Christmas is best known as a time to eat lots of food, open lots of presents and spend time with your loved ones, but for English football supporters, Christmas also means lots and lots of football.
While the other major leagues in Europe take a break from the action, those playing for English clubs must brace themselves for a festive onslaught of football.
This season every Premier League club will play four times between 22 December and 4 January, so that’s a total of 40 top flight games in two weeks, with 16 of those being broadcast live on Sky Sports or BT Sport.
This all sounds tremendous for those who can’t wait to sit down and gorge themselves on football over the holiday period, but what about those involved in it all?
Winter break not the answer
The festive football schedule has become a stick for (usually foreign) managers to beat the English game, with their main qualm usually being the lack of a winter break.
Unlike their English counterparts, the other major European leagues have a seasonal hiatus from competition, which allows the players, coaches and supporters time to recharge their batteries and spend precious time with their families.
Real Madrid, Barcelona and the rest of La Liga will enjoy a two week break over Christmas and New Year, while the Bundesliga and Ligue 1 each have over three weeks off before returning to league action in January.
Serie A is the only other major European league to also be in action over Christmas, but they play just once a week before having a two week break in mid January, by which time both the Premier League and FA Cup will be in full flow on these shores.
One argument that is usually trotted out is that this lack of a break is why England always fail in major tournaments, because their opponents will have had a nice rest and that it will be nothing to do with the superior quality of their players, youth development or tactical setup.
They still play the same number of games as other leagues anyway; it just means the European sides will have to play more games in midweek to catch up. If they want to complain about the additional number of games then they should take issue with the League Cup instead, which admittedly they do.
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Lack of rest an issue for players
It isn’t so much the lack of a break at Christmas that is the issue, as it is the wide disparity in the amount of time each team has between games during the festive period.
A recent BBC Sport study calculated the number of hours between each side’s first match and last match of the Christmas schedule. It found that Leicester have just 213 hours between their opener and closer, while West Ham have 295 hours between theirs. That is a difference of a whopping 82 hours, hardly fair is it?
The Hammers face Tottenham in their final game of the festive schedule on 4 January in front of the Sky Sports cameras. This comes just 48 hours after both sides will have played their preceding matches, whereas Spurs’ top-four rivals Chelsea have 98 hours between their final two festive games.
Again, a counter argument to this is that these clubs have big squads of players and they should utilise them, but why should one team be forced into playing a less than full strength side because their first choice players played 90 minutes less than two days ago, when their rivals don’t have to? Again, hardly fair is it?
Sure it may be lovely to be able to sit down with a mince pie or two and watch all of these games on TV, but when it becomes a possible hindrance to the integrity of the competition then you have to question how important that really is…
Fans left counting the cost
But the real victims are of course the loyal fans who bear the brunt of the Christmas fixture list troubles. This is especially true of the hardy travelling faithful who will be sat in the freezing cold 200 miles from home as their team is walloped 5-0, while their family is at home in the warm tucking into turkey curry (other turkey based meals are available).
It is made even worse when kick-off times are hastily altered to suit the scheduling of Sky and BT Sport. Swansea supporters will know how this feels, as they prepare for a 340-mile round trip to Liverpool for their 5.30 pm kick-off on Boxing Day. They’ll do well to be home before midnight after that one.
Yes they don’t have to commit to spending hours on the road travelling to games at Christmas if they didn’t want to, but it does feel like they are being punished for being so loyal to their club.
You’ve spent hundreds of pounds on a season ticket, another hundred or so on replica shirts for you and your kids, plus who knows how much you’ve just spent on Christmas presents, and now you have to part with more cash to spend at least six hours on a 320-mile coach trip before making the same journey home again, as Plymouth Argyle’s travelling Green Army will be doing on 30 December when they take on Blackpool in League One.
TV coverage fine for lucky few
The counter argument that the television companies would make is that having games on television does mean that fans can sit down and watch the game in the comfort of their own home, thus eradicating the need to choose between their dearly beloved, or indeed their family.
They are right to say that, but only if you support one of the teams that are chosen for TV coverage. You’re out of luck if you support Stoke, Watford, Huddersfield, or 62 of the 72 Football League sides who don’t feature in any of the 22 televised Premier League and Championship matches.
But having said all of that, simply getting rid of festive football is not the answer. There have been murmurs of change over the years, and the fans always want to keep it because it is such a staple of British football tradition. We don’t need a winter break, but we do need to give the fans a break.
They shouldn’t have to choose between being with their family and watching their beloved football team. However at least make the decision a little easier and cut the number of lengthy coach journeys that they are required to make at unrealistic hours in order to watch matches take place at awkward times.
The powers that be need to start listening to the fans’ needs rather than those of the television companies, even if it means losing a pound or two.