The Christmas fixture schedule is outdated. Several matches are unnecessarily crammed into a two-week period to ensure the season finishes on a particular date in May. It’s harmful to elite athletes struggling to cope with the extreme demands of the sport and completely illogical.
Managers' criticisms should not be ignored
Sam Allardyce correctly condemned the Premier League’s schedule after his Crystal Palace side lost 2-0 to Arsenal on New Year’s Day. The Eagles, plagued by injuries this season, face a huge game against Swansea City that could define their fate at the end of the season just 48 hours after their trip to the Emirates Stadium. The Swans, however, had been given an extra day to prepare having played their match week 19 game on New Year’s Eve.
Allardyce called for whoever organises the dates for top-flight fixtures to be ‘sacked’, while also claiming that there is no regard for the health and safety of players, instead “certain people are more interested in earning their money.”
Perhaps extreme; people will no doubt also see the irony in Allardyce pointing the finger at Sports Broadcasters Sky and BT for the money they throw at the Premier League to show games, given recent events. But the former England boss certainly has a very valid point. Cynical fans on social media will argue that a footballer earning tens-of-thousand per-week should be expected to play two football matches in three days, except it isn’t quite as simple as that. Only an elite athlete will know exactly how difficult it is to reach a maximum level of performance in modern sport for 180 minutes in 48 hours. One can imagine that it is nearly impossible.
At the end of the day, it's those fans paying excessive prices to watch these games. They want entertainment. They want to receive their money's worth. However, they will not get it by watching half-fit players sluggishly kick a ball around.
What’s more interesting about Allardyce’s outburst is that he is the first British manager to heavily criticise the winter schedule since Alan Pardew did in 2013 while still Newcastle United boss. In those four years, the majority of managers suggesting the minimal recovery time between festive fixtures is excessive have been foreign. Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho have all criticised congestion since Pardew.
Perhaps it’s easy to ignore the suggestions of foreign managers. Outsiders will swat their opinions away with confidence, claiming they ‘don’t understand’ the football traditions in Britain with the typical swagger of arrogance that British football has reacted to foreign managers with in recent times. Although now that an English manager has criticised the congestion, maybe it’s time to recognise it as an actual problem in British football.
The Football Association and the Football League recently held talks over how the Christmas period could be evolved to make it less demanding. However, discussions soon broke down and no change was made. Maybe it's time to revisit those talks.
Scheduling of festive fixtures lacks logic
It’s undeniably unfair that a team plays two games in three days, especially when the opposition has an extra day to prepare. That 24 hours can make a big difference. Hull City and Everton were even awarded a three-day gap between their nineteenth and twentieth games of the season, having played each other on Friday 30 December and not played again until Monday 2 January.
And while the arguments for a winter break are flawed, the structure of the festive fixtures needs to be critically studied. As a solution, why can’t all ten fixtures in a single match week around the Christmas and new year period be played on the same day, at least three days apart? While some moan at foreign managers for their lack of understanding of traditions in British football, there is nothing more traditional than having a full round of games being played on the same day.
The schedule also contradicts the FA's disciplinary rules. Swansea, playing their fixture against Bournemouth on 31 December, had defender Jordi Amat receive his fifth yellow card of the season meaning he is suspended for the game against the Eagles. Yet any player receiving their fifth yellow card of the season just 24 hours later will not face a ban for their next match, despite playing the same number of games, just because all bookings received over the course of the season are reset just as London’s Big Ben and fireworks display simultaneously signal the turn of the year. Having games on the same day would mean players on a certain number of yellow cards would not fall foul of somebody else's decision on when they play.
It is not even necessary for the Christmas schedule to be so packed. The Premier League could quite easily make better use of midweek days when there is no European competition football being played. The Football League manages to have several rounds of fixtures on Tuesday and Wednesday nights so there is no reason why the top-flight cannot follow suit.
Until the governing bodies realise that competing in elite sport so many times across a limited number of days is so unhealthy, the English football calendar will remain flawed.