Big freeze opens debate on switch to summer

MANY call it a knee-jerk reaction amid the coldest Scottish winter in decades and the multiple postponements that have disrupted the football calendar.

To others, the debate on switching to a season centred around summer and fairer weather is long overdue.

Lothian and Edinburgh Amateur Football Association had to postpone its entire fixture schedule at the weekend – no surprise considering only five senior Scottish fixtures beat the freeze – and the organisation doesn't expect competition to resume fully until 23 January.

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Presented with a blank canvas LEAFA President Charles Gallacher admits the natural step would mean playing any outdoor sport when the weather is most suitable.

"Starting from day one, with a clean slate, I would start the season in March and finish in November," he says. "It's a better time, and the weather is more amenable to good football, rather than clogging through heavy pitches.

"We have to take into account that the present weather is an exception. But winters like this decimate the fixture card, and football clubs need to play midweek re-arranged games – often having matches on a Monday, Wednesday and Saturday – towards the end of the season."

A fixture backlog due to postponed matches in the winter of 2001 meant LEAFA was forced to cancel seven of its 13 cup competitions as it concentrated on completing league matches. Such a busy schedule towards the climax of the season can, says Gallacher, result in a more level playing field as successful clubs competing on many fronts face a gruelling timetable.

"It leaves the bigger clubs susceptible to defeats by teams of lesser quality. One of our successful clubs who plays in all the cups including the Scottish might, by April, be still in five competitions and have three games a week. Players get tired, and there is more chance of injury or suspension, and this levels the standard – it's not a bad thing. I think cup competitions should be spread evenly throughout the clubs, with not three or four teams dominating all of them, and 50 per cent of our membership would be delighted with just playing twice a week."

The main crux of the argument against summer football, especially among fans who attend matches, is that winter football is instilled in Scottish culture, and that summer should be reserved for family time and holidays. While he agrees with this mentality to a certain extent, Gallacher, who will next week jet off to Egypt for a fortnight of winter sun, thinks people could easily adjust.

"In an ideal situation, I wouldn't like football in December and January at all. For many young men and their families, summer is holiday time and if we staged matches in summer there would be problems with the level of participation, which would definitely be an issue in minor grade football. They're not taking their kids to the beach in winter time.

"There are more aspects to be taken into account than just 'playability'. It's 50-50, split down the middle, with so many different aspects. People generally just focus on the number of games that are able to be played, and perhaps this is the most important thing. But people are suspicious of change and also have their families to take into account.

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"My partner and me are away to Egypt for a fortnight and over the last ten years we have rather enjoyed out winter break. I certainly think other people could get used to that."

Further up the football ladder, Scottish Premier League Chief Executive Neil Doncaster recently wrote off the prospect of summer football, while his organisation also rejected the re-introduction of a winter break.

"I have seen precious little evidence to suggest that supporters are clamouring for a change to summer football," he was recently quoted as saying.

"If summer football proved not to be a hit with the paying public, we would then undoubtedly lose supporters during the process of changing back. Breaking habits is difficult. But trying to reverse the change when those habits have been broken is a risky business. A desire for change has to be about strategic benefits rather than short-termism. But, for the time being, cold snaps, the odd call-off, gloves, scarves, hot pies and Bovril will remain staple fare at SPL games."

It seems no league chief, least of all Doncaster, warms to the prospect of implementing a change to summer football and thereby going down in history as the man who deprived fans of an excuse to indulge in hot pies and Bovril. Plenty of speculation has been offered by those in football and the media on precisely how many fans are in favour of a switch of season – but has anyone considered a democratic round-table sit-down to determine exactly what fans and member clubs want?

At least Gallacher shows willingness to do so, should there be demand from LEAFA's membership. "I think it's something I would discuss," he says.