
The weather may have felt unusually bitter this winter but the rash of postponements in England and Scotland is an annual occasion. It usually begins in December and carries on through the winter months, but peaks around Christmas and New Year. These games have to be played at a later date, leading to fixture pile-ups and further complaints from managers of whom are sceptical of their player’s safety. There is an argument that says players should be able to cope with numerous games over a short period of time since they are so highly paid, but that viewpoint misses two vitally important details.
Firstly, not every player earns enough to place him the highest tax band. The Office of National Statistics states that the average weekly wage in Britain is £436 – your average League Two footballer probably earns more than that, but not much more. And he still has to play twice in three days over Christmas. In fact, at League Two level, it gets harder for players. While in the Premier League, clubs can carry large squads and rotate players during tough runs of fixtures, that is simply not the case for the likes of Darlington, Rochdale and Lincoln City, who require their best players on the pitch as often as possible. If that means playing while carrying a slight knock, so be it. Premier League players earning upwards of £100,000 a week are no better equipped for the rigours of the festive period because they earn more money – and such is the competitive spirit of the top players, they are always loath to be benched by their manager even when struggling with a niggling injury. Playing while hurt leads to further injuries later in the season or fatigued players unable to reach the level of performance they are capable of. A more sensible winter programme could alleviate those problems.
The other counter-argument to the idea that high pay equals a machine-like ability to play football with barely a break is simple – when you have an expensive commodity, you treat it properly. Asking highly-paid players to play twice in three days is akin to buying an expensive sports car and using it to do handbrake turns in the car park of your local supermarket. Instead, Ferraris, Porches, Aston Martins and the like are looked after, protected from overuse lest their parts break down. That is not to say players should be protected from playing when the weather unpleasant. Injuries can happen at any time, true, but the conditions at this time of year increase the likelihood. With games being played in temperatures approaching freezing, a player who has not properly warmed up is more likely to pull a muscle in the cold weather, or a heavy fall onto a hard, frozen pitch can bruise or break a bone. Winter football is one thing, but twice in three days is excessive and only increases the risk of injury.
An attempt is often made to keep travel for away fans to a minimum at this time of year, but that is not always possible. Loyal Everton fans had to cross from the North West to the North East to see their team draw with Sunderland, while Chelsea’s travelling supporters had to venture to Birmingham for a similar result in an early kick-off on Boxing Day. Today’s fixtures are better, although Sunderland, without a local rival in the Premier League this season, have to travel to Blackburn Rovers. The Black Cat’s nearest team is Hull City, a good two hours away. Doing away with one of this weekend’s fixtures reduces the cost to fans and could save a long distance trip for when the weather is more palatable.
The only arguments in favour of playing twice in three days are romantic ones. Every football fan has pleasant memories of attending games in the dead of winter, sipping hot Bovril and trying to ward off the advances of frostbite. There is nothing wrong with winter football – even our British summers would prove too hot for the beautiful game. But rationing the action so games are played at most twice in five days, Saturday and Wednesday, would improve the experience for everyone. Pitches would have more time to recover, fans would save money, travel less and be rewarded with fitter, better prepared players. If football’s decision makers are looking for a gift to give lovers of the game everywhere next Christmas, scrapping one of the festive fixtures would be perfect.