I used to be resolutely against a winter break in English football. I used to think that the Premier League fixtures over the Christmas period were an indispensable part of this country’s football fabric, and I used to think that the benefits of such a break would be minimal.
Then I read Rio Ferdinand’s lengthy article on the subject in his World Cup preview for the Daily Mail. Ferdinand stated that England’s players enter major tournaments at a disadvantage to the other top European nations because they aren’t allowed the time off that their Spanish and German counterparts are during the winter months, despite Premier League matches taking place at a breakneck pace unmatched across world football. When a clearly jaded Steven Gerrard made two uncharacteristic mistakes against Uruguay that led to a defeat terminal to England’s World Cup hopes I finally saw the light – if the England national team is to succeed they must follow the lead of the other top European nations and embrace the polarizing winter break.
English based foreign managers Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger have championed the idea of a winter break for years now, with their cries largely falling upon deaf ears. They’ve cited the pace of the Premier League and the lack of time for rest as a key reason why many players tire towards the end of the season, as well as explaining the amount of injuries sustained by players as the summer approaches. A three to four week rest period in either December or January would undoubtedly be viewed favourably by Premier League managers sick and tired of seeing their premier talent struck down by fatigue or worse as the season enters its business end, and unquestionably lead to a fresher squad of England players being available for selection come the start of major tournaments every two years.
Does a winter break have its drawbacks? Yes and no. Premier League football would be missed by supporters of top flight clubs during such a period. However with the Championship, Leagues One and Two plus non-league football all well supported in this country there would still be plenty of football to watch and those lower league teams would stand to benefit from increased attendances and television audiences while the Premier League is on its break. You might also ask where the fixtures from such a break would be reintroduced into the Premier League calendar. It’s a valid concern, but one that could be easily navigated. The season could begin a week earlier, for starters. A Saturday and midweek slate of games would fill two of the three weeks worth of fixtures lost to a winter break; the remaining set of games could be slotted into the schedule at any reasonable point throughout the year. To make things even more convenient F.A Cup replays could be done away with and League Cup Semi-Finals could revert from a two-legged format to a one off tie. In short, allowances could be made to ensure a winter break fits into the schedule – allowances that are far from radical.
Many people will say we don’t need a winter break, that the problems within English football are far greater than three weeks off in the middle of January. But those people would be ignoring the fact that international football is about pivotal moments and small margins. If it made even a one percent difference to England’s chances in future tournaments it would be a change worth making. A common misconception is that England simply don’t have the talented players other nations do. Costa Rica have just advanced to the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Brazil. Bryan Ruiz, their best player, was farmed out on loan by Fulham in January because he couldn’t get in their starting eleven. Fulham were relegated, in case you’d forgotten. Algeria have advanced further than England this summer in Brazil. As have Nigeria. Do either of those teams possess half the talent as a side containing Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard? England failed to win a game this summer because they made crucial mistakes at inopportune moments, not because they lack ability. How many times have you seen Rooney miss a header from a yard out for Manchester United? How many times has Steven Gerrard completely misjudged a header for Liverpool, playing in an opposing striker? These are out of character mistakes from great players, great players who are running on fumes after the demands of yet another intense Premier League season. Give them the rest they deserve, and the rest other European players get, and those kind of mental and physical lapses could become a thing of the past. A winter break would mean only one thing for English football – progress.