17 December 2016

2016/17: Westfields (Midland Football League Premier Divison)

With home fixtures piling up and column deadlines piling up right alongside them, today's Westfields programme is without my usual laboured, overzealous take on the previous Coventry Sphinx game match. Every setback is an opportunity, however, so this is a chance to spout off about something else.

Given the time of year, what better "something else" than the annual debate about the rights, wrongs and others of a winter break in English football. It comes around like clockwork with the first frost of the season and it's usually a discussion that originates at the elite levels of the sport.

The winter break's advocates have an increasing number of arguments at their disposal. The players are tired. There are too many games over Christmas. Continental leagues have a break and our clubs can't compete with them in Europe.

Premier League managers like to get their excuses in early but, in fairness, all they're doing is protecting their own interests when they complain of two games in three days over the festive period. A couple of years ago Louis van Gaal, then manager of Manchester United, was asked a question about his team's fixture pile-up on national radio. His attempt to disguise his anger failed entirely.

The festive calendar is for the supporters. It's a tradition that’s more important than the ability or otherwise of elite managers to extract the maximum performance from their players, and it mustn’t go away. The annual moaning from managers can't be allowed to sway the match-going public against the most wonderful time of the football year.

Despite the comparative lack of discussion about a winter break at our level, there are actually more important factors at play down here in the game's delightful depths. Whereas my instant response to talk of a Premier League and Football League winter break is to dismiss the idea out of hand, the semi-pro and amateur game is different. A bad winter matters.

Inclement weather has little effect on the well-resourced end of the game, but it can decimate the winter schedule in non-league. Heavy rain or freezing temperatures can knock matches out without warning, each one costing money that can ill be afforded. We saw its effect last season and new times must be found for those games, so don't talk to last year's Midland Premier sides about fixture congestion.

Issues like that can give you a different perspective on things. My blanket opposition to a winter break on the basis that footballers are paid well enough to just suck it up and bloody well entertain me - and that if they make mistakes because they're knackered, all the better - doesn't stack up when the matter at hand is real clubs losing real money that they really need to not be losing.

The trouble is that the shonky weather that causes these cancellations doesn't always happen at the same time every year. When does the winter break happen? It really isn't predictable enough season after season to work for the benefit of the clubs. We always talk about Christmas being affected by the winter break, but in many years it would've been better placed in November or January.

Another factor that needs to be considered at our level is the wishes of the players. Although I'm as ready to soak up the entertainment virtues of error-strewn matches in non-league as I would be higher up, the players aren't bronzed demigods we can't relate to. I don't care what Wayne Rooney thinks, or what Philippe Coutinho thinks, or what David Luiz thinks.

But our lot? Different story. If there were an obvious preference for a break amongst non-league players then we as supporters should be willing to listen to their reasoning.

On balance, though, I'm firmly against a winter break. Maybe it's selfishness, or maybe it's because I'm a traditionalist, but if I couldn't go to a game on Boxing Day then I'd feel that football had lost some of its magic.

English football culture comes into its own at this time of year. With matches at all levels on the weekend before Christmas, on Boxing Day, between Christmas and New Year, on New Year’s Day and then FA Cup Third Round weekend, it just doesn’t get any better.

Every couple of days there’s a game to go to, although this season the unfortunate falling of the dates has reduced the intensity. The Premier League and Football League seasons are in full swing. Non-league football, give or take a few winter postponements, is in its element. Boxing Day in the Midland Football League is festive entertainment at its finest.

We have a game that day, if I'm not mistaken.