It was certainly a festive season to remember for fans of the Premier League. With the John Terry and Luis Suarez racism cases making headlines off the pitch, the action on it provided ample respite to remind us of why we continue to watch the beautiful game regardless of any controversies and criminalities that surround it.
Beginning with arguably the best game of the season so far, with Manchester City beating Arsenal 1-0 in a pulsating encounter at the Etihad, the Christmas period produced no end of thrills and spills. Manchester United secured two convincing 5-0 wins, what seemed to be the start of the usual mid-season resurgence at Old Trafford, and Chelsea dropped points in four consecutive games, but the best was still to come.
As 2011 became 2012, we witnessed some of the most shocking results seen in a single week of football. Aston Villa went to Stamford Bridge and took all three points. Blackburn, against all odds, did the same at Old Trafford, capping a week in which they had already earned a point at Anfield. The next day, City drew a blank for the second consecutive game and were made to pay by Ji Dong-won as Sunderland’s renaissance under Martin O’Neill hit new heights.
That was before Fulham struck twice in the closing stages to beat Arsenal at Craven Cottage and Newcastle put the champions to the sword on Tyneside. Just when we thought it was all over, the FA Cup served up an enthralling and controversial Manchester derby, followed yesterday by the glorious return of Thierry Henry. Truly, it was a brilliant advert for English football.
However, enjoyable as all of this was, I couldn’t help but notice that not many people were talking about the infamous winter break. Whilst the stars of La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga were enjoying a well-earned rest, the high drama on these shores seemed to distract from the usual clamour over introducing a winter break here.
The lack of a debate that has now been exhausted may have come as a Christmas blessing; after all, it has been discussed for years without any kind of conclusion being reached. But, come the summer when England begin to show signs of fatigue at the European Championships, the calls for a winter break will surface once again.
Many club managers would welcome a break of some kind as well, particularly those facing an injury crisis right now (and there are quite a few). But for most people, introducing a winter break similar to those of Spain, Italy or Germany would rob us of some of the most exciting football of the year, alongside a host of our footballing traditions.
To me, the answer lies not in an extended pause in the English football calendar nor in sticking rigidly to the ways of the past, rather in common sense. There is no urgent need for a winter break and most fans would be against it, but why the powers that be decide to buck the trend to such an extent that we play more games in December and January than at any other time is beyond me. And asking teams to play twice in 48 hours over New Year was ridiculous, undoubtedly leaving many to count the cost of injuries at this crucial time.
A simple solution is this: treat Christmas and New Year as if it were any other time of the season. Take a normal five or six day gap between matches and everyone will be better off, for a whole host of reasons. Fans won’t have to shell out for tickets and transport at an expensive time of the year, players will suffer fewer injuries (both now and for the rest of the season), the FA Cup might be taken more seriously if first choice players are better rested and we could still hold on to our beloved Boxing Day and New Year matches.
This stops short of a winter break, as well as other more radical plans like reducing the number of teams in the league, but would help reduce some of the problems we face now and wouldn’t back up the fixture calendar too much. Surely it would, at least, be a step in the right direction.