Since the Scottish leagues’ controversial winter shutdown was abolished in 2003, there has been considerable debate about whether it should be reintroduced. These rumblings, as usual, never produce any concrete proposals. This season, however, more than any other has shown that there is a real need to look at a revamp of the country’s league structure.
Current Scottish Premier League pitches are an embarrassment to the domestic game and not conducive to good football. The majority of clubs in the lower tiers (Scottish Football League) are now looking at the gruelling prospect of having to squeeze 17 league games into nine weeks. It is now time for the governing bodies in football to look at ways of re-introducing the winter shutdown, and perhaps even look at the idea of summer football.
This June, the eyes of the world will be on South Africa, as football fever takes over. The greatest sporting event on the planet will take place in glorious sunshine and on perfect grass surfaces. Thousands of fans will bring the streets alive with singing and dancing, the buzz of a match day heightened by the heat of the summer’s sun.
Come 2011 could this be the scene in cities across Scotland on a Saturday afternoon? Instead of Hearts vs. Hibs in the January mud; how about Rangers vs. Aberdeen or Dundee vs. Dunfermline on a lush summer surface? Better conditions mean better football. With stands empty would current ticket prices be more appealing without the prospect of developing frostbite or burning one’s tongue on scalding Bovril? A summer league would allow the Scottish fan to enjoy a better standard of football in a warmer climate without late call-offs, rutted pitches, and driving rain and snow.
Countries such as Russia and Norway play their football from March through to December. Although Scotland’s winters are a far cry from those suffered in Russia, places like Inverness or Aberdeen do endure some horrendous wintry conditions. A summer league setup doesn’t seem to prevent Russian teams such as CSKA Moscow progressing into the latter stages of European competitions either.
Another country where the summer league is preferred is the Republic of Ireland. Shamrock Rovers were the surprise package last season and manager Michael O’Neil enjoyed a very successful first year in charge. Rovers finished second only just missing out on the title by four points.
After experiencing Scottish football coaching Brechin City, the talented Irishman believes the League of Ireland is benefiting from summer football, but accepts it does have its pitfalls. O’Neil explained: "To play the season through the summer is fantastic, but my players and I have just completed pre-season in some really poor conditions which does effect the standard and level of training".
Changing the whole structure of the Scottish football calendar may seem a bit extreme and could have implications for international football too. What would happen if the Scottish National side qualified for future European Championships and World Cups?
The major tournaments would coincide with the summer domestic season and with the majority of Scottish players plying their trade domestically, the Scottish League would be left with no option but to suspend the season.
If Craig Levin is the man to stop the rot and lead Scotland to Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine, then there may be an argument that a summer league is perhaps not the best alternative.
When Scotland experimented previously with a winter shutdown it only lasted five years: Lost revenue during the break being the main reason, it was scrapped. At present with games still being postponed well into March, the question will always be when to schedule the shutdown? Other issues also have to be addressed. How long should it last? And how to keep players match fit during the break?
One club which seems to have been unaffected by the harsh winter is Second Division side Alloa Athletic. Highly sought after, and one of the best man managers in the Scottish game, Allan Maitland has his side sitting top of the Second Division after a run of nine games unbeaten. The Wasps, as they are affectionately known, play their home matches on the controversial 3G astro turf which has enabled them to play more games than any other team in the division. Maitland’s free flowing attacking side now have points in the bag and will not have to worry about playing a draining two games every week until the end of the season.
Players do admit to disliking the surface, but come the end of the season if Alloa lift the title, this would be in no small part to their ability to fulfil their fixtures during the winter period.
The last winter shutdown in 2003 did produce a number of positives. The climax to the domestic season was one to remember. Rangers completed the domestic treble and beat Celtic to the title by a solitary goal on an exciting final day of the season. Celtic also represented Scotland in the UEFA Cup final against a slick Jose Mourinho led Porto side. The Glasgow giants boasted such players as Henrik Larsson, Chris Sutton and Stiliyan Petrov amongst their ranks, and although unlucky not to lift the prestigious trophy the Scottish game was on a major high. Did the winter shutdown help Celtic progress to the final?
There may be many reasons for the demise of the Scottish game since 2003, but when the shutdown was in place Scottish clubs were successful.
Due to the severity of the weather this winter there has been an unprecedented number of games called off in January and February. This has produced logistical and financial problems for many clubs, particularly in the lower leagues. This backlog of fixtures leads to injuries when players are asked to play two games a week for a sustained period, meaning clubs with small squads are at a serious disadvantage. Attendances also drop when the games are then rescheduled for midweek, resulting in a loss of revenue.
Some clubs have voiced their concerns over the winter shutdown, pointing out that there would be no income for the duration of the break and stating that with the wages of players and staff to be paid, how would they survive. All clubs however have survived this year, with many only having had one or two home games since mid-December. If the shutdown was in place then there would still be the same number of games played over the course of the year and clubs would benefit from an upturn in crowds in more favourable conditions.
Scottish FA chief executive Gordon Smith is in favour of the two-month winter break and with more managers and players in support of the shutdown being restored, has the time come for a change? If carefully planned the winter shutdown can work. Italy and Germany manage the break efficiently and have teams competing at the top level of European competitions every year.
With Scottish football going backwards, Scots must look forward and consider ways of improving the standard of our game. There are many reasons why our football is failing, but let’s be brave. Whether it be a winter shutdown or summer football we must make the game more attractive and get the fans back on the terraces. Our three governing bodies have to come together as one and tackle the problem once and for all.
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