For football fans across the country, the Christmas football schedule is the only thing stopping them descending into a bottomless pit of depression when it comes to the festive season. For many, football offers the opportunity to escape the cell that their house has become, free their mind from another set of underwhelming gifts, and even secure some time away from the dreaded in-laws! Finally normality can resume and an afternoon – or even a day if played correctly – can be spent watching 22 men who would rather be at home with their families contest a game of football.
The Christmas period is one of the great traditions of British football, and the Boxing Day fixture in particular often brings in bumper crowds. In the 2015/16 season eight out of the ten Premier League clubs playing at home brought in above average attendances for their game, with only Stoke City and Tottenham Hotspur failing to match their average attendances. When speaking to football fans, a question which often surfaces is what was their first ever game, and a very common reply is a Boxing Day match. Certainly it is a tradition dating back to Victorian times that fathers take their children to go and watch their local team on Boxing Day, and those games have been the foundation of many happy memories within families. The fixture computer often shows its festive side when drawing who will play each other on Boxing Day, taking into account the reduced availability of public transport and the inconvenience travelling can bring so that matches are often fairly local so the away supporters don’t even need to give up more than a day (although not in Pompey’s case this year – Newport, really?) In fact, I would go as far to say that there is just as much of a bond between a father taking his son to his first match as their is between families sitting around a Christmas tree opening whatever gifts they have asked for.
Imagine, then, the great tradition that is festive football being snatched away from fans around the country so that the players can enjoy their own Christmas with their families. Despicable! I was shocked when watching a couple of interviews with footballers recently that they would welcome a winter break in English football. I had always assumed that they would get caught up in the thrill of walking out onto the pitch on Boxing Day and trying to give their supporters one more gist to add to their stockings, and you never know, they might have in-laws too! On the face of it that seems perfectly reasonable, and I’m sure there are many players around the country who approach the festive period with just than in mind, but when you factor in training – and sometimes travelling – on Christmas Day, having to spend time away from their family, and even having to restrain themselves at Christmas dinner, it’s almost enough to make me lose my own appetite. Almost. However, joking aside, you can definitely see the argument for a winter break from a player’s point of view.
Not only is there an argument for the players’ personal comfort, but managers around the world will be quick to tell everybody how the fixture congestion around Christmas can result in severe fatigue and more frequent injuries for their star players. As players from most of Europe are settling down for a nice refreshing Christmas to replenish their energy, Premier League players can look forward to a run of three games in eight days as they look to earn their Christmas bonuses. Even the most old fashioned fan would have to agree, after a couple of games in quick succession the quality on show becomes somewhat lower than usual as players look to play on through the tiredness. Some people might argue that the tiredness leads to more mistakes which result in more entertaining matches, but statistics would suggest this isn’t the case. Last season the full list of fixtures over the 2nd and 3rd of January, right at the end of the busy Christmas period, saw an average of 2.2 goals per match. This is actually less than the average goals per game in the Premier League over the last five years, at 2.77 goals per match. By contrast, on the 23rd January this year, the first matchday after the winter break in Germany, 26 goals were scored in just nine games due to the players all being well rested. These statistics would suggest that a winter break would not only be better for the players’ comfort, but would also result in more entertaining football for the spectators.
The more traditional football fans will be reading this in outrage, shouting “they get paid millions to play football; it’s their job to be fit enough to play and train as often as is necessary!” I have to say, I agree to an extent with that statement as players are professional athletes so they have to be in good enough physical condition to be able to withstand a reasonable number of games. However, is it really what the game needs to see players staggering around like wounded soldiers while kicking lumps out of each other, their passing becoming more erratic with every minute that passes? They are certainly paid well enough to endure a certain amount of physical strain for their money. However, the Premier League is desperately trying to hold onto its title as the best league in the world and cannot afford for the quality to drop if it is to do so, therefore it is in the interests of everyone to have a short break so the players can recover from the first half of the season.
Aside from the domestic aspect of the issue, there is also the small matter of international football. Since 1970, Spain, Italy, Germany, and France have all introduced a winter break, with the lengths ranging from ten days to two months. Now, it may be a coincidence, but all those nations have won a World Cup since then whereas England have failed to do so. Maybe if England had a winter break they would have been able to see off the mighty Iceland at this summer’s European Championships. Iceland have a winter break between September and May every year, so maybe England can learn from their opponents and eventually rise to their level of ability! In all seriousness, nobody can really say whether the national team would reap the benefits of having a winter break to refresh themselves, but at least they would not be able to use the excuse of being exhausted every time they are knocked out of a tournament. On the face of it improving the national team is a no-brainer, but it is important that we do not destroy the league system in doing so. A short winter break would be useful but it cannot be too long otherwise the domestic leagues will lose their meaning and clubs outside of the Premier League with very few internationals would find themselves just waiting around with no games to play.
Overall, I think we do need a winter break in English football, but it cannot be longer than about ten days, with an absolute maximum of two weeks off. It is important to remember that the players have families too and that it is slightly unfair for them not to have any sort of time off around Christmas, but at the same time we cannot allow the season to lose momentum by having too long a break. If the break is too long it will almost be as if we are splitting the season in half, when all we want is for the players to have a chance to rest and refuel before another tough run of matches. Unfortunately a short break would mean the loss of traditions such as Boxing Day football, but we must accept that the game is changing. This year several Premier League and Championship matches have been moved from Boxing Day for TV anyway so it seems that particular tradition is dying out. Anyway, it will be worth a free Boxing Day if it means better quality football throughout the rest of the year and a more successful England side. In future, instead of wishing for tickets for their club side’s Boxing Day match, they can wish for tickets to watch England’s World Cup final…
After all, it is Christmas!