SPFL Winter Break and League Cup Reconstruction

This time next year, the Scottish Premiership will introduce a winter break for the first time since the 2002/03 season.

Back then, the move to scrap the winter break was criticised by several high-profile individuals in the game, including Alex McLeish and Martin O’Neill – then managers of Rangers and Celtic, respectively.

O’Neill also praised the break – which had only been introduced in the 1998/99 season – for aiding his side’s progression to the UEFA Cup semi-final stage, stating it gave them a necessary break amidst a gruelling fixture schedule.

So far the two week shutdown for next season has only been agreed for Scotland’s top-flight, with lower league clubs to be consulted in due course. As it stands, opinion appears to be split about whether or not it would benefit Scotland’s part-time clubs.

Stenhousemuir manager Brown Ferguson believes that a winter break is as important for all Scottish clubs, mainly due to the irregular weather the country is often subjected to at this time.

“From a playing perspective, the conditions we’ve had to play in over the last month or so just make football a complete and utter lottery,” said Ferguson.

“Any sort of game plan or any way you want to coach it or patterns of play you want to work towards just go completely out the window.

“From a supporter’s perspective, it’s not fun when you’re watching games and it is zero degrees, blowing a hoolie and the rain is coming in horizontally.”

It is not just the Scottish weather that informs the Warriors manager’s opinion. For him, rest also plays a crucial role in the modern game. Nevertheless, he acknowledges the teething problems that will come if it is implemented.

“It’s important just to get a break. A mental break from the rigours of the game, the travel, the dark nights, the wet conditions,” he said.

“Everything like that, it would be really nice to get a break, regenerate and then focus on the second part of the season.

“If you’re full-time and it’s your occupation, there’s a bit more consideration, but when you’re part-time and you’ve got a 40-45 hour week jobs and you’re training on top of that and have families that you’re not seeing that often, it becomes more difficult.”

Several high profile managers in England, which currently plays continuously through the winter months, have also espoused the benefits of a mid-season intermission.

Furthermore, countries such as Germany and Spain have long had a winter break. Both have seen their domestic teams achieve recent success in European competitions and both their national sides have won major trophies within the last decade.

Introducing it for part-time clubs in this country is not a view shared by all, however.

“I think it works for the Premiership clubs because their players are playing international games, they’re playing European games, which means they’ve effectively got no break,” said chairman of Alloa Athletic, Mike Mulraney.

“It’s about having a programmed break. Though I don’t think the lower league clubs can either afford it or need it.

We’re not in Europe and our players tend not to be playing in international games.”

One area both men agree on is the restructuring of the League Cup, which has been confirmed for next season.

The new format will see eight regionalised and seeded groups play in a round-robin system.

Eight group winners and best four runners up will then be joined in the knockout stage by Scottish sides competing in European competitions.

In an innovative move, group stage matches that finish in a draw will end in a penalty shootout where the teams involved will compete for an extra point.

The changes mean that the 42 SPFL clubs will start the next campaign earlier, commencing in mid-July.

Despite the obvious logistical problems, Mulraney – who also sits on the SPFL board – believes it is a positive step for the game.

“There’s always issues. We’re starting a few weeks early but I’m relatively satisfied that the significantly increased funding means we will be no worse off financially and hopefully a lot better off,” said Mulraney.

“Not just from the fixtures but the media contracts and so forth are so much better that the total amount of funding that will come out of the competition is such that between the fixtures being better than pre-season friendlies because they are more attractive.

“At least some of them will be local derbies as well.”

The new and improved television deal is with BT Sport and is worth around £8m up until 2020. Though the Stenhousemuir manager admits that there are certain practicalities that need addressed, he too sees it as an encouraging development.

“The good thing is that there is obviously a want to try and change some of the format in the cup competitions from the supporter’s perspective” said Ferguson.

“Just to try and freshen things up and give a new outlook and a new approach to things.

“To be involved in a round-robin format at the early part of the new season could be exciting.

“And it gives everyone an opportunity to play against a top team from the higher divisions and other teams throughout, if it is seeded the way they are talking about it.

“So I think it’s a really good concept.”

Just as he does with the proposed winter break for lower league clubs, Ferguson recognises the potential issues with bringing the season forward as a result.

“I think the obvious problem that we will need to consider is the timing of the cup and how we then, in turn, try to prepare our players appropriately to start a league campaign essentially two weeks earlier,” he said.

“Or do we consider and see the competition as a more competitive friendly environment?

“I think that is going to be the only difficulty for us if we want to try and hit the ground running, so to speak.

“We want to give ourselves the best chance possible in any sort of cup competition because it can be valuable to the club and obviously you want to do well.”

This was a piece of coursework as part of my MA Multimedia Journalism course.

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