premier league

Exploring England’s Riotous Love Of Festive Football

Long ago, an enlightened section of English football fandom realised that a winter break would make sense. Unfortunately, they were shouted down by festive fanatics, and have been ever since.

by Will Magee
15 December 2016, 1:33pm

PA Images

"Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat, please put a penny in the old man's hat." So the traditional carol goes because, well, this is England, and Christmas is a bleak time for feeding up then slaughtering poultry and, however temporarily, assuaging the crushing poverty and loneliness that afflicts much of the elderly population at this time of year. For younger generations – the proverbial goose feeders and penny givers – the days leading up to the festive period will be spent in an orgy of carbohydrate and consumerism, with the more devout among us throwing a bit of religious hypocrisy into the mix for good measure. Then, come Christmas Eve, we will settle down on our beige sofas, flick over to It's a Wonderful Life, stuff our faces with an obscene number of tree chocolates and attempt to ignore our relatives for a few days. This is the English Christmas tradition, and so we celebrate the glorious birth of our Lord.

In amongst the sausage rolls, suet puddings and brandy butter – the retail, the alcohol, the black-and-white films – there is one other festive commodity which we, the English, consume in vile and gluttonous fashion. The commodity of which we speak is, of course, the football, which is crammed in more voraciously than ever during and immediately after the week of Christmas. It is an English tradition that, come late December, football clubs play an absolutely insane amount of fixtures, most notably on Boxing Day, New Year's Eve, New Year's Day, and then a couple of days afterwards and in between. This year, the festive fixture list is nothing short of batshit crazy. In the Premier League alone, there are matches on the 17th, 18th, 19th, 26th, 27th, 28th, 30th, 31st, 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th, before relative normality resumes as of Saturday 14th January and the season continues as before.

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It doesn't take a genius to figure out that fulfilling that fixture list takes a serious toll on footballers. When English clubs subside into full-blown injury crises in the winter months at the start of the New Year, as so often seems to happen, the inevitable conclusion made by columnists, pundits and fans alike is that the busy Christmas period is to blame. When Premier League teams underachieve in Europe, going out with a whimper in February, there is often a bout of introspection about how many games they were forced to play back at the start of the gruelling winter. Nevertheless, Christmas football is an English tradition and, like so many other backwards traditions, will be defended to the death despite all the evidence it should be done away with forthwith.

There are selfish reasons that we cling to the tradition of Christmas football, which are understandable despite being flawed. By Boxing Day, many of us have spent more time with our families than we spend over the course of an entire year, and consequently are being driven absolutely fucking mad. Festive football is an excuse to get out of the house, go to the ground or the pub, or at least retreat to the confines of the living room and away for the umpteenth conversation about your uncle's divorce. Christmas football is great for fans, at least for that fleeting moment of festive escapism that comes after several days of familial chatter and passive aggression. It's the footballers who suffer, unfortunately, and our teams that eventually feel the strain.

A football covered in snow at Christmas, probably up north somewhere // PA Images

The truth is that, in the long-term, nobody benefits from Christmas fixture congestion. The same fans who wallowed in the festive football orgy find themselves complaining bitterly once a spate of hamstring tweaks strikes in January, and then screaming at the uncaring skies when their side lurches exhaustedly out of the Champions League in the Round of 16. In the name of Christmas entertainment, fans consume a grotesque amount of English football, and so English football grotesquely consumes itself. This is the dark reality of our national obsession with festive football. Thankfully, out of the darkness, an enlightened and redemptive movement has been born into world, as happened with the baby Jesus himself.

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For quite some time now, an open-minded section of English football fandom has been calling for some sort of winter break. As with all enlightened thinkers, they are often shouted down in the name of tradition, even before their ideas have been properly explained. There are some radicals among them who would see England appropriate the German model, and so adopt a seasonal football ceasefire between mid December and the end of January, a bit like in World War One. That would, of course, preclude Christmas football, and so alienate much of the population. There would probably be civil disorder, riots, looting, with footballers dragged from their homes and marched forcibly to stadiums. Thankfully, that need not happen. When it comes to an English winter break, there may be another way.

Two football fans who have sacked off their families to watch a game // PA Images

With Christmas football a long and ineluctable custom in this country, there is little point trying to convince people that matches should cease between Boxing Day and New Year. Similarly, with several other major leagues already on their winter breaks at that point, it would be difficult to convince the Premier League's broadcasters of the value of a rest period at a time when they have minimal competition for viewers. Christmas football sells, we buy into it, and hence, as with anything profitable, it must take precedence over anything and everything including the evidence of our common sense. That said, a truncated January winter break is still possible. Three weeks of recuperation would be better than none for the players, and might well improve the health of the league physically and financially, too.

While the fitness benefits of a winter break are obvious and apparent, the possibility of improved results in Europe should entice clubs and broadcasters alike. The correlation between injuries and failure on the continental stage is doubtlessly complex, but it certainly wouldn't harm Premier League clubs' chances to have a period of rest and recuperation ahead of the European knockout rounds. English clubs have fallen well behind in recent years, and it is perhaps no coincidence that the other major leagues in Europe ensure their players have time to recharge their metaphorical batteries. Champions League fixtures sell, Europa League fixtures sell, and Premier League teams might well play more of them were they not scrapping three times a week at our pleasure while we lie slumped on a bed of shredded wrapping paper, glancing queasily at the last mince pie.

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None of that takes into account our international scene, where it has become practically mandatory for England managers to lament the lack of a winter break, especially when they link up with their knackered squad ahead of a major tournament in the summer. Even Big Sam, widely considered to be the most traditional England boss of the last few decades, said during his short reign: "The demand on players is enormous... it would help the Premier League and us at international level if we could try and achieve [a mid-season break]." While it is highly unlikely that anything will be done until the end of the current Premier League television deal, the powers that be in English football should already be drawing up plans for a seasonal intermission. Take not our Christmas fixtures, Richard Scudamore, but deliver the January respite that our club and national sides so desperately require.

We love festive football in England and, for that, we should not necessarily have to apologise. It is selfish, escapist and a bit gratuitous but, then again, so are some of the best things in life. Nonetheless, we should be less tolerant of the failure to find a sensible way to rest our players in the aftermath of the Christmas season, despite the fact that it could do wonders for their health and that of our game more generally. In failing to do so, the authorities have been deeply uncharitable to English football, which doesn't seem very Christmassy, nor like something of which our Lord would approve.

@W_F_Magee