Thursday, 17 March 2011

Have a break, win a World Cup

Hurrah! England's cricketers aren't the also-rans we all thought they were and, er, as long as South Africa and India don't both lose their final group games the team will march triumphantly on to the quarter finals.

But let's be honest the Aussie-bashing superheroes look, well, a little tired, no? The desire's there and, fair play, they've dug out some great performances but they seem to be a team playing from memory, not one at the peak of its mental and physical powers.

Perhaps spinner Graeme Swann  hit the nail on the head earlier this week when he questioned whether cricketers can produce high-quality cricket given the number of games they play each year. Apart from three days, the team has been on the road since October 29th, a schedule Swann considers 'ludicrous' and in 'danger of overkill'.

In August 1999, England were ranked bottom of the nine Test playing nations and so central contracts which were introduced so the ECB would have greater access and control over the players. Not a perfect system, but one which has played its part in the team's renaissance. Yet this winter there's a sense that's been undermined as the team has been put through a punishing schedule. As Swann said: "We know the reasons why there are so many games and they are purely financial. Maybe one day commonsense will come into it."

C'mon Swannie, it's no time for kip now.

An interesting point, and should Wazza, J.T., Stevie G and the rest of the boys qualify for Euro 2012 it's a lesson England's football 'chiefs' would do well to remember. But of course they won't, because England gave football to the world and has nothing to learn, right?

During the World Cup post mortem Fabio Capello (who had suddenly gone from being the world's best manager to just another dirty, money-grabbing foreigner trying to sabotage the Motherland of football) said the players were mentally and physically exhausted and called for a winter break. He was (depending on your point of view) in good company as both his predecessors, Sven-Goran Eriksson and Steve McLaren as well as Martin O'Neill and some chap called Sir Alex Ferguson have all called for a mid-season break too.

However, Richard Scudamore the Premier League's chief executive, with the contradictory skill of a politician responded quickly: "We are open-minded to it but I don’t see where the impetus is going to come from. Mr Capello might want one but I can’t see where the momentum is going to come to reduce our league from 20 to 18 clubs. It would be daft to do that when you have a global property of our strength."

Doesn't sound like you're too open minded to me, pal. And when the hell did football become a 'global property'? A quick look at the fixture lists of other European countries' leagues shows that, Mr Scudamore's grasp of the facts was a little wide of the mark.  La Liga, Serie A and Ligue 1 are all 20-team leagues which manage winter breaks of between two and three-and-a-half weeks  and, although smaller in size, Germany's Bundesliga, Holland's Eredivisie and Portugal's Liga all have breaks too.

Of course while he doesn't think there's time for a winter break, Mr Scudamore does think there's time for a 39th game which would see all Premier League teams playing an 'extra' game somewhere abroad and while that plan's on hold for now it did receive unanimous backing from Premier League chairmen, so it will no doubt be back on the agenda at some point.

What do you mean you're shagged out?

Now, English football's a wonderfully myopic sport, which likes to forget that 1966 wasn't the last time a team from these shores was crowned world champions. Of course the Rugby World Cup winners of 2003, the preparation they had prior to that tournament was markedly different to that of the footballers in 2010 (or any other time for that matter) and the cricketers now.

From the day after the final of the Zurich Premiership on May 31st 2003 to the day after the World Cup final on 23rd November, the country's top players were totally under the control of the England management, this despite the new domestic season starting on September 12th. Quite a sacrifice for the clubs to make and not one likely to be made by the likes of Manchester United or Chelsea any time soon.

In that time, the players went on a tour of New Zealand and Australia before having four weeks' rest. They then had three months' training at a purpose-built environment at Pennyhill Park focused solely on maintaining their fitness and building skills prior to the tournament. The players began training at 7.30am each morning (clearly the Rugby players aren't as scared of hard work as our footballers) and when they were arrived in Australia they were in peak condition.

In the aftermath of that triumph in 2003, the England management's access to players has been again been restricted as the Premiership clubs flexed their muscles. Have England been as good since? It's a moot point.

There will always be antagonism between trying to reap the financial benefits of playing lots of games and allowing the players' enough down time and the right preparation to perform at a consistently high level but it's clear those who get that are the ones with the best chance of lifting trophies.

The message is clear; if you want a team to be at its peak for a world cup, let them have a break (but perhaps tell them to lay off the Kit Kat's eh?)

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