Football: Scots forecast bright future for winter halt

This weekend marks a break with tradition north of the border with the introduction of a three-week hiatus. By David McKinney
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The Independent Online
SCOTTISH FOOTBALL'S attempts to re-invent itself will take a radical step forward immediately after the Old Firm game on Sunday. The match between Rangers and Celtic at Ibrox will be the last action for three weeks as the newly-established Premier League takes a three-week winter break.

The idea is not new, of course, with most European countries operating a similar system, but it is one that has been welcomed by Scotland's top clubs and could be copied by the Premiership in England.

This year - especially when the domestic season has followed hard on the heels of the World Cup - the idea of a hiatus is one that appeals particularly to players who are beginning to suffer from the demands of year-round football. Tommy Boyd, the Celtic captain, is embracing the chance to recharge the batteries. "A lot of players are still suffering from theWorld Cup," he said. "Personally, I would like to see a longer break but it is certainly very welcome."

The break is just one of several innovations initiated by the Premier League with the aim of improving the Scottish game. It comes at a time when some players in the successful clubs, chiefly Rangers and Celtic, have already taken part in close to 30 games and, according to Roger Mitchell, the chief executive of the Scottish Premier League, the change will be welcomed by everybody.

"It gives players, pitches and fans a break from football. After Christmas we feel the supporters are consumered out, so it's better to have a break and it also gives us two events in one championship because we'll be able to re-launch the League. One of the reasons we have had a lot of games in the first half of the season is to fit in the break."

In common with its English equivalent, the Premier League in Scotland insists on pitch protection for its members. So even if the gamble of a break in January can be hostage to the vagaries of the weather, Mitchell believes cancellations will be kept to a minimum. "The clubs all have an obligation to provide a good playing surface," he said, "so the pitches will have a chance to recover although we are aware that if we break now and have a bad February it won't look so good." The move is being especially welcomed by those clubs who have under-performed so far, a three-week break providing an opportunity to re-assess their position and, crucially, bring back injured players.

Dunfermline have found themselves rooted to the foot of the table for most of the campaign and, although they are one of the few clubs who will not be travelling to the sun for a break, Dick Campbell, their assistant manager, feels the rest could be vital to their survival prospects. "We've had a few injuries to key players," he said, "and we feel we've drawn more games than any other club because we have to change our team for every match. Like Dundee United and Aberdeen we can now look forward to January as a chance to start again."

The success of the mid-season break will be monitored closely from south of the border as the English Premiership receives increasing calls to emulate the Scots. John Gregory, the Aston Villa manager, for one, this week suggested a similar scheme be implemented.

"I don't feel there is the need to play at Christmas now in the Premiership," Gregory said. "It is about time we got our heads together and our acts together and maybe have a shut-down for a couple of weeks, because it's a crazy period in which to be battling for points."

The possibility of England following suit is not one that concerns the Scottish Premier League's Roger Mitchell, but he does believe it would be beneficial. "If it can be fitted into the calendar I think the English would be interested, but with so many games in the calendar now, including an expanded Champions' League, they will have to decide their priority," he said.

The increase in fixtures could signal the end of the League Cup, certainly in Scotland. Mitchell added: "We have to be sensible about the number of games players involved and maybe we'll have to make sacrifices." It has not been often that the Scots have led the way in British football, but perhaps the adoption of a mid-season break will be an innovation the English will come to accept.

HOLIDAY DESTINATIONS

Aberdeen: staying at home

Celtic: Spain

Dundee: to be arranged

Dundee United: Florida

Dunfermline: staying at home Heart of Midlothian: Portugal

Kilmarnock: Portugal

Motherwell: Tenerife

Rangers: Florida

St Johnstone: Spain

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