With apologies to Neil Finn and the rest of Crowded House, our climate has been worrying some of us more than usual in the first few weeks of 2014.
Somerset can rarely have been in the news so much, and by comparison with the problems for those that live in the worst hit villages, sport is merely a trifle. It did however start a train of thought about postponements and a duty of care to supporters.
Clearly certain parts of the country have had a lot of rain this winter. It will probably be dismissed in some quarters as exceptional, but there have been
a crop of stories where supporters have arrived at a ground after a long journey to find a game called off within an hour or so of kick off.
To me, this demands a two pronged attack to cut these incidents to a minimum, assuming that clubs are trying to apply some common sense and avoid the opposing team travelling in the first place.
Broadly, it seems that the Premier League and the Championship clubs suffer very few postponements. Their infrastructure is such that they can invest
sufficiently with undersoil heating or the equivalent of a heated tent to cover the pitch, and good drainage. Further down the pyramid, the impression given is of clubs dodging bullets until the last minute.
The system under one end of Charlton Athletic’s ground at the Valley has collapsed this winter. Even worse, at Newport County – a ground shared by three teams – the planned programme of work last summer wasn’t finished in time, leading to a raft of postponements. The football club has complained their cash flow is poor, as it is at Braintree, where the Skrill Premier club have played only 11 home league fixtures, the last of which was on December the 28th. It’s hardly a surprise.
I watched the Six Nations game at Murrayfield on Saturday night, played on a really heavy pitch. The problem there was caused by pests damaging the root structure rather than anything climatic, but I’ve been to some grounds where there are obvious recurring issues with parts of the pitch either not thawing or drying out.
It must be time, with so much money coming into football, for some of it to be made available so that clubs can seriously invest in the surfaces they play on. I know when Wasps started sharing Adams Park with Wycombe Wanderers, the Chairboys introduced a semi synthetic element to the pitch to improve its durability.
The Football Foundation has funds available at grass roots level, but higher up there is nothing. The money would need to be ring fenced, but such investment would enable more games to be played on their scheduled dates, which is what everybody would want.
The other issue thrown up to me by postponements is the fixture schedule itself. It is meant to be random, and that is fine as a basic principle, but I now feel it is time to eradicate the long fruitless trips by some gentle pre-structuring of the fixture list.
We don’t have regional divisions until step 6 of the football pyramid (Skrill North/South), so as a result there are locations a long way apart. I know the Football League opoerate a “pairing” system for matches to ease policing, and I appreciate a journey from Bournemouth or Brighton to Middlesborough is a long way, but those clubs are cushioned by an 80% share of the current Football League TV deal and postponements at that level are much less frequent.
Further down the pyramid is where action needs to be taken. The League should in my opinion actively identify the longest round trips from League 1 downwards and scheduled them for Saturdays at either end of the season, say before October 31st or after March 1st. It would hopefully avoid the worst example of an abortive trip I have seen recently.
Oxford City and Workington – 280 miles or so apart – play in the Skrill North. Their scheduled game in Cumbria was due to be played on Saturday February 1st, but was called off after a lunch time deluge left Borough Park waterlogged.
It now means a Tuesday night round trip in excess of 560 miles for a part time club. Whilst the weather is out of the hands of both teams, the date of the original fixture is something which could – and should – be controlled.
I would advocate four such fixtures in the autumn and another four in the spring being a suitable starting point. Until (if ever) that happens, we are left with a system that could send a team to Plymouth on a Saturday and Morecambe the following Tuesday. Logistically, you have to say it’s only one step short of madness.
Photograph : Copyright http://www.forestgreenroversfc.com