By Far The Greatest Team

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Will The Sky Fall In? What Next for Premier League Festive Fixture Schedule?

Down the years many have talked of the Sky/Premier League bubble bursting. Some have suggested football may consume itself on a banquet of huge wages and obscene transfer fees. But I wonder if this Christmas/New Year period could be the straw which breaks the camel’s back. Particularly, the Sky camel. Talking of banquets, there’s a saying ‘never bite the hand that feeds’, but football may well have to take a long hard look at whether the particular diet they’re being fed is actually doing it any good.

What I am talking about is the fixture schedule over this festive period. There is dissent in the ranks as manager after manager complains about how unfair it is. Teams playing two games in three days when their opponents have had an extra three days rest, has been a particular bone of contention.

The most extreme example of the differences teams had to contend with are Leicester whose festive fixture period consisted of four games in 214 hours whereas West Ham’s four games were spread over 290 hours. There have been plenty of fixtures which have been altered because the schedule has not been kind to some clubs.  In fact, only Huddersfield Town and Stoke City have not had any of their fixtures moved from the original time and date.

If teams have an extra day or so than their opponents to prepare for a match, then this is an easy bandwagon for managers to jump on if their team performs below expectations.

Take the Swansea v Tottenham fixture on Tuesday 4th January. Swansea’s prior fixture was Saturday before giving them two clear days to prepare. Tottenham, on the other hand, hadn’t played since the previous Tuesday, a week earlier. But then they paid for the time off when they had to play West Ham just two days later. Is there any coincidence with Tottenham beating Swansea but only drew against West Ham?

Of course, some clubs have been concerned about their playing squad coping with the rigours of a long season in England and given there are so many foreign managers over here now, it is no wonder they’re struggling to understand why we put so many demands on players we’re more than happy to pay huge wages.

Each club is required to select a squad of up to twenty five players and during this period is where you find they have to delve into the depths of their playing staff to rest some of their regulars, not only to see them through this period but also into the January and February when you have a raft of cup matches before the European competitions resume. With vast riches at stake on the closing positions in the table, you can hardly blame managers for taking a gamble now in order to protect their squad for the final push in April and May.

Personally, I never really hold with the idea a manager should be lambasted for losing a match after he made several changes to the line-up. He has to use his squad sometime, and if he chooses fringe players to give them the chance to show what they can do and maybe convince him they deserve a regular first team, then is it really his fault they don’t take advantage of their opportunity?

As club Chairmen are more than happy to ditch the services of their managers early enough to ensure they have every chance of maintaining their Premier League status, then it has been made abundantly clear to all the managers they cannot afford to go backwards when the bell sounds for the final lap.

Two games in three days seems especially savage, and as Leon Osman explained on Match of the Day this week, it is the second day after a game when you begin to feel the most tired. Demanding players play again when they would normally be recovering can only spell trouble.

But it is television, and not just Sky but BT, who are driving this desire for more football on our screens in a desperate bid to satisfy the most ravenous of armchair appetites. They would have a game a day if they could. But will the football fan put up with this? Will the football fan’s family put up with it? Will their pockets cope? Four games in a few days does not see a reduction in the price of the seat, whereas many businesses would be offering discounts for bulk bookings in a bid to avoid burn-out or inertia. Football rarely sees this as important.

We’re told time and time again how lucrative the tv deal is for clubs and how they make so much of their revenue from it, that the paying spectator’s pound at the turnstiles struggles to figure in the overall accounts of multi-million pound organisations. So why not offer a sweetener? Clubs do for FA Cup matches in January as they’re concerned the great British public has burned all their cash on mince pies and Christmas cake. But league matches do not seem to receive such treatment.

Older supporters will often point to the days when Christmas and Easter programmes regularly saw teams play twice on a Saturday and Monday. It would not be unusual to have a full programme on Boxing Day with another match played a few days after and then another full programme on New Year’s Day. Up to 1957 there was a regular full league programme on Christmas Day and for many years there would also be one on Boxing Day. But this was when Christmas Day was a rare holiday for the public and so it made sense for people to be entertained by a football match. But dwindling crowds and changes to working practices meant these lost their attraction.

But football has changed beyond recognition since those days. Even in the time I have been watching football the game has changed and one is left wondering whether the demands put on footballers in the seventies and eighties actually resulted in a great spectacle. It’s all very well for the paying spectator to have sport laid on but when the protagonists are so tired their performance drops, you’re left wondering if you’ve been truly entertained. Add to this the fact players were playing on pitches which resembled fields you’d expect to see cows grazing in, then you cannot wonder how they managed to get through a forty-two game league season.

Back in the seventies and eighties you still had cup replays and there are numerous instances of multiple replays where games kept being played until there was a winner. None of this penalty shootout nonsense. And this all happened when clubs had playing squads of fewer than twenty and sometimes fifteen.

Of course, back then there were hardly any live matches so television couldn’t spend hours and hours scrutinising each player’s performance and whether they ‘wanted it’ as much as their opponents, or whether they’d lost form at the wrong time. When teams play a defined and rigid system and the game is played at the pace it is these days, then delaying a pass for a split second can make a huge difference between reaching it’s intended target or being intercepted. Mistakes occur when players are tired but these days we seem less tolerant of such frivolities.

We demand higher and higher quality football, continually reaching for perfection, that a stray pass can be seen as the reason a side lost a match over ninety minutes. Games these days are supposedly decided on mere seconds of action, or at least that’s how they’re perceived on websites and twitter feeds around the world. The pressure to maintain performance has never been greater, I would argue.

As fans we have become less patient and less forgiving. Going back to the seventies and eighties again, you would have matches where your team was not ‘on it’. Sometimes things just didn’t click, but because only the supporters in the ground saw this it wasn’t a huge issue. Back then you would watch a player and be thankful for one moment of brilliance, believing it was worth the entrance fee alone. If you were there and didn’t see any magic, then you would turn up the following week hoping to see it then. This doesn’t happen now. If a player puts in a poor performance then he needs to be ditched, benched or maybe even sold. We don’t tolerate lazy. Yet some of the greatest players to have ever graced a football pitch have been inherently lazy.

Anyway, this is moving from the point of the piece. I don’t remember the clubs being quite as vocal against the current schedule and it will be interesting to see if football really has the balls to bite the hand that feeds it. BT has just put all its chips on red number seven in a bid to ruin the virtual monopoly Sky has enjoyed since 1992. It’s capture of Champions League fixtures is already a sign they believe they have the clout to take on Murdoch, and this has already forced a change of tack for Sky as they offer their customers a choice of channels to select, either choosing the whole menu or just one or two dishes.

So far television in England has been largely scared to screen more than one game at a time, believing the viewer may decide if their own team isn’t selected then they’ll do something else entirely. Elsewhere in the world, for a fee a fan can see every game their team plays.

What is odd is that the clubs have to power to vote against these things. Although we’re not sure the terms of the current television deal and the hold Sky may have over them. One alternative could be to reduce the number of teams further so there aren’t so many matches, but there doesn’t seem to be an appetite for that right now. It is not just foreign managers who have been shouting, either as Roy Hodgson and Mark Hughes have all voiced concern over the arrangements. Hughes has even paid the highest price with his job over it. I guess we’ll have to see how Premier League get on during the World Cup in the summer and the beginning of next season. If clubs are finding their greatest assets are being driven into the ground just to satisfy television, they may demand a break in order to preserve their value. Many have argued for a winter break, as is a feature in other countries, but at the moment there is little evidence to suggest the absence of one is putting players off from playing here.

So will anything actually change? Time will tell. In days gone by the supporters held the power as their absence would force clubs and administrators to make changes, but now clubs don’t seem to be too bothered about ‘bums on seats’ they appear more interested in how many screens are on.

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