Saturday, 17 January 2009

Football in hibernation

First published in The Grecian, 17 January 2009, Exeter City -v- Bury

While it’s a safe bet that you won’t be making plans for a nice post-match barbecue this afternoon, we all hope that – after the frustration of recent games postponed and momentum lost – the ‘big chill’ will stay away from League Two in general, and St James’ Park in particular, for the next few weeks.

To add to the cold weather misery, last weekend saw the Grecians drop all three points in a 2-1 away defeat to mid-table Notts County at Meadow Lane. But the players have made it clear that they don’t intend to allow this to become a slump. Today’s encounter with Bury won’t be easy. But the possibility of launching a New Year push back to the promotion zone should be motivation enough to return to winning ways after only two victories in the last nine games played.

Meanwhile, what with the opening of the January transfer window and significant disruption to parts of the Football League programme over the past fortnight due to freezing conditions, it’s seemed as if football has been in hibernation.

When I turned to the sports section of my favourite newspaper last week it even took me six pages to reach any football news… everyone having gone crazy about the latest woes of the England cricket team and its troubled captaincy. Cricket stealing the headlines in winter? It really is a crazy world!

When Exeter City’s midweek game against Macclesfield was called off, no-one was that surprised. We had just endured over 48 hours of sub-zero temperatures. The Port Vale postponement the Saturday before caused much more furore, however – coming as it did after lunch and following the arrival of the away supporters’ coaches.

I live 20 minutes walk away from St James’, so for me this was a relatively minor inconvenience. But for the players and staff who had prepared themselves and the ground for match day (not to mention your hard-pressed programme editor!), it was a real pain. You had to feel for those disconsolate Vale supporters wandering around the town centre, too. It would be a long trip back.

That said, some of the reactions were a bit daft. Both Exeweb and the fans’ zone on the main Stoke & Staffordshire paper had more than a few correspondents accusing the club of half-heartedness or the officials of cowardice.

These days we are more sensitive than we would have been twenty years ago to the possibilities of injury on a hardened pitch where the real problem can lie just beneath the surface. But that’s no bad thing. And to suggest that anyone wanted anything other than to see the game go ahead is wrong. But the decision is still a matter of judgment.

It remains the case that England, along with Scotland and Portugal, is one of only three major leagues on mainland Europe not to have a winter break. In general, I’d favour one. The problem is that taking time out in January doesn’t guarantee that bad weather won’t occur in, say, November and February, which historically have had a habit of throwing up some of the coldest spells.

No doubt that argument will run and run. But at least things aren’t nearly as rough as they were (if my memory serves right) up to the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s, when pitch preparation and technology was far less developed and matches were even more prey to the elements.

Those were the fabled times that gave rise to the ‘Pools Panel’, on which serious-looking men with alarming looking facial hair would pass judgement on what the results would have been in order to keep the betting on track. I remember some Saturdays when 80 per cent of the ‘results’ were inspired guesswork rather than the outcome of prowess on the pitch.

Grumble we may, then. But conditions for both players and fans have improved considerably over the years – just as we hope Exeter’s points, position and goals tally will have done after today’s proceedings.


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