Solving football: Abolish window; move internationals

Date published: Monday 21st August 2017 11:40 - Sarah Winterburn

After two rip-snorting weeks of exciting football, which have brilliantly launched the new season, you know what’s coming now, don’t you? I simply don’t believe anyone wants the season to be put on hold. No-one. But after one more game, it will be. It’s totally wrong. It’s idiocy. It ruins top-flight football as a product, as the league season comes to a juddering halt for two long and arduous weeks, while we faff around playing World Cup qualifiers.

England are due to play Malta and Slovakia. Yawn. None of us are much interested in those games and you know that some players will return from international duty injured for a few weeks or months. Yet because the transfer window is now closed they can’t be replaced, so disrupting the season even more. The break dissipates the energy and confidence built up by the likes of Huddersfield Town, and when it’s over, it feels like everybody has to start the season again.

All of this combines to make a very unsatisfactory, stuttering start to every campaign. It’ll be September 9 before it all settles down again, only to be disrupted 28 days later by another two-week break.

August is the weirdest month of the football season. Let’s face it, it’s a total mess. For three weeks you’ve got some players who are mysteriously injured with vague conditions such as back pain, or an abdominal strain, which rightly or wrongly sound like fictions created to keep a player out of the team, while transfer rumours and negotiations fly around. As a result of all this, we’re not even seeing some clubs’ full-strength sides, which is bizarre, as August’s nine available points could make a big difference at the end of the season. It’s a situation which satisfies absolutely no-one.

Two major changes would improve everything.

First, abolish the transfer window. I’m not even sure why it actually exists, because all it has done is push up prices of players in last-minute panic buying. I don’t see what’s wrong with being able to buy a player at any time. The window is different in each country depending when their season is played, so it’s not a level playing field. Transfers don’t stop on one single day worldwide. It’s only been in place for 14 years and its time is already done.

In 2008 Steve Coppell stated it well. “I cannot see the logic in a transfer window. It brings on a fire-sale mentality, causes unrest via the media and means clubs buy too many players. The old system, where if you had a problem you could look at loans or make a short-term purchase, was far better than this system we have at the moment.”

And that surely is even more the case nine years later. I dare say by the end of the week, Barcelona will be up to £150 million for Philppe Coutinho, as their undignified desperation rises as the window closes.

In media terms, Transfer Deadline Day has long since lost its vivid yellow shine and our interest level now rests somewhere between indifference and incredulity.

Returning to the pre-2003 situation where you can buy any one at any time, until the last few weeks of the season, would not rob the media of the transfer stories which are so popular and drive so much traffic. If anything it would actually increase them. There would be no end to speculation.

The idea that a window aids the less well-resourced teams in retaining their best players for longer does have some merit. But given that it can only protect them for, at most, a four-month period before the January window, or five months from February to June, that is hardly significant. The big rich cubs still get the smaller, poorer clubs’ player in the end.

Taking the window away would also allow cash-strapped clubs to liberate assets as and when needed and to cope with internationally acquired injuries. The lack of pressure to buy or sell by a set date would almost certainly drive at least some fees downwards and it would add spice to the whole season. Back in the day, you had no idea who your club might be signing or selling at any point in the season. If your striker got a bad injury, the club could go out and replace him, and that was always exciting. It added fluidity, mystery and variety to a season. The transfer window is a ridiculous construct the like of which does not seem to exist in any other walk of life. It just clutters up the smooth running of every season and no sooner has it closed, than we get the hated two-week international break.

The season gets three league games and a League Cup round under its belt and then stops for two weeks. Then it gets four more weeks, and then stops for another two weeks. Repeat until November’s games are out of the way. It would be far better for all concerned if the five or six qualifiers were all played across two or three weeks beginning a couple of weeks after the close of the season. That way, clubs would not have to worry about their season being disrupted by a star being injured on international duty. If he did get hurt, at least there is a decent recovery period available.

An end-of-season qualifier period would have its own internal dynamic; it would be something fresh and different to look forward to once the season was completed because as it is, there is little enthusiasm for most of the tournament qualifying games. The league season would be at least eight weeks shorter too, ending in late March/early April, giving players a chance to rest before playing for their countries. And after all, this is how we consume our media these days; it’s the football equivalent of watching box sets.

These would be two major changes that would make everything more smooth and enjoyable, because as things stand now, the start of every season is clunky, messy and suits absolutely no-one.

John Nicholson

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