Following the large number of postponements in all the English leagues yesterday, I’m now awaiting the inevitable calls for football in the country to take a winter break. As someone who was raised on the English game and loves its traditions, I have my objections ready.
Firstly, you never know just when the English winter is going to be at its worst. Sometimes, this year for example, it’s bad in December. In other years, January is more severe. Quite often, England doesn’t have a winter at all, at least not as people from seriously cold countries like Slovakia would understand the word winter. Secondly, some of the best footballing occasions in England take place during the year’s coldest period. Boxing Day football, for example, is extremely popular, especially at non-league level, where many clubs draw much bigger crowds than normal. Then, there’s the FA Cup 3rd round in early January, traditionally one of the most eagerly anticipated weekends in the calendar. Finally, you just know that if there was a winter break in England, clubs like Manchester United or Chelsea would book the first available flight to a hot country where there’s money to be made by playing meaningless friendlies, taking part in celebrity style photo shoots in the latest kit (you can almost guarantee that a new one would be introduced in time for the season’s spring phase) or other such activities designed to ‘develop the brand in a new market’.
Still, the English game would be wise not to dismiss the notion of a break altogether. One reason for saying this is that English winters could well get worse. A convincing climate change theory is that the Gulf Stream might weaken. If that happens, England will regularly experience continental winters, thus rendering football and other such sports more difficult to stage than they are now. But that is surely a problem for the longer term. For now, I believe the biggest problem with the English game is not so much winter football ; it’s that there are just too many matches across the whole season. If there were no more than 24 teams in any one league and a cup competition were scrapped, the calendar could cope with two or three postponements at this time of year and, if the weather did hold up, the much-loved Boxing Day fixture could continue.
Here in Slovakia, of course, there is little debate. Snow and freezing temperatures can be pretty much guaranteed in this country. There are winters where early December or late February football is just about possible at the higher levels but even those are exceptional. As a result, keen followers of the Slovak game are reduced to spending the cold months wondering which spa centre their club plans to take its players to for winter ‘conditioning’, or following transfer rumours, such as (to take the latest MŠK Žilina gossip) Zdeno Štrba‘s possible return to the ranks after 18 months playing in Greece. Compared with actual football, it’s not much to get excited about so you really do need another hobby!
A long winter break actually leads to a different kind of football culture. For a start, the notion of ‘autumn champions’, the unofficial title held by the club which goes into the break at the top of the league, is quite prominent in Slovakia. Another curiosity lies in the fact that the winter break is almost twice as long as the close-season one. As a consequence, there do seem to be more transfers during winter than during summer. Last season, for example, Senica changed not only their coach (which is not unusual at any time) but also most of their squad during the winter.
Curiosities aside, Slovak football, just like its English counterpart, would do well to consider changes to the way the season runs. One problem here is that pitches are often not ready for football by the time the spring phase of the season is due to start. This season, the first round of spring fixtures is scheduled for February 26th but it is highly possible that snow will still be covering the playing surfaces then, or that we will be in the midst of a thaw, which could lead to waterlogging. As a result of such factors, there have been years where these early spring games have had to be postponed for at least a week.
In addition, Slovak football does not take full advantage of one period when conditions are totally amenable to the game, ie late May-mid July, the time of the traditional close-season. This has led me to the idea that a spring-autumn model might work better in this country than the autumn-spring one. If the change was made, and it would be a momentous one for sure, the season could start in the middle of March and end in late November, as the current autumn phase does. Groundsmen would find this difficult as, under the present arrangements, many reseed their clubs’ pitches as soon as the last games have been played in May. And actually making the change, as well as arrangements regarding European competitions, would present logistical barriers. On the plus side, there would be seven and a half months of uninterrupted football at times when favourable conditions can (just about) be guaranteed. The fans would probably be happy. I can personally attest that watching a Corgoň Liga or (better still) Champions League qualifying game on a July evening is an utterly pleasurable, civilised experience which almost compensates for the lack of Boxing Day action. If such enjoyment could be had in June as well, so much the better.
Still, whatever we might wish for, I don’t foresee major changes, in either England or Slovakia, at least not in the immediate future. Boxing Day football will go on in England, which I’m happy about, but the leagues won’t be reduced in size, meaning that fixture backlogs, especially for lower-league sides, will continue to cause difficulties. The question of a winter break will be raised, perhaps discussed in a certain amount of detail, and then shelved until the next bout of severe weather comes along. In Slovakia, a spring-autumn season won’t be given even cursory consideration. Part of my justification for introducing the model would have been that Russia currently uses it and it seems to work reasonably well there. But this week it emerged that Russia would actually like to join most of the rest of Europe in following the autumn-spring model. That probably makes the already remote chance that the people running Slovak football might realise they are missing a trick even slimmer.
James Baxter – BritskiBelasi