Fixture congestion raises doubts over winter break trial

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The Independent Football

There are doubts within the Premiership that the proposed winter break will get off the ground smoothly. The decision to give a trial to a two-week January breather from next season was agreed in principle on Wednesday night. But the only way it will happen, some prominent figures believe, is if top-flight clubs withdraw from the League Cup and/or receive a bye at some stage in the FA Cup.

The positive spin being applied to the notion of the break on Wednesday is understood to have come mainly from the Football Association. Sven Goran Eriksson is one of the leading proponents of a break. Any public displays of confidence by the FA in England's manager and his ideas can only increase the likelihood that the Swede will see out his contract or even sign an extension.

But some club chairmen remain unconvinced. The experimental break pencilled in for next season - part of a proposed two-year trial - will supposedly start after the third round of the FA Cup and last a fortnight.

Eriksson wants the players to have a complete break for seven days and then return to training but play no games for another week. Such a scheme might "displace" between one and four matches per club, depending on progress in the cups. The pivotal issue is when these displaced games will be played. Extending the season is unlikely, not least because it would be contrary to one of the stated aims of helping the national side.

There is no great appetite for an earlier start to the season because August is the most popular month for family holidays, which affect attendances. There is no question of the Premiership being reduced in size, so fewer League games is not an option.

This means that when the Premier League, the Football League and the FA sit down to try to decide the details for a trial, they will probably be looking for room within the current seasonal format in which to squeeze more games. The second half of the season, already packed, is unlikely. Which leaves the autumn - and a possible reduction in League Cup commitments - or else tinkering with the FA Cup.

When the Scottish Premier League introduced a three-week winter break in 1998-99, it was accommodated by extending the season until late May. The break stayed in place for five years before being dropped for this season. The main reason for it being dropped was fixture congestion. Cash flow was also an issue for some clubs.

Most SPL coaches, including Alex McLeish and Martin O'Neill, were in favour of the break and said it benefited their players. Gérard Houllier was among those voicing support yesterday for a Premiership mid-season break.

"Players will not be going into major tournaments tired out after a long season," the Liverpool manager said. "The one thing that must be protected is the holiday games over Christmas and New Year, and a two-week break in January would be good."

Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the players' union, the Professional Footballers' Association, gave his qualified support to a break. "But it has to be a proper break," he said. "You couldn't have clubs going and planning tours. That would just make a farce of it."

The Portsmouth manager, Harry Redknapp, questioned if players really want a break. He said that most would rather train as normal than "sit about with the wife all day". "It will be interesting to see how everybody uses the break," he said. "There will be lots of conflicting ways of using it, I'm sure."

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