So once again, I have a weekend with no live football to watch.
It is the 5th Round of the FA Cup and my club Everton are not involved, due to being the only team this year to concede goals to Leicester City who won 2-1 at Goodison in January. However, we are not alone. From a total of twenty Premier league clubs, the world’s strongest league, remember, only eight have made it through to the 5th Round of the FA Cup. That is a large number of fans left with nothing but Soccer Saturday on Sky to keep them entertained. We are only just over six weeks into the New Year and this is my second weekend without football. Who needs a mid- winter break?
Still, I can feel reassured that my team are still working hard this weekend. Everton have jetted off to a warm training camp in Dubai this week to acclimatise themselves to those baking temperatures we often suffer on Merseyside in March, April and May. And as another biting wind blew in from the Irish Sea, I could console myself by looking at the latest posts from the players on social media as they celebrate putting a Dubai Eleven to the sword with a stunning four nil win.
But Everton are not alone. Amongst others, Liverpool and Southampton are off to Spain. Stoke City are also in Dubai for their warm weather training camps. However, all credit must go to Sunderland for their total honesty. No pretensions here, David Moyes is taking the players for a “bonding session” in New York, which will involve visits to casinos and sporting events! Obviously the staff at Sunderland do not bother with working on “bonding” during their regular training sessions as recent home results would indicate. Still, to any Sunderland fan just coming to the end of their twelve hour night shift at Nissan, it must be reassuring to know that their hard earned season ticket money is being gambled away in a New York casino.
Times change so quickly in football. In the Sixties and Seventies, most footballers idea of a mid -winter break would have been a weekend in a hotel in Blackpool and an impromptu game against the hotel staff. As Bill Shankly once replied to a question about his holidays, “It was great, we put a team together and we beat the waiters 4-2”. However, the needs of the modern footballer are apparently far more demanding. Even a revamped and re-imagined Blackpool does not have the allure on social media that Dubai and New York have. Donkeys have been replaced by camels, I am talking destinations not teams here.
I always somewhat naively thought that the successful conclusion of deals in the January transfer window, depended on salaries and bonuses. How mistaken I was. Clearly the destination of the “mid- winter break /bonding session” is the deal breaker. Did Defoe’s rumoured move to West Ham collapse at the last minute when he realised he would be giving up his “bonding” break in New York. For a man who recently advertised for a housekeeper, the loss of such “me” time would have proved impossible to cope with.
And who exactly goes on these trips? Is it every player in the registered Premier League squad? Do academy youngsters travel as part of their preparations for their next loan move to a Championship club? For some fringe first team players, never mind not getting on the bench on match day, to be relegated from the mid-winter break squad is the ultimate humiliation.
Often, when players went away on International duty, their club managers would be concerned that they may return unhappy and demanding improved contracts when they realised how much more some of their friends were earning. That matters no more. The more pressing concern is that they raise discontent in the dressing room at clubs, such as Liverpool when they spread the word that for a supposedly big club they are having to make do with a mini break in Spain , whereas Stoke City are off sunning themselves in Dubai. The destination of the mid -winter break speaks volumes about a club’s ambition.
So my thoughts turn back to the 3rd Round of the FA Cup in January. Although money is no object for Premier League clubs, the availability of accommodation and flights for up to seventy staff could be a difficulty. I am sure that Last Minute Com are not the official organisers of such breaks, therefore, they must be planned well in advance. So, what goes through players’ heads in January? They know that the club has planned a ten day break in Dubai in February but that this could evaporate if they make it into the Fifth round and instead can look forward to a fun filled weekend in Burnley, Middlesbrough or some other fabled exotic location. Somehow, I don’t think the cup loss is going to unduly upset them.
And what of the seeds of discontent that are sown when as a player you are promised a bonding break but due to the minor inconveniences of poor league form and a critical fan base and media, the manager wilts to the pressure and decides to cancel the trip. Bookmakers rarely lose money on football outcomes and since Big Sam cancelled the Crystal Palace trip, they have become relegation favourites overnight. Aston Villa did the same last year, the manager did not last much longer. Sam, you have been warned.
Last year, Newcastle went on a mid- winter break to La Manga and Norwich to Abu Dhabi. Both were relegated. Obviously neither the bonding nor the trainings went as planned. It looks as though this season Swansea and Hull might have learnt that lesson.
One group of teams who do not appear to be having a break are the four teams playing in the Champions League (although Arsenal appears to have thought that their trip to Germany was a training session). Quite clearly, if you are a team challenging for honours, you don’t need the complication of a trip to Dubai. However, if you are a mid -table team, desperate to attract top quality signings then your choice of mid- winter destination could be the deciding factor in the protracted negotiations.