Trotters - Not Tonight, Josephine

As I write this blog news reaches me that the game tonight has been postponed due to the snow. I’ll bet those out of town Gooners and travelling Trotters battling through the blizzards on the motorways and railways are delighted. About turn!
We really have lost our ability to cope with any sort of adverse weather in this country. I don’t blame the club. I know they’ve done all they can to get the game on. The pitch won’t be a problem with its undersoil heating. I imagine the Council and the police put the pressure on due to our lost ability to keep public transport running in bad weather and to keep pavements and roads gritted and passable. It is pretty depressing to think that the city of Buenos Aires, which saw its first big snowfall for over nine decades last July (the middle of the southern hemisphere winter of course) coped much better than London seems to be able to manage.
Buenos Aires is far enough south to have real seasons. It gets cold and wet in the winter but snow is unusual although an annual event further south. Bariloche on the eastern side of the Andes in the Argentine lake district is about as beautiful a ski resort as you could imagine. Why could Buenos Aires cope, a city of similar size and population as London but without the massive resources and money we’ve got (in comparison), but we can’t?
Part of the answer lies in how extreme we’ve become as a society in our aversion to risk. It seems every time somebody falls over these days they want to sue somebody for compensation. I’m all for prudent health and safety precautions. I used to be a full-time trade union official. I’ve seen what neglect of proper precautions can mean. When the Council safety officers responsible for licensing the Grove insist that the escalators down one flight of stairs from the Club level can’t be operated post-match in the down direction as their might be an accident we’ve swung far too far the other way. Literally millions of people ride the escalators down to the platforms every working day on the London Underground without problem or incident. It’s the same ultra-cautious thinking that prevents the entirely sensible measure of providing safe standing areas at our football grounds for those who would prefer to stand in the top two divisions in England & Wales. We really have to re-assess how we manage risk and have a long, serious word with ourselves as a society.
All we can do now is start planning for the visit of Everton on Saturday. The weather forecasters predict that the cold and snow will continue until the weekend. Hopefully that game at least will be able to be played. If not, we really will be facing a fixture pile-up. The problems caused by the weather and our inability as a society to cope with sensible bad weather contingency planning (as we seemed to be able to do when I was growing up in the 1960s when only us and Everton had undersoil heating) has led me to think once again about the shape and structure of our season.
I’ve been a long-term advocate of reducing our top flight to eighteen and even sixteen teams. I thought Serie A in Italy was by a good way the best league in Europe in the era from 1967-1988 when it only had sixteen teams. The only time clubs played midweek was in Europe or in the Coppa d’Italia, Italy’s version of the FA Cup, or, very occasionally, a re-arranged game. Italy went to eighteen teams in 1988/89 and to twenty in 2004/5. Both were BIG mistakes I think. The relative decline of Serie A in comparison to La Liga in Spain and the Premier League has many causes, amongst them corruption, incompetence and violence in the stands, but the increase in the size of the league there has contributed. Italy is still strong enough to have produced a national team that finished third in the World Cup in 1990, runners-up in 1994 and winners in 2006; and to have finished runners-up in the European Championships in 2000. The quality of the domestic league has however declined markedly in comparison with Spain and England.
We have the additional burden of the Carling Cup. The only other country in Europe with a similar competition in addition to the local version of the FA Cup is France. France however has the advantage of having an FA strong enough to have imposed a model player development system. We’ve procrastinated for a generation about a similar system here with vested interested constantly getting in the way. It’s a disgrace that the national football centre still hasn’t been established with all the billions that have flowed into the game.
The reason for cutting the size of the Premier League by two or even four clubs is in fact little to do with the weather. Our geographical position on the globe, the influence of the North Atlantic Drift and global warming all make our weather notoriously unpredictable. A smaller top league would however allow some “give” in the season in the event of bad weather postponements, allow a short mid-season break (in which clubs should be banned by the FA from playing more than one friendly match overseas) of three weeks (two weekends or midweeks without competitive fixtures) and allow for the introduction of at least a second neutral ground replay for FA Cup ties up to and including the sixth round and one replay for the semi-finals and final, helping to restore some of the FA Cup’s historical uniqueness as a competition.
The reduction of league fixtures at the elite level by four would allow for two fewer league games to be scheduled for midweek, easing travel and time off problems for travelling supporters (many of whom are “home” fans) and two weekends/midweeks without league fixtures to give the players a short break, two weeks off, a week’s training with maybe a prestige friendly overseas in the warm weather before re-commencing play in the league. I’d only cut the Premier League’s size and maybe the Football League Championship by two teams as well. The top two divisions tend to go further in domestic and European competitions and have most of the international team players. I’d only apply the break to the Premier League (with maybe a shorter break for the Championship) and slot it in straight after the Christmas/New Year programme ending with the third round of the FA Cup. All this would improve the quality of play and increase the chances of the British national teams in the European Championships and World Cup. It isn’t a panacea but it would benefit the game greatly I think.
The reasons why it isn’t likely to happen as things stand are the usual ones – money and self-interest. We need an FA that is determined to do the right thing for the best thing for the game, not particular vested interests.
Keep the faith!

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