“But in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes” – it was a quote from a letter written by Benjamin Franklin based on Daniel Defoe’s comment in The Political History of the Devil. If you roam in Northern Irish football circles you can almost certainly add ‘weather-induced postponements’ and ‘summer football debates’ to that phrase.
Yes, the debate over the local football schedule has leapt from the shadows again and with full justification. The League Cup Semi-Final fixture between Cliftonville and Ballymena United finally went ahead at the weekend at its fourth attempt of trying. The entire fixture was laughable bordering on farcical, almost becoming the first-ever competition to have its final played before the semi-final.
Speaking in favour of change
There is a strong case for making alterations to Northern Ireland’s football schedule, not just in the top flight but even down to grassroots level. Each season the football calendar is thrown into disarray because of inclement weather. Inevitably this leads to a fixture pile-up later in the season forcing clubs to fulfil multiple matches within days of each other. This becomes unsustainable in a league system where players have employment commitments and leads to clubs missing one or several players because of this very reason.
In what is a vicious cycle, this fixture pile-up would also naturally cause issues for the ground staff who work hard to keep the playing surfaces in good condition – the reality is that the vast majority of pitches in Northern Irish football just aren’t made to withstand so much action without the appropriate time for repair.
Another argument for is a look at the League of Ireland and their summer football schedule. Many people point to this way of playing as having a big say in how Irish sides compete when the Continental qualifiers come around. The point is often made that Champions League and Europa League qualifiers come so soon for Northern Irish clubs that the players have barely rested from the season just past, never mind having prepared for the season ahead. Jealous glances at clubs like Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers have fans wondering if a seasonal switch could yield similar effects. Although it must be admitted that the difference is success is as much to do with, if not more, the fact Irish sides are full-time professionals as opposed to their Northern Irish semi-professional counterparts.
Talking about the status quo
It’s important to also consider the arguments against a shift in playing dates. Recent years have seen Northern Ireland hit with unpredictable weather between February and April, this shows that the problem is not strictly limited to the Christmas period. If the same was to happen with a Summer football schedule then we run the risk of clubs going into the start of a season totally unprepared because of a weather-ravaged pre-season.
Post-season fatigue isn’t the only issue that appears to cause problems in European qualifiers. As has been stated, players in a part-time league also have employment commitments – with this, many people follow the obvious pattern of booking their own holidays for the summer. If they would continue to do this it would not only affect European qualification but then the domestic season too! And what of the fans? In a league that is crying out for higher attendances, it’s not inconceivable to suggest that attendances would drop during the holiday season in June and July. It would be remiss to ignore the potential of a mid-season summer break but doesn’t this just defeat the cause by creating a further condensed fixture schedule?
The final thought is an interesting one – pre-season friendlies. Northern Irish clubs have done great work in crafting relationships with bigger clubs from across the water leading to so-called ‘glamour friendlies’. These ties are potential money spinners for clubs in much need of financial boosts. With these clubs much more unlikely to visit during a winter/spring pre-season, this would almost certainly kill off the prospect of any big friendly fixtures.
A Potential Solution
NIFL released a strategy document earlier in the season which made reference to considering the current football schedule – a hint at potential changes to come. Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill has already made his preference for Summer football known, having experience of managing Shamrock Rovers in their infamous qualification for the Europa League group stages.
However, local managers have perhaps shown their preference for an alternative: a winter break. A winter break is somewhat of a halfway house, appeasing both sides of the argument to an extent. It’s also a lighter touch of a change, rather than requiring a complex shift entirely – as no one is yet to offer a viable solution of how the transition from winter league to summer league would happen.
Above all we must understand that a Northern Irish summer does not fit the standard definition of the season. We are every bit as likely to see a rain filled July as we are a sun-baked one. From a personal perspective, I’m very much sitting on the fence. It’s impossible to form an opinion without experiencing the alternative. To finish I’ll leave you with another two clichés: they say ‘a change is as good as a rest’ but they also say ‘it’s better the devil you know than the devil you don’t’. Ouch, these splinters…