Neil Doncaster's Blog - Summer football?
With this week’s call-offs it was inevitable that talk of winter shutdowns and summer football should resurface. The issues that the prospect of summer football throws up are, however, far from straightforward.
The purpose of this blog is to identify some of those issues and why, so far, Scottish professional football has remained a winter sport.
At the time of writing, four of this week’s fixtures have been called off. None of these had anything to do with the pitch, though. All SPL clubs have under-soil heating, and all pitches were playable. But in all cases the police called the games off because of safety concerns about iced-up areas around the stadia.
It is important to get the scale of the problem into some sort of perspective. You have to go back almost 10 years to find as harsh a cold snap as we are currently experiencing. Prior to this month, we had only lost on average one game per season due to frost or snow since the under-soil heating rule was introduced in 2003.
Winter break and summer football
The two ideas, a winter break and summer football are, of course, entirely different.
- A winter break is meant to allow a pause in hostilities right in the middle of a winter campaign.
- Summer football is just that – a standard nine month season but starting in, say, March, and ending in November.
Looking at last season, of the top 25 European leagues, just three - Russia, Norway and Sweden - had a March/April start date, playing to a climax in November. None of these nations have to squeeze in the amount of domestic league and cup fixtures though. The likes of Switzerland, Ukraine and Denmark - none of them strangers to harsh winters - all maintain the traditional July/August to May shape to their seasons but with extended winter breaks. So why don’t more countries move to summer football?
Problems with summer football
Football is a game where tradition and custom are extremely powerful influencers. Just try persuading supporters to change their favoured pre-match routine. For generations supporters have got used to a diet of winter football, culminating in a season finale in the spring. In last season’s Clydesdale Bank Premier League Fans Survey a small majority favoured the re-introduction of a winter break but the difficulties with implementing such a break are well-documented (and are set out in my blog of 18 December). I have seen precious little evidence to suggest that supporters are clamouring for a change to summer football.
Certainly, if we were to experiment with summer football, we would have a job to change people’s habits. But, if summer football proved not to be a hit with the paying public, we would then undoubtedly lose supporters during the process of changing back. Breaking habits is difficult. But trying to reverse the change when those habits have been broken is a risky business.
World Cup / European Championships
It is that time of year when players head south on Africa Cup of Nations duty for their countries. This could have an impact on the outcome of the Clydesdale Bank Premier League, with Sol Bamba, Madjid Bougherra and Landry N’Guemo amongst those likely to be involved.
But how much greater would that impact be if we were talking about a World Cup or European Championships? It is unrealistic to schedule a domestic league head-to-head against either tournament – which would mean that every two years summer football would involve starting in say, February, stopping in May, re-starting in August and then finishing in December. Such a prospect is totally unattractive, not least of all because it would mean the climax to our domestic season taking place during the depths of winter.
As I experience my first winter in Glasgow, I can testify that there are not many months when games would be safe from the ravages of the elements. Over the years we have had games postponed in November, December, January, February and March, from a combination of snow, frozen grounds, icy roads and waterlogged pitches. And fitting a nine-month season as well as a European Championships or World Cup into the remaining seven months simply does not work.
I am all for positive change for Scottish football and I can assure you all that we are working hard behind the scenes to improve our league. But a desire for change has to be about strategic benefits rather than short-termism. It must be about what the fans and the clubs want and at the same time be married to a recognition of the practical constraints that we must all work within.
UEFA’s rules forbidding top leagues from scheduling domestic fixture cards against Champions League or Europa League matches and FIFA’s rules over call-up periods for international fixtures and tournaments create intense fixture congestion. And all this makes the task of fitting all of our domestic football into the current season challenging enough already.
Arguably, the recent bad weather is less an argument for summer football and more a case for focusing on good quality indoor facilities and all-weather pitches. This would let our coaches coach and enable our players to focus more on improving technique.
There is not a lot we can do to change the weather in Scotland. Maybe, as a country, we should be focusing more on improving facilities to allow players young and old to enjoy their football whatever the weather.
There may yet be a day when summer football works for Europe’s professional football leagues. But for the time being, cold snaps, the odd call-off, gloves, scarves, hot pies and Bovril will remain staple fair at SPL games.
SPL Chief Executive
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