Mark Sanderson thought Michel Platini might have been onto something with his idea of summer football. As it turns out, he was in the minority.
If rumours are to be believed Michel Platini plans to turn football into a summer sport by 2015. This didn't go down too well with some of the tabloids. The Sun's Mark Irwin made his feelings clear on the matter with the headline: Michel is such a stupid plat. Terry Butcher was equally unimpressed. He gave his Daily Mirror column the title of five equally stupid rules Platini might want to introduce alongside summer football; one of those rules included punishing players for entering the magnetic field of another. Butcher's anger stemmed from Platini not consulting us, the fans, of a fundamental change to the game, which would put an end to a long tradition of playing the season throughout winter.
Meanwhile, teams from the Russell Foster Tyne & Wear Youth League voted unanimously in favour of switching to a summer league. John Topping, company secretary of the Durham County FA, said teams were fed up at twenty-seven weeks of fixtures being lost to bad weather over the course of two seasons. I could identify with their situation. My team, Burridge AFC, of the Drew Smith Southampton League, had thirteen games postponed due to waterlogged and frozen pitches between November 2010 and February 2011. This enforced winter break has become a regular feature of our last five seasons, so I decided to contact the other seventy-three teams in our league to see how they felt about swapping sub-zero conditions and regular fixture postponements with a potentially improved playing and watching experience during a season between March and October. I thought their replies could serve as a barometer to the UK's attitude toward Platini's rumoured plans.
The Football Association gets its fair share of criticism, but what it sometimes lacks in dignity and backbone it certainly tries to make up for in terms of freely available information, with an excellent online database of contacts for every football club in the UK. However, I felt a twinge of anxiety once I'd finished emailing all seventy-three teams of the Southampton League, as I came to terms with putting a great force in motion, no doubt leading to an inevitable sea change in the game, which I was unsure I wanted to accept responsibility for. I needn't have worried. As replies began to sift through some common themes emerged.
Firstly, it appeared I had completely underestimated the popularity of cricket. I was informed, by a number of clubs, that if a summer league existed, a significant number of their players and spectators would be faced with an agonising dilemma of choosing between football and cricket, before finally choosing cricket; but this theory cut no ice with me. It didn't take long to unravel some of my colleagues' motivation in watching cricket, which seemed based almost exclusively on being able to sit in the sun, drinking alcohol whilst heckling the fielders in extra cover. Deep down we all know the losing battle cricket faces in competing for attention with football, which would be magnified further if the two seasons ran in tandem. Cricket would be slowly reduced into a strange ritual few people understand and even less are curious about, a bit like Morris dancing.
There were other arguments against a summer league, most of them pretty flimsy - if people weren't away on their summer holidays, they were enjoying the outdoors with their family and friends. Doing so with football seemed quite out of the question. Yes, the the World Cup and European Championships are played during the summer, but they have, for many England fans at least, fallen somewhat short of expectations.
Under the new regime Platini would have all international tournaments played in the off season between January and February. Television companies would bid frantically for the rights to broadcast these tournaments; not just the World Cup and the European Championships, but anything else. The prospect of tuning in to Burkina Faso playing against Tunisia to decide who gets through the group stages of the Africa Cup of Nations, or Bahrain locked in a tense nil-nil Asian Cup quarter-final with Kuwait, would take on new significance in satisfying a restless public's appetite for televised football during the cold dark months of our winter. The Premier League juggernaut would probably continue its relentless onslaught to further commercial gain whether or not games were played in winter or summer. There may be some subtle changes in a summer league though, with the 3pm kick-off becoming further obsolete. Stifling hot afternoons would prevent the likes of Stoke City carrying out their obligations of charging around for ninety minutes, so games would kick-off in the evening, which would also maximise a TV audience.
Government legislation might force some football clubs into changing their habits. I was unable to give Adrian Chiles my full attention during half-time of Manchester United's Champions League home leg with Schalke, because of the sight through the studio window of two enormous jets of water cascading over the pitch. Sir Alex Ferguson may well like his side to play on a slick surface, but it's unlikely such an indulgence would be tolerated during the summer months under a government bound to stiff carbon emission reduction targets. So, one of Old Trafford's secret assets would be rendered impotent, leaving Manchester United to break down defences on a far dryer and lifeless thatch, much like Mark Lawrenson's hair. This would encourage visiting teams to come and park the bus in search of elusive points at Old Trafford.
Premier League football clubs would probably adapt to a summer league quicker than the fans. It was left to Rick Hunt, secretary of Lowford FC, who whilst admitting he had his tongue in his cheek, hit the nail on the head when he replied to my email by saying he didn't think a summer league would work, because playing or watching domestic football in summer would just feel wrong. Mainly because it went against many elements that got him, and myself, so engrossed with the game in the first place - like getting very muddy indeed, or recognising the first symptoms of pneumonia whilst stood on the terrace in January.
Concerns about ending a long tradition seemed to lurk behind many responses. Was the football season in its current format perhaps mere routine masquerading as tradition, blinding us to a possibly improved watching and playing experience in the process? Probably not judging by the number of people who did not respond. Their silence spoke volumes. At first I wondered if the title of my email, which was 'summer football league,' might have alerted the suspicion of spam filters, and therefore been siphoned into often ignored junk mail folders; although in truth I suspected people may have felt the idea too outlandish to warrant any response at all.
Christopher Nobbs of Horton Heath Athletic did reply. Having become fed up with the amount of fixtures postponed by bad weather, he feels grassroots football would benefit from a summer league. However, being the only of the 73 teams in favour he was also in a tiny minority. It is not clear whether or not my findings are representative of the entire country, although football is not always particularly responsive to change, especially if it is being made by a Frenchman working for an organisation many in this country still hold responsible for England not hosting the World Cup in 2018.
Mark plays football (badly) for Burridge AFC, and writes about it at www.90minutesofburridge.blogspot.com