Fixture congestion is not a problem Everton have to deal with currently, thanks to their own ineptitude, but it is an increasingly fractious issue in the modern game that may be coming to a head in the next few weeks.
Jurgen Klopp sparked controversy by declaring that he and his Liverpool first-team players will miss their FA Cup fourth-round replay against Shrewsbury as it falls during the Premier League’s first ever winter break.
The Reds boss has repeatedly voiced his concerns about the impact of fixture congestion on his players and echoed Pep Guardiola in calling for cup replays to be scrapped, while there have also been calls for the Carabao Cup to be scrapped altogether.
I do have sympathy for Klopp in this regard, as I do with the likes of Jose Mourinho and Steve Bruce, who now face the prospect of having their players’ winter break reduced because of the need for FA Cup replays, it’s ludicrous scheduling.
But it’s no coincidence that the two managers shouting loudest for replays to go are in charge of the two clubs at the top of the table. Their success naturally means more fixtures and a greater strain on players, even if they have far greater resources than most to be able to cope with it.
There is no doubt that there is an issue with the English football calendar at present. Manchester City have played 13 games in just over six weeks since mid-December, while Liverpool played nine games in that month alone. But to blithely call for cup replays to go is hugely disrespectful to the traditions of English football and, more importantly, underestimates the importance of such games to lower league clubs.
Just look at the scenes of jubilation at New Meadow on Sunday. Those Shrewsbury supporters will now travel in great number to Anfield for a memorable tie that will be a huge financial boost to the League One club. They will enjoy their moment in the sun even if Klopp and his senior players won’t be there. Yes, money is one of the benefits of such a game, but it is the kind of cash that can secure a lower league club’s future, rather than go towards the weekly wage of a millionaire squad player.
It is telling that while Klopp has made wholesale changes for domestic cup ties this season, he had no issue taking a full squad all the way to Qatar for the Club World Cup, a much-maligned tournament in Europe where simply qualifying for it (by lifting the Champions League) is actually more important than winning it.
Could the reported $5 million in prize money have influenced his selection? I suspect so, which goes right to the heart of the problem.
Football at the top level is driven by cash, and that skews every key decision that is made. It’s why the likes of Klopp and Guardiola are under pressure to perform in the tournaments that matter most to the bottom line. The same can be said of the likes of Bruce or Sean Dyche, where Premier League survival is the number one priority over a cup run (though ask Wigan fans whether they preferred the memories of their famous FA Cup triumph in 2013 over another year of top-flight football).
Take the Premier League winter break for example. One of the reasons why it has never been introduced previously is the influence of TV companies, who pay billions for live rights and did not want a weekend without top-flight football.
As a compromise, the fixtures have been split over two weekends so they can all be shown on live TV. But all that has done is is squeeze the time available for other games either side, with cup replays ridiculously scheduled DURING the break.
Couldn’t the FA and Premier League have applied some joined-up thinking? January is traditionally the coldest month in the UK, couldn’t the winter break have been scheduled for then?
There are suggestions that it was arranged for February as it falls just before the Champions League last 16, allowing Premier League clubs still in the competition a rest just before their European encounters. Further evidence of decisions favouring those who have the most money, generate the most money and therefore wield more influence.
When it comes to solving fixture congestion it seems the games that are worth the least to the wealthiest clubs are the first to go.
It’s why UEFA will never consider decreasing the number of fixtures in the Champions League, and why the latest talks over the tournament’s structure is actually proposing an INCREASE in the number of games, while the Club World Cup is to be expanded from next year and a new European competition will be introduced in 2021.
In short; more games that make the big clubs lots of cash. Less of the ones that don’t.
English football is almost unique in Europe in that it contains so many professional clubs, and that is what makes the game in this country so special. It would be a huge shame if more clubs went the way of Bury FC simply to pander to the super rich at the top of the pyramid.
Something does need to be done to ease the strain on players, but I don’t believe scrapping cup replays is the answer. And the solution can only be found if the Premier League, FA and EFL join together to find a solution that benefits everyone, not just the privileged few.
Sadly, I fear any schedule changes will continue to be done primarily with finances in mind, with everything else, including players’ welfare and the future of lower division clubs, a secondary concern.