It has been six long weeks since the undramatic denouement of the Premier League, and the withdrawal symptoms have set in. Around the globe, supporters twitch and churn with longing, like teenagers forcibly parted from their smart phones. We’ve had nothing to help us through this time of turmoil — no football whatsoever.
Well, except for the Confederations Cup. And there’s the Gold Cup coming soon. And the U-21 European Championships — they’ve been mildly diverting. And, I suppose, while we’re on that, there was the U-20 World Cup. And the U-17 European Championships. And there was Toulon. And the U-19 European Championship is underway.
Actually, when you think about it, we also had those postseason games, such as Liverpool’s tour of Australia, to ween us off. Preseason starts for many clubs this week, and it’ll be time for the International Champions Cup in two weeks.
In fact, did football even stop at all? And are fans and players alike running the risk of being burned out by its incessant pace?
It wasn’t always like this. With the exception of even-numbered tournament years, the summer used to feel like a break. Perhaps this year has felt more relentless than most because of the rat-a-tat-tat of one minor competition after another, but it seems as if there’s no proper interlude, just every possible age range set against the brutal intensification of transfer gossip. And there’s little worse in this world than transfer gossip.
Has a player “liked” something on InstaSnap? Commission 1,000 words on his impending move immediately! Man the arrival gates of every major airport!
These days, the media is awash with transfer speculation, but as late as the 1980s, you’d be hard-pushed to find more than a few hundred words on football in the English national press during the month of July. And that was OK; it made you hungrier for the real thing. But nothing is real in the summer, and the internet and 24-hour television have only made it worse.
The summer break used to be so long that some footballers, especially when their earnings were restricted by the imposition of a maximum wage, were able to play first-class cricket. World Cup winner Geoff Hurst was on the fringe of the Essex first XI and a regular for the seconds.
Denis Compton won the league and the FA Cup for Arsenal but was actually better known for his exploits with the bat for England. Ian Botham, legendary cricketer of the 1980s, occasionally turned out for Scunthorpe in the winter months. And if you weren’t playing cricket, you were probably watching it. Because it was the only sport that was on, aside from two weeks of tennis.
Most “in my day” complaints are built on sand: Policemen, for example, are not getting younger, music isn’t getting worse, and the news has always been terrifying, but the following numbers are sound.
The last top-flight game of the 1969-70 season, Manchester City’s 2-1 win at Sheffield Wednesday, was on April 22. Their next campaign started on Aug. 15 with a 1-1 draw against Southampton, a gap of 115 days. City had a slighter shorter break in 1980, with just 105 days between their May 3 victory over Ipswich and their Aug. 16 defeat to Southampton. In 1990, the gap was back up to 112 days.
By 2000, City were in the third flight and went 92 days between games, though Premier League clubs were down to 86. City were back in the top flight by 2010, but their summer break was only 83 days, and that’s precisely the gap between the end of last season and the start of the 2017-18 campaign.
That’s quite a reduction in itself, and not only is the break getting shorter, but it’s actually not much of a break at all. City will be in Houston in mid-July, then Los Angeles, Nashville and, for some reason, Reykjavik, Iceland, on Aug. 4. That’s a lot of travel and a fair bit of jet lag.
Why is this important? Business is business, and the relevance of cricket on the English national psyche has little impact upon a global game. Any complaints to this point can be carefully filed in a bin marked “Nostalgic ramblings of a man trudging into middle age.”
But what does have an impact is the physical and mental condition of those involved. We can all concur that the English game is faster than ever, players routinely rack up more than 10 kilometers of distance in every game, and the games come thick and fast.
Teams in Europe travel more; all Champions League and Europa League group entrants are guaranteed three journeys, regardless of success or failure. Professional football is exhausting, and if it never stops, those playing it never rest. And if they never rest, they run the risk of picking up injuries or sinking below their potential level.
But there’s also a mental price to be paid, specifically the accumulation of pressure. The knowledge that every slight slip will be pored over by pundits. The fear that any attempt to play within themselves will be seen as laziness. The experience that tells them that supporters would turn on them in an instant, regardless of anything they’ve said in the past.
No one is crying for millionaires while they catch their breath — in fact, we’re watching them as they do it, from Harry Kane proposing marriage to Mesut Ozil relaxing on the beach — but this isn’t a question of eliciting sympathy. It’s a question of maintaining performance levels in those we pay to entertain us. And we won’t get high performances if we run them into the ground.
Football won’t change now. There’s too much money at stake, and the future holds more fixtures and more travel — not less. But perhaps it should at least consider its direction. Not just for those of us who feel rose-tinted pangs for the old days but also for those who care about the future.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.