Salmon’s soapbox – winter break will do English game good

England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson and David Beckham look dejected after losing against Portugal in the quarter-finals of the 2006 World Cup in Germany
England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson and David Beckham look dejected after losing against Portugal in the quarter-finals of the 2006 World Cup in Germany

Former England boss Sven-Goran Eriksson has long been an advocate of the Premier League taking a winter break.

Former England boss Sven-Goran Eriksson has long been an advocate of the Premier League taking a winter break.

The ex-Three Lions manager has, in the past, cited the lack of a shutdown halfway through the English football season as one of the main reasons behind the national team’s lack of success at major tournaments during his reign and since.

Looking back, England fans were relatively blessed when the ex-Lazio, Sampdoria and Leicester City chief was in charge between 2001 and 2006. Two successive quarter-final finishes at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups sandwiched another last-eight spot at the 2004 European Championships.

His record is impressive when compared with his successors Steve McClaren, Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson.

McClaren failed to qualify for the 2008 Euros in Austria and Switzerland, while both Capello and Hodgson’s best results were exits at the knockout stages at the 2010 World Cup and 2012 Euros respectively.

Despite Eriksson’s favourable record, you have to go all the way back to 1996 for the last time an England team made it to through to the semi-finals of a tournament when Terry Venables’ swashbuckling outfit reached the last-four on home soil before bowing out, predictably, on penalties to Germany.

Clearly, Eriksson’s failure to win any of his quarter-finals while England boss rankles with him and he has pinpointed the lack of a winter break as one of the reason behind this.

His argument carries weight when compared to the other footballing superpowers in Europe, who all employ winter breaks – usually around Christmas time into January – in their respective domestic leagues.

In the 22 long years since England’s previous foray into the last four of a tournament, Germany have reached eight semi-finals – going on to win the World Cup in 2014 and the Euros in 1996, while also reaching two finals.

France can boast of two victories – the 1998 World Cup followed by the Euros two years later. They have also been runners-up on two occasions. at the World Cup in 2006 and then 10 years later at the Euros on home soil.

Italy were crowned World Cup winners in 2006 and have also have managed to reach the final of the Euros in 2000 and 2012.

Spain – so long the underachievers in the world game – have firmly blown away that tag by winning three successive major tournaments between 2008 and 2012.

Eriksson always recounts a story on the eve of the 2002 World Cup when Owen Hargreaves – then of Bayern Munich – was the fittest player out of his England squad.

The midfielder’s tip-top physical shape was attributed to the Bundesliga’s long winter break six month earlier.

And there is a certain irony that when Hargreaves moved to English football in 2007, his time was blighted by injuries and fitness issues. He managed just a combined total of 43 appearances in five years during stints at both Manchester United and Manchester City.

So is English football’s lack of a winter break putting the national team at a disadvantage when compared to other nations?

This week the Premier League revealed that they are considering plans to introduce a winter break when negotiations over the next television deal take place in 2019. It will be interesting to see if the proposals actually come to fruition and whether in time Eriksson’s argument proves to be right.

There is no suggestion that the popular and traditional festive fixtures will be sacrificed rather that the league will take a breather once the new year arrives.

Personally, I’m in favour of it. Having never seen an England team triumph at a major tournament in my lifetime, it will be interesting to see if a winter break levels the playing field and ultimately improves our fortunes.

We have seen in cricket how the introduction of central contracts at the turn of the century has greatly improved the national team’s fortunes.

Protecting the country’s best players from the unnecessary toil of the County Championship in the build-up to important Test matches, we have witnessed England win five of the last eight Ashes series – albeit the less said about the most recent clash against Australia the better!

While the ECB have won the power struggle with its counties, Premier League clubs are unlikely to put the interests of the country above themselves.

However, the introduction of a winter break could also conceivably help them, especially those clubs who are fighting for success in the Champions League and Europa League – an argument put forward by managers such as Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho. Of course, there is the argument as to whether a winter break would make any difference at all to our international fortunes.

There are many European players plying their trade in the Premier League, who do not appear to have been hindered by the lack of a winter break when they pull on their national team’s jersey.

For example, France reached the final of Euro 2016 despite the presence of 11 English based players –half of their squad.

And a look at the 12 squads to reach either a World Cup or European Championships final over the last decade shows that nearly 20% of players were based in this country.

Such is the worldwide attraction and global appeal of the Premier League, would a break in games for a few weeks be feasible. We have also seen supporters complain about the lack of a regular football fix when the international break brings a temporary halt to proceedings at various points during the season.

However, maybe a break in play during the coldest month of the year would actually improve attendances when the games are staged further down the line when the weather is less harsh.

If the winter break does come into existence, then I think it is important that clubs make proper use of it and give players time to rest and recharge their batteries.

But somehow, I envisage the time being spent by clubs to jet their top stars around the world playing in lucrative exhibition matches across the United States and the Far East. We shall see!