We never close, and the rest is history

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The Independent Online
The key to sporting happiness in the future may be found in the opening up of the close season. This traditional period of rest and recuperation between the end of one season and the start of the next once lasted a comfortable four months for the winter games and brought everyone back, players and supporters alike, full of enthusiasm and excitement.

For some years now, this fallow period once thought so essential to the health of our games has been nibbled into with increasing voracity. So much so that you might find it difficult to recall rugby union having any close season at all in 1997. The lower orders would have had their usual break, although they would have been called back for training much earlier than was once the case, but the Lions tour of South Africa and the presence of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland in various parts of the world throughout the summer appeared to construct a bridge between last season and this.

A similar situation will be caused by football's World Cup in France this summer for which the build-up is already at full throttle; the latest being a scare about ticket availability for English fans and some half- baked attempts by the Government to stop our hooligans embarking on another great adventure.

The World Cup begins on 10 June, which is 17 days after the last play- off match of this season. The final takes place in Paris on 12 July, which is only 10 days before British clubs get next season under way by playing in the first qualifying rounds of the European competitions.

The extent to which the close season is diminishing demands that we take a more constructive look at it as a solution to the congestion that is bedevilling both football and rugby. Yet the authorities seem reluctant to make any more than surreptitious inroads into this fertile space and then only when it suits their own agenda. This is remarkable particularly as the spirit of reformation is so strong.

Never before has sport lumbered into a new year laden with so many blueprints and master-plans. Even allowing for the latest craze for self- re-invention - one of the more worrying manifestations of millennium madness - the number of our major games engaged in wholesale fiddling with their formats is unparalleled in more than a century of organised play. Perhaps, changes have been long overdue and the swiftly approaching milestone has galvanised even the traditionalists into action. More likely, I suspect, is that the new breed of administrators now controlling our various governing bodies have discovered an appetite for the grand strategy, an urge to be remembered as the architects of the transformation.

But the proposals, radical as they purport to be, contain little to indicate that they are aware of the expansion possibilities. Any day now, we will probably encounter some nasty weather that wipes out sport and brings what has become the reflex response that we should have a winter break and extend the various seasons accordingly. We should have that facility in any case.

Sadly, the imposition of their will on the clubs appears to be a growing obsession of the governing bodies. There is daily evidence of this, especially in rugby where the conflict is at its most bitter and destructive. But it was the rulers of world soccer, Fifa, who issued the most audacious proposition just before Christmas when their secretary general, Sepp Blatter, said that they wanted the premier leagues of every country to be restricted to 16 teams. It was, he said, the only way to solve the club v country war that made it impossible to squeeze in international fixtures.

This is nonsense because a more sensible move would be to extend the season and introduce a more co- ordinated mixture of club and country fixtures. Why should our Premiership have to cast off four clubs in order to achieve Blatter's figure? It is nothing but an exercise to maximise the various FAs' earning capacity at the expense of the clubs.

Less obvious, but clearly on the same tack, are the proposals put forward by Cliff Brittle, chairman of the Rugby Football Union, whose highly original suggestions include reverting all but the top 24 clubs to amateur status and introducing five provincial unions who will, no doubt, create a new playing structure between the clubs and the international team. Without an extended season to help them cope with the extra load on their best English players, the clubs would have even less chance of gaining from their investments than they have now.

When it comes to revolutions, none will be able to match the bravery of the move taken by rugby league from the winter to the summer. The severity of that change was made easier to bear by the fact that BSkyB were staking it to the value of more than pounds 90m. Summer rugby league sounds fine but with the international players not finishing until late November and the clubs back in serious training in early December we are not talking about a long close season here, either.

Most of the big clubs have been turning out for a series of yuletide friendlies which have attracted one or two good crowds but few epic struggles. They'll be back at it seriously in March, which is hardly summer. Then again, summer is hardly summer sometimes and this year, the third since they made the switch, will decide what future seasonal arrangements would be best for the game.

By far the most interesting ideas came from an organisation that for well over a century had a famed antipathy to change, the Football League. Having had its top layer creamed off by the Premiership, the oldest competition in the world has been through a lean period but I'm very impressed with the plans put forward by the Ipswich chairman, David Sheepshanks. Some of them were a touch outlandish but with 58 out of their 72 clubs making an operational loss last year the League need to reinvigorate their presentation to the public and a longer season would help them to do so.

Unfortunately, cricket can hardly extend the season because of the weather but a month launching the County Championship in some sunny place abroad would get their season off to a good start and provide some watchable television plus some live action for any holidaying fans.

Those two highly successful all-year-round sports, golf and tennis, were once confined largely to the British summer; and look at them now. There's no such thing as a close season for them, neither is there for most of us. Our top games won't be talking real revolution until they make better use of the time at their disposal.

AFTER devouring Coral last week, the bookmaking giants Ladbrokes were licking their lips with the confident air of someone who didn't expect it to repeat on them. But for the sake of the racing industry, and the punters particularly, there must be the closest scrutiny of the deal by the monopolies authorities. To allow one of the top three bookmakers to be swallowed whole by its biggest rival raises all manner of questions, not least the essential competitiveness it removes from the betting market. At the very least, the transaction should force a new look at how bookmakers can plough more back into the industry upon which they thrive.