Pollok, one of the largest and best prepared sides in the Scottish junior football set up, have not played a game since the 20th of November. Queen of the South haven’t had a home fixture since the 13th of November with their home Scottish Cup tie against Brechin City the latest in a long line of call offs. Two clubs in the lower leagues you may argue, but from the 20th of November until the 29th of December Dundee United did not have a home fixture and only returned to action at Tannadice on the 8th January against Ross County. As these examples show every level of the game in Scotland has been affected by the extreme conditions associated with a bad winter. It’s been talked about and talked about but now is the time for a winter break to be introduced, not just in the SPL as was done previously, but across the entire game, that is if the governing bodies can actually manage to unravel themselves from their blazers enough to come to a consensus.
Firstly I would like to state that as a football fan suggesting a winter has not been done so lightly. Football, in my eyes, is synonymous with Saturday’s. The pre-match pint, Dagenham & Redbridge busting my coupon and in the winter wondering if this is the day I actually get hypothermia while wrapped in multiple layers as the fat from my pie solidifies and mushes itself into my gloves. It would all be sorely missed as unappealing to the un-initiated as that sounds.
Thinking about it though, given the events of the last few weeks, is it not far better to know in advance that you will be going without your weekly fix than finding out in the weeks, days and even hours before kick off. Scotland, and the rest of the UK for that matter, has gone through what can be described as an ‘involuntary’ winter break this season and perhaps the unpredictable nature of it has made it all the more frustrating.
A resolution to fixture chaos aside; what are the benefits of the winter break?
Firstly it could reinvigorate the season, if your club has had a horror up until the time of the break then a few weeks to digest and reassess could be what is needed to keep the faith and therefore stop fans drifting away. On the flipside there will be those that bemoan the fact that if there club is on a good run of form it will be curtailed by a winter break unfairly. For that argument I suggest an old adage ‘form is temporary, class is permanent’, even if that class only has Scottish Football at whatever level as the yardstick, a season is done over a certain number of games, not over the 8 or 10 your team are in form. Either way a break could be seen as a re-set for the rest of the season for fans and clubs alike.
If there was a winter break to be introduced the inclination would be to suggest that the first week back should be the 4th Round of the Scottish Cup. The Scottish Cup has lost so much of its gloss that it warrants a whole other discussion but to keep it in relation to the winter break, by using the 4th round of the countries premier cup competition as the signpost for the seasons return it will capture the entire nation. An optimistic view, yes, but why not. If there was anyone with any marketing acumen within clubs or at the SFA this is the perfect opportunity to shout about the game and create a buzz at a time when many sides are settling into middle table nothingness or the prospect of relegation. The dream of cup triumph bringing the relief that nostalgisits would have us believe happened on a regular basis back in the day.
If there was a winter break teams could budget appropriately to consider the fact that they will not have the same level of income during this period. Football clubs in Scotland are not affluent and a lot of them run their budgets according to how much they take in at their most recent home game, although not always shouted about, this must lead to problems for clubs who find themselves without a home game for weeks on end. With a winter break not only will it allow these budgetary decisions to be made it will also, as a knock on, result in the fixtures that do go ahead, most likely in the summer/spring months being accounted for in a financial sense and hopefully see improved attendances and more balanced books.
Finally, and the most important point of this discussion, when should the winter break take place?
Everyone has an opinion on this, it would be impossible to incorporate everybody’s opinion into this piece so I shall do the only thing I can do and that is put forward my own. The winter break should start the last week in December and return the first week in February with the ability to slide the first and last week of the break dependent on the climate at the time.
There are a few reasons I believe this to be best case scenario of which I will go through just now. Firstly a winter break encompassing the holiday period will allow fans and players alike to relax and have the downtime they need to spend with friends and family without the stresses of having to choose either between the game and other commitments.
By having a 4-6 week period it will allow those with financial gain in mind to travel further afield to cover any shortfall they fear would incur from having a competitive season starting earlier and missing out on lucrative pre-season tournaments. The Old Firm are forever going on about the need to be a global brand, so during a winter break they can head to the back end of Bhutan in search of the extra cash they crave.
A winter break of 4-6 weeks would also allow the season to start earlier in July. Scottish teams are now playing more qualifying rounds than a British male tennis player at the US Open to qualify for the main draw of tournaments. Having an earlier start should in theory mean that teams are more ‘match sharp’ and we can get a true indication of the level of Scottish football on the European stage. The excuses of lacking fitness, the other team started earlier and it’s not fair would be thrown out the window.
Breaking with the common suggestions for a set time frame for a winter break the ability to slide the break a week forward or back is more unconventional, maybe unfeasible but worth investigating, than a straight out winter break. It has been shown this year we cannot predict the weather, and although a winter break still runs the risk of missing the period of bad weather by covering January which is traditionally when the weather is at its worse the risk can be seen as more considered.
If the weather near the end or start of the break is of a condition where football cannot be played then any winter break could be brought forward or extended. By allowing the flexibility of a week it also allows clubs to still plan any mid-season camps, tours, etc. without the fear of having to cancel those preparations due to having to get ready for a fixture that may not go ahead.
A winter break needs to happen. If we had the stadia to ensure games always went ahead through the winter then I would be the first one going through the turnstiles. However with clubs struggling to attract fans, get games on and make ends meet to have a winter break is to help preserve the survival not only of individual clubs but also the Scottish game as a whole.