Footie fans are used to roller–coasters of emotion, but this January is a particularly breathless experience for many. After the FA Cup action over the weekend, there are busy programmes both midweek and next weekend – and cup replays for some the midweek following.
It’s not surprising that many, including recently Sam Allardyce and Jurgen Klopp have each in their own way expressed surprise, disappointment and frustration at this intensity.
But it doesn’t have to be like this, and many –like those two managers – sound like they would support a change. There is a problem of course and that is fixture pile-ups are partly a legacy from when the timetable wasn’t so packed, and partly the symbiotic relationship between the game and big TV money – the latter dependant on filling schedules with games. For every poorly viewed filler (apologies – no offence intended to anyone) there will be tastier ties to tempt paying audiences.
But are we at a stage that the TV money that is so much a part of our game is actually in danger of killing the goose laying football’s golden eggs?
Let’s consider the following four arguments:
Injury – more games means more chance of players crocked. This means protecting players by fielding weakened teams or risking jeopardising your longer term success. Both surely diminish the value of a game to spectators (and have an impact at the turnstile too)
I don’t have much sympathy with the “poor player” argument – these are well-trained and very well-paid athletes, but there are limits! And you can be as fit as you like, but unable to control the late, clumsy or (heaven forbid) deliberate challenge from an opponent.
The cost to fans – That it’s an expensive time of year to support your team was widely acknowledged in managers’ and chairmen’s programme notes this weekend. Perhaps this drives fans from stadia to armchair – but poor attendances do nothing to make the game more exciting.
Boredom – Just how many times are Spurs playing Leicester over a 10 day period? Or Everton and Man City? They are high profile repeat fixtures, certainly, but variety is surely also important to keep fans engaged.
And finally, an impact on the chances of success for national teams. I don’t just mean allegedly tired players, but the opportunity to gather and nurture a squad that will be both bonded and fresh come an end of season international tournament.
This last point is possibly the most significant but least investigated. TV contracts for the World Cup or Euro 2016 are small in comparison to the Premier League (are commercially constrained by free-to-air protocols). But success in these tournaments must be the biggest stimulus of all for the domestic game. The largest “golden egg” of all, I would argue.
So let’s take the inescapable route that the comments of Klopp, Allardyce, and my own team’s Dean Smith point to. No cup replays. Extra time and penalties on the day/night of the first tie. Maybe no second leg for semi-finals in domestic cup competitions.
This won’t kill the romance, thrills or upsets. Annan Athletic, Oxford United, and (admittedly on a smaller scale) Walsall all needed only 90 minutes to overcome more illustrious opposition at the weekend.
It looks like – in line with my earlier post! – next year’s FA Cup may pick up the idea of some form of rugby’s TMO or cricket’s DRS. And not before time. So why not just a half-step further.
What have we to lose? Windswept, rain-soaked, poorly-attended injury-strewn midweek replays. But the benefit of daring to change could be – seriously – the best chance of bringing home the World Cup in 2018. It’s got to be worth a go.