Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Does English football need a winter break?

Posted on 16 December 2018 by James Bayliss

It’s that time of the year where English football gifts fans it’s annual tradition of relentless Christmas action. It’s also that time of year where managers and players lament the jam-packed schedule facing all English clubs.

Fans and the media love the intense nature of the footballing calendar, but once again an old can of worms is reopened as this exhausted debate continues: Does English football need a winter break?

This season will be the last without a break in the winter months, with the FA introducing a two week pause for clubs commencing February 2020.

However, fans will not have to endure a weekend without Premier League action. The solution the FA has found is explained and supported by Shaun Custis, Head of Sport at The Sun.

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He said: “English football will have a winter break of sorts with half the Premier League clubs taking a week off then the other half the following week.

“That was the perfect solution to the Premier League’s worry that it would have to fit in a weekend without football outside the international calendar. This way everyone’s happy. The players get a rest and the league doesn’t suffer.”

The concept looks practical and seems to cover all the bases. There’s no break in football coverage, festive football will remain a beloved tradition, and players will get two weeks to rest and recover before European competition begins again. 

There is a very compelling argument for having a winter-break. English clubs have won four of the last 20 Champions League titles. Considering the amount of money invested in English football, it’s a very low return.

Many argue that this is down to English clubs not getting the chance to refresh themselves before the Champions League campaign returns, and the evidence suggests that may well be the case. 

Henry Winter, Chief Football Writer of the Times, draws on studies conducted on this very matter to suggest a winter-break is certainly necessary.

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“English football urgently needs a winter break because the medical evidence shows that players are far more likely to suffer injury in March/April than those playing in a European league with a winter break. Players need a break to refresh them physically and mentally,” Henry explained.

Henry brought another dimension to the debate, arguing that the break can have a positive impact on the lower leagues of English football as well.

He continued: “It would allow the EFL to have a huge publicity window, with Premier League-starved fans going to nearby EFL grounds. There would have to be an understanding that clubs did not play lucrative friendlies, but could use that time for warm-weather training.

“Just because England got to the semi-finals of the World Cup this year doesn’t mean they don’t need a winter break. Imagine if they hadn’t run out of steam against Croatia?”

England, in their semi-final encounter with Croatia, lacked the energy of their opponents, who had themselves played 240 minutes of knock-out football before facing another 120 against the Three Lions. How were England so much more tired than their opponents?

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John Cross, Chief Football Writer of the Daily Mirror, is also in favour of the winter-break, but stresses the need to maintain Premier League action across Christmas.

“The winter break is long overdue for English football, but one aspect they must continue to retain is the tradition. The Christmas programme, Boxing Day games and the FA Cup third round, remain brilliant dates in the diary.

“But the concept of bringing one in is all about giving players a rest, recharging batteries and making sure they are fresh for major tournaments at the end of the season plus the title and Champions League run-in.

“I think a chance to refresh, recharge and recuperate is vital and the break will allow players to do that. You can see how it’s benefited other countries.”

But, what’s the other side of the debate? Is a winter break the first step towards an evolution in English football? Matt Dickinson, Chief Sports Writer of the Times, doesn’t think so.

“A winter break has never been in my top five things that must happen and the one that has been introduced is a bit of a fudge. It’s staggered over two weekends and effectively a mini-break, so I’d be interested to see if it does have much impact,” Matt said.

“I know there are stats around about higher injury rates in the Premier League post-January than other European leagues, so it’s a worthwhile debate.

“Is that the lack of winter break, is it cramming all those games into the Christmas period, or is it that the game here is simply more pell-mell and physical full stop?

“But I think we have evidence, if only from this summer, that a smart coach and a well-drilled team won’t be complaining about tired English players at a tournament.”

Paddy Barclay, Head of the Football Writers Association is also unconvinced by the argument for a break, believing that over a season a player will have their time off in some capacity or another.

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He said: “I’ve never been convinced of the merits of a winter break, largely because I believe that many players have staggered breaks due to injury, suspension, being dropped and so on, but the weight of opinion among coaches is hard to resist.

“So I’d like to see a trial in a season before an international tournament. Maybe play the Boxing Day matches then clear off until mid-January, when the FA Cup third round can take place.

“Of course we all know what will happen then: a deep freeze will cause matches to be postponed, causing fixture congestion.”

Fans dread the thought of losing festive football, but Paddy is right in saying that we can’t ignore how many managers, coaches and players have called for a change.

Premier League football is intense. We pride ourselves on hosting the best league in the world, the most exciting and the most unpredictable, so it seems strange to also criticise players for wanting time off from all this? 

The lack of Premier League title retention from clubs shows just how hard it is to go again so soon after a gruelling campaign for the winners. How often have we seen clubs put together a fantastic 38-game domestic campaign, but struggle to maintain this form just the season after?

Of course there are many reasons why retaining the title is so hard — think of the investment of rival clubs — but there’s no doubt that the champions are struggling to go again and again, more so than the champions abroad are. 

A winter break will be upon us next year in a way that seems to suit everyone. The teams will get two weeks off, but the competition won’t.

A winter break is not the only adjustment needed to get English football experiencing the heights we all hope it will, but the introduction of one can only do good when it comes to one day seeing our nation and it’s clubs competing with the rest of the world.

Featured photograph/James Bayliss