There’s something typically British about settling down, overcome by a festive malaise, to watch football during the Christmas period. Perhaps this stems back to Tudor times, when a morbidly obese Henry VIII was rumoured to force people to exercise for him in lieu of partaking himself.
Where so many other European leagues have deemed a winter break a necessity, Britain remains divided on whether this innovation would lead to improvement or mark a shameful betrayal of British footballing tradition.
In the season marking the centenary the of the commencement of World War I, the Boxing Day match has taken on a new national significance. Inevitably discussions over the future of festive fixtures in the Premier League and beyond have been rife, with many asserting that this supremely popular tradition should be protected at all costs. Perhaps, however, the most persuasive arguments against a winter break lie beyond the mere continuation of conventions.
Certainly, safeguarding the tradition of playing throughout the festive season has been important to many. As a historically working class game fixtures were dictated by the availability of fans, many of whom got little holiday. As national and religious holidays, Christmas fixtures were an obvious choice.
However, the advent of the television and internet have revolutionised the game and this is no longer such a significant factor. Now what supporters of christmas football seek to protect most is a means of maintaining the distinctive flair of British football. Traditionally far more physical than most other major European leagues, British football gets a rare chance to hark back to its roots in the period between Christmas and New Year when a war of attrition wages freely.
Conversely, those calling for a winter break suggest that festive football places more emphasis on fitness than skill and finesse and promotes a style no longer enjoyed by the modern spectator. However, despite Louis Van Gaal’s protestations this problem is fairly easily circumvented by more affluent clubs who can afford the depth of squad to maintain skill and fitness through rotation.
Implementing a winter break could have an equalising effect for teams with limited funds, with increased recovery time also ensuring injuries would become less of a issue for smaller clubs (and the likes of Arsenal). However, in reality it is unclear whether have a significant comparable impact on squad sizes between clubs with differing budgets.
Yet despite the potential for improvements on the pitch it would be smaller clubs that would be disproportionately harmed by the implementation of a winter break in the Premiership. For the likes of Chelsea who fought through 4 games in 11 days a winter break would have undoubtedly boosted their already high chances of winning the Champions League. Yet those in lower leagues heavily who are heavily reliant on the FA cup for cash injections will be left in an unfavourable position by a Premiership break.
A packed schedule full of lucrative international competitions could mean that league fixtures or the FA cup would have to be scrapped to ensure that the problem of extremely busy periods is not simply postponed to later in the season. If Premier League fixtures were curtailed which teams would be returned to the Championship would cause great controversy.
Some have suggested that a compromise would lie in maintaining the traditional christmas games and having a break in the middle of January but the situation is complicated by players participating in the African Cup of Nations being left disadvantaged.
Ultimately the argument is defined less by tradition and more by whether British football should be driven by the desires of the major clubs bringing in vast income from European competition or the economic needs of those in lower divisions.
Yes, the creation of a winter break would, in theory, improve the overall quality of the game we know today, levelling the playing field and aiding the chances of British teams competing in Europe.
Nevertheless, the ramifications of a winter break would be felt much further afield than the Premiership and it is important smaller teams aren’t sacrificed in a short-sighted decision based purely on pressure from big name clubs.