This article was originally featured in Issue 3 of The Football Pink fanzine from November 2013. Available HERE
CHRIS SMITH has a plan. It’s for the benefit of you, your wallet, your team and your country. Read on…
I rarely attempt to kill two birds with one stone when it comes to football and whilst that impressively dextrous double-avicide accurately depicts the challenge ahead, I’ll do my utmost to at least significantly injure both figurative creatures. Two winter break hot topics caught my imagination over the festive period – one pertaining to players’ injuries, the other to fans’ costs.
The first was highlighted in a recent Michael Cox article which described the approximate 25% of Premier League players who were out injured over the Christmas period. Of course, the festive schedule did not account for all or indeed most of those injuries, but it undoubtedly caused new ones and exacerbated others. This cannot go on.
The second reared its increasingly present head when Liverpool fans were originally told tickets to watch their side face Arsenal away in the FA Cup could cost as much as £93 – just the £67.50 more than Coventry City supporters paid in the previous round. Moreover, the BBC’s Price of Football survey detailed, amongst other things, that champions Manchester United charge £2.50 for a cup of tea whilst a newly-promoted Crystal Palace pie will set you back £4. From the top to the bottom of the Premier League, fans are being fleeced on a weekly basis. Again, this has to stop. Forcing men to annually put themselves at heightened risk of injury for entertainment is as unnecessary as burdening fans with the growing cost of that is disgraceful. To tackle both issues, I suggest implementing back-to-back derbies in a reduced festive schedule.
The tipping point of the winter break discussion is five games in 13 days: then and only then are overpaid footballers allowed to be considered overworked athletes. This is no overreaction however, rather the reverse. 25% of a workforce receiving treatment for work-related injuries would be grounds for an external investigation and perhaps even criminal charges in other industries. Besides, as Roy Hodgson pointed out at last year’s Isokinetic Medical Conference at Wembley, English football is divided into eight-and-a-half months of 50-60 games and three-and-a-half months of none. Overlooking the empty bit whilst cramming more games into the hectic section is clearly a negligent approach.
Football is a mega-business but let’s not forget it’s no more than a game of strategic kicking. Whatever the tabloid-blurred truth about modern football’s super-rich kids, their unfathomably massive wages, or in the context of the Christmas schedule- danger pay – these do not compensate for the annual risk of severely damaging bodies and possibly ruining careers. On January 4, match day five of the festive outlay, an anterior cruciate ligament injury ended Theo Walcott’s third and probably penultimate chance of playing in the World Cup; football is cruel enough without increasing the risks.
Fitness-centric cyber-fiend Raymond Verheijen, recently distinguished between a “top fit player” who “recovers from the game after 48 hours” and a “player who is not top fit” who “takes 72 hours to recover”, a sentiment echoed by Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini: “two games in less than 72 hours is not a good thing, the players are not recovered in less than 72 hours normally”. Pellegrini was referencing one particularly problematic fixture, one that becomes apparent if we examine recovery time within the festive schedule (obviously, the actual dates vary annually.
For the sake of ease, I’ll describe 2013/14’s dates). Five games in 13 days break down as four Premier League matches on December 21, 26, 28 and January 1 followed by one FA Cup fifth round tie on January 4; 96 hours recovery, 48, 96, 72. December 28’s fixture is the only one to deny that Verheijen and Pellgrini-verified tenet, 72 hours recovery, both increasing risk of injury and decreasing preparation time. Plus, it’s a nothing fixture, nobody seeks out December 28th’s opponent when the fixtures are released. Much like Only Fools and Horses and The Snowman, fans may as well sit through Cardiff vs. Sunderland at Christmas because, well I’m already on the couch and at least 60% drunk. The huge risks to players are not worth the vague rewards for supporters. Scrap this fixture altogether, consider it placed on the backburner for now.
Secondly, I would push the final festive game – January 4’s FA Cup fifth round tie – back a week to January 11 which creates both a 10-day break between fixtures and the need to reschedule the Premier League game it replaces. There are of course traditionalists to win over when any ‘let’s change the format of the FA Cup’ conversation is started but giving players 10 days rest between their final festive game and the FA Cup fifth round would enable managers, players and consequently everyone else to take the competition a lot more seriously. For example, stricken with seven injured/ suspended players, Capital One Cup and Premier League commitments forced Sam Allardyce to weaken an already incredibly weak West Ham to the extent that the eventual 5-0 thrashing Championship side Nottingham Forest administered was quite gallingly inevitable. If that game was played on January 11, injured players would have 10 days to recover and managers would be given the same break to assess and replenish their squads within a day of the transfer window opening. If Allardyce was afforded that luxury, West Ham would have contributed to a much more even contest. Multiply that by all the other ties and the FA Cup fifth round is suddenly a far more competitive spectacle.
Isokinetic Medical Group managing director Michael Davison revealed the results of studies undertaken by UEFA which found players to be “four times more likely to be injured in the last three months of the Premier League than other leagues in Europe”. The Premier League enters seven teams into European competition each year. With Champions League last 16 ties beginning on February 18, their Europa League equivalents starting two days later, English teams are navigating their complex Premier League-proclaiming continental journeys at their weakest, least able and most susceptible, competing against opponents not only rested during winter but benefiting from “mid-season injury prevention programmes”. This is plainly ridiculous without even getting to the fact that England’s players are bi-annually then expected to compete for international honours. Three games in 11 days with 10 days rest would enable English sides at all levels to give a better account of themselves globally – surely that’s reason enough. Plus, this way everyone can have their cake and eat it: all the physiological benefits of rest without actually stopping the football.
December 22’s game is merely the prawn cocktail to Boxing Day’s turkey, but whilst it is not imbued with the nostalgic glory of the proper Christmas fixtures, it gets the action underway. This fixture will remain leaving just two slots: Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. Cox’s article also touched upon the embedded sentimentality of these fixtures; English football motifs to be preserved and enjoyed. These slots will also remain to give us our completed, revamped schedule: three Premier League games on December 22, 26 and January 1, with a 10-day break until January 4’s FA Cup fifth round tie.
Now, I must address the balance of removing two fixtures from the festive schedule. Lest you forget, this is the bold and golden era of the world-famous [insert multi-national company name here] Premier League; as long as there are shareholders to satisfy and margins to strangle, any suggested fixture alteration must present a comparable product. Hence, back-to-back derbies. Whilst the intention remains exactly the same – to present the Premier League in all its fiercely contested glory – the approach is tweaked. Make the most intensely competitive games in English football centre-stage by placing them side by side at the mid-point of the season, spread across however many days BT and Sky need to surpass quarterly forecasts.
Evocative power of derbies
You cannot guarantee quality in football but the evocative power of derbies is as reliable as you’ll find; it is the ever-changing face of English football’s one constant feature. Imagine the possibilities of having back-to-back derbies half-way through the season. You could kick-start your limping season with a win, validate early season promise by coming out on top, immediately avenge a loss in the first game, and – let’s be honest – ruin rival supporters’ Christmases by doing the double. Moreover, a fair debate about the ‘best British derby’ would be enabled. What a fantastic advert for all Premier League clubs just before (and then after) the transfer window opens. Also, there is an overused, well-refuted notion that the Premier League is the best in the world. Why not attempt to prove it by contesting our best games as the rest of Europe takes a break? Altering festive fixtures would set off the shareholders’ concern alarm, but surely so too would the opportunity to increase revenue. Replacing random fixtures with the best ones creates this opportunity; if you’re a Premier League sales executive and you can’t increase your profits with that, I’m neither your boss nor Alan Sugar but I may as well be the one to inform you, you’re fired!
The quick of mind amongst you will have noticed the inherent flaw (incidentally, the slow of mind amongst you have let yourselves down). Only 14 of the 20 current Premier League teams are divisible into local rivalries (Man City/ Man Utd, Everton/ Liverpool, Arsenal/ Spurs, Chelsea/ Fulham, Newcastle/ Sunderland, Aston Villa/ West Brom and Swansea/ Cardiff). Six clubs (Hull, Stoke, Southampton, West Ham, Crystal Palace and Norwich) are left without a suitable opponent. To tie up this loose end, I’ll refer back to the start of this article and reveal what I judge the most compelling reason for my fixture reshuffle: a better deal for fans. The primary benefit of the three-games-in-11-days festive ensemble is accessibility and reduced costs for supporters. Ticket prices for derbies are naturally at the high end, but holding them at Christmas reduces peripheral costs such as petrol, food and time spent travelling. Half of the Premier League plays away on both Boxing Day and December – that’s four big drives or long train journeys for fans in the middle of one the year’s biggest holidays. The last thing you should be doing whilst taking a break from a year-long work schedule is sitting in motorway traffic or waiting in the cold at train stations. A trip across town to your rivals’ stadium probably isn’t your favourite away day but I dare say it’s your easiest. Two Christmas fixtures taking place in the city of both teams’ core support less than week apart would allow fans to access their favourite games just as their pockets are hit the deepest.
Fixtures between our six clubs without a current Premier League rival, namely Hull, Stoke, Southampton, West Ham, Crystal Palace and Norwich (and all their future equivalents) will be arranged in a similar spirit: the two closest clubs i.e. the ones which facilitate an easier, cheaper day out for supporters will face each other.
As teams drop out and join the Premier League, derbies will be denied and created every year – a never-ending Christmas conveyor belt of English competitive glory. Plus, the old derby cliché that the formbook goes out the window would gain resonance as tonic to traditional mid-season inequality during which small, stretched small squads are completely decimated by rotated larger ones. From December 22 to January 28, the Premier League’s two richest clubs, Man City and Chelsea won all six of their Premier League games and made it through to the FA Cup Fourth round, with City also fitting in a 9-0 Capital One Cup semi-final whitewash over depleted West Ham. Along with the Hammers, Aston Villa and Swansea have never been far from the top of the ‘Injured Players table’ – all three have endured wretched Premier League seasons. Put simply, the festive schedule seriously handicaps poorer clubs to the annual profit of richer clubs. Back-to-back derbies offer the greatest chance of overcoming that.
Now I must end by rescheduling our discarded December 28 and January 11 fixtures. This year, February 12 represents the final round of scheduled midweek Premier League action leaving 12 consecutive weeks from February 22 to May 11 (the last day of the season) with just Saturday, Sunday and Monday football. Also, September 28 to November 30 connotes a similar eight-week sequence of uninterrupted weekends. Stick one game in either section and if that doesn’t make sense to you, just extend the season or begin it earlier, or both. The current festive list is untenable. This alternative benefits players, managers, fans, moneymen and stakeholders alike whilst increasing the excitement of the Christmas fixtures without really taking anything away. Granted there’d be a long way to go to completely address the fairness of football, but a step in the right direction never did anyone any harm.
CHRIS SMITH – @cdsmith789