With many Premier League teams enjoying a fortnight off from domestic duty thanks to the double header of the FA Cup Quarter-Finals and International Break, it offers a chance to reflect on the recent announcement that the FA are considering introducing a winter break into the English game in the 2019/20 season. With the rest of Europe’s top five leagues already imposing a winter break, along with many other leagues in Europe, the Premier League following suit has been a long time coming. But is there any proof that it will have a positive impact on the national team and, more pertinently, does it signal another nail in the coffin of the world’s oldest cup competition?
‘There is no winter break and I think that is the most evil thing of this culture. It is not good for English football. ‘It is not good for the clubs or the national team. England haven’t won anything for how many years? Because all the players are exhausted at the end of the season.’ That was Louis Van Gaal’s take on the lack of a winter break in England during his time as Manchester United manager. And that’s coming from a Dutchman. The debate over English football having a winter break has raged for the best part of two decades, stemming from the mid-90s when the Premier League first began to globalise. When Arsene Wenger took the manager’s job at Arsenal (that’s right younger readers, he was actually appointed rather than organically ordained), the way teams in the top division were managed was transformed. Diet, fitness and conditioning became the watchwords for team preparation, and Wenger was one of the first managers to suggest that the flurry of fixtures over the winter months had an adverse effect on performance. Wenger’s view has softened in the intervening twenty-two years, and in a festive form of Stockholm Syndrome (Stocking Syndrome? No) he now concedes that the league programme in December is as traditional as a post-Christmas dinner Gaviscon and a snooze. Wenger’s work has been carried on, however, by the new school of European managers in the Premier League, with Jurgen Klopp being the most vociferous supporter of a winter break in recent seasons. So, after much soul-searching, the FA have finally relented and plans for a winter break ahead of the 2020 European Championships have been penciled in, in the hope that the England national team will benefit from a couple of weeks grace mid-season. Thankfully the festive fixture list has been left well alone, and the break is scheduled to take place in early February, during which Premier League fixtures will be staggered to give each squad 14 days off. But can a couple of weeks off three months before the end of the season really have an impact on the England team?
If ever there’s a template to follow when it comes to success at international level, it’s usually been designed by Germany. Die Mannschaft are the current World Cup holders and sit just behind Brazil when it comes to all-time titles. England’s success in last summer’s youth tournaments owes a tip of the hat to Germany, since it was the 4-1 hammering dished out by Joachim Low’s young side at the 2010 World Cup that set the wheel in motion for the FA’s St George’s Park initiative. Germany, having suffered the most ignominious spell in their footballing history at the beginning of the century, ripped everything up and started again, ploughing funding into grassroots and youth level football, and reaping the rewards at the last World Cup. With that in mind, it’s reasonable for the FA to take a leaf out of the DFB’s book and introduce a winter break though, as ever, there are no half-measures with the Germans. While the FA look to introduce a 14 day break, the Bundesliga enjoys a full month off every season, breaking in the second week of December, and returning in the second week of January, which goes some way to justifying Klopp’s incredulity at the non-stop football in England. Spain, winners in 2010, have an 18 day break across the festive period, while Serie A in Italy enjoys 16 football-free days. France has the second longest break in the top five leagues, with a 24 day period across December and January. Notably, in the last five World Cups, each of these countries has lifted the trophy once, with Brazil’s victory in 2002 the only outlier – it appears England has been left behind on the international scene, despite boasting one of Europe’s best leagues. For balance it should also be noted that Scotland have taken a winter break in the last couple of seasons, while Turkey also take a month off over the festive period. Ukraine and Russia, understandably, have longer winter breaks due to the fact they experience actual winters, with three month breaks allowing players to hibernate away from those famously harsh conditions.
One argument against the impact of a winter break on international sides is that we no longer live in an age whereby a country’s World Cup squad is solely made up of players based in the domestic league, aside from England of course. In fact the last time England named players based outside of the UK in a World Cup squad was in 2006, when Real Madrid’s David Beckham and Bayern Munich’s Owen Hargreaves played under Sven Goran Eriksson. England’s two outstanding players at that tournament? The aforementioned Beckham and Hargreaves of course – both undoubtedly well rested thanks to their winter break. Germany’s squad in 2014 included seven players playing outside the Bundesliga, four of whom played in the Premier League – Per Mertesacker, Mesut Ozil, Lukas Podolski and Andre Schurrle – that’s 17% of the squad that were denied a winter break (though it could be argued that Podolski and Schurrle weren’t exactly overemployed by their clubs during the domestic season, and Ozil only turns up for half of Arsenal’s games #banter). For Spain in 2010, just three of the squad were based in the Premier League, and Fernando Torres found himself outshone by David Villa. Italy’s squad in 2006 was entirely comprised of players based in Serie A, and France in 1998 only had three Premier League based players, so the argument crumbles under scrutiny.
Introducing a two week break from football in England does of course present the slight problem of how to fit in all the, well, football. The FA, of course, have got that covered. They’re going to further diminish a competition that was once the jewel in their crown, simultaneously shafting lower league teams while they’re at it, all in the vain hope that Gareth Southgate can lead our rag-tag bunch of mediocre footballers to European Championship glory. Hooray for priorities! In its infinite wisdom, the FA have decided to scrap replays in the FA Cup Fifth Round and, in a rare example of dressing lamb as mutton, play all the fixtures in midweek as if it were some low-rent competition like the Carabao Cup. Oh the humiliation. This, of course, has gone down like a mug of cold piss with the other 72 members of the Football League, denying them as it does the opportunity to earn money-spinning replays against the big boys which, for some clubs, can be the difference between financially surviving and disappearing beneath the surface. After Steve Davies’ late equaliser earned Rochdale a replay against Tottenham Hotspur in this year’s fifth round, manager John Hill said that the remuneration from the trip to Wembley would secure Rochdale’s finances for ‘the next two-to-three years’, and with replays slowly being phased out of the competition, the opportunities for clubs to earn bank from the FA Cup are decreasing by the season. Soon enough it’ll stop making financial sense for lower league sides to embark on cup runs and they, like teams in the Premier League, will begin to take it less seriously. Slowly but surely the magic of the cup is being eroded.
It’s difficult to chart exactly when the downfall of the FA Cup began, though, as with everything that is wrong with football, 1992 isn’t a bad place to start. The inauguration of the Premier League set the ball rolling for the state English football finds itself in today – more business than pleasure, and bank balances prioritised over progress. When the major financial incentive to finish as high up in the league as possible was introduced – and enhanced each time a new TV deal is agreed – those in charge of running football clubs encouraged their teams to take an eye off distractions such as cup competitions. That inevitably led to managers naming weaker teams, particularly in the early rounds, though Manchester United’s line up for the 2009 semi-final against Everton is seen as a watershed moment with regards to managers prioritising over the FA Cup. Sir Alex Ferguson rested Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney ahead of the crucial Champions League semi-final with Arsenal, and United were beaten on penalties. Famously, of course, Manchester United hammered the first nail in the coffin of the FA Cup in 2000 when, having won the treble the year before, pulled out of the competition as holders in order to compete in the first Club World Championship in Brazil. It later transpired that Tony Banks, Minister for Sport in Tony Blair’s cabinet, and the FA had encouraged United to pull out of the cup in order to take part in the FIFA organised competition, in the hopes it would boost England’s chances of winning the right to host the 2006 World Cup. In the event the whole episode was an unmitigated disaster – United crashed out of the tournament in the first phase, Germany were awarded the World Cup, and the FA Cup has been diminished ever since.
The blame shouldn’t be placed entirely at the feet of Manchester United, however, with the FA itself having to shoulder much of the blame for the downfall of its major cup competition. Firstly, having found itself struggling to compete with the financial reward on offer from the Premier League, the FA leased the cup out for sponsorship for the first time in 1994,with Littlewoods taking the option. Since then, the competition has found itself passed around from AXA to E.ON to Budweiser, and now bears the official name The Emirates FA Cup. Stanley Matthews will be turning in his grave, before cutting inside at the byline. Soon enough, pressure was put on the FA to decrease the amount of matches played in the competition and, while scrapping replays for the final made a great deal of sense, getting rid of semi-final replays seemed a tad unnecessary. That decision was taken to assist English club sides in European competition, as the Champions League became a misnomer and began to dole out qualification spots right and left. Fittingly, the last FA Cup semi-final replay to take place has gone down as one of the great matches of the 90s, thanks in part to Ryan Giggs’ chest wig. Soon enough it was decided that quarter-finals didn’t really need replays either, and with the winter break putting paid to fifth round replays, its surely only a matter of time before the whole notion of a second bite of the cherry in the cup is put to bed completely. Alongside the sponsorship rights and scrapping of replays, the FA has also courted controversy by moving the semi-finals to Wembley – a necessity due to the cost of building the new stadium – and moving the kick-off time of the final from 3pm to 5.30pm – you can thank TV companies for that. It’s impossible to see any of these decisions being reversed in the future, and more likely every scrap of tradition attached to the FA Cup will slowly but surely be stripped away. And that’s without getting started on the god-awful pre-match entertainment.
But could there be another solution to the fixture congestion? Is it possible England could introduce a winter break without further tarnishing the second biggest domestic honour? Have the FA really looked into this before condemning that most historic of competitions to League Cup level status? Speaking of the League Cup, how about we look into reinventing that first? For many Premier League clubs, particularly in these times of top six dominance, the League Cup represents the one real opportunity to win a trophy and qualify for Europe. More often than not, the ‘bigger’ sides in the Premier League treat the League Cup as an inconvenience, fielding reserves and youth players until the latter stages, but even then, one of them usually wins in. In the past ten years, the only sides to have won the League Cup and not finish in the top six are Swansea City and Birmingham City. Clearly, competing on four fronts is a strain on resources – so what about making the League Cup a competition for those sides not in Europe? Clearly this diminishes the competition, just as Manchester United’s absence from the 2000 FA Cup did, but since none of those sides in Europe take it seriously until there’s a sniff of silverware in range, hasn’t it already been diminished? The chance for teams like Burnley, Watford and Brighton to compete in a Wembley final, win a trophy and qualify for Europe are few and far between – perhaps it would reinvigorate the competition? Besides, out of the top five leagues in Europe only England and France have a secondary cup competition – that’s six games fewer the likes of Lionel Messi, Thomas Muller, and Gonzalo Higauin are playing every season. In Germany, it’s not just fewer cup games that are saving their legs either. The reason the Bundesliga can afford to take a month off is that they’ve got the smallest league in Europe’s top five, with 18 teams playing four fewer games a season that their English, Spanish, Italian and French competitors. Perhaps truncating the league –and in this of all seasons, where so many teams are struggling towards the bottom – makes sense. The Premier League would become more competitive, and players would get an extra two weeks off. There is of course the green elephant in the room – fewer games equals less revenue, and while that might be a sacrifice the big teams are willing to make when it comes to the coffers of the lower leagues, they’re certainly not in a hurry to give up their own earnings.
Whether the introduction of a winter break can help England get over that tricky quarter-final hurdle remains to be seen, though if the FA think making such a small adjustment to the domestic game is the key to unlock untold success for the national side, they’re even more deluded than they seem. They might believe in magic, but not the magic of the cup.