Schedule for success

Wednesday 8 May 2002

When a coach as widely respected as Fulham's Christian Damiano talks about the game, it pays to listen. Reflecting on the two-week break that sees Fulham with only a mid-table clash with Blackburn Rovers left to play, the Frenchman spoke about the difficulty of keeping players fit and focussed with the way the season is currently structured.

One of the coaches at the ground-breaking French National Academy in Clairfontaine, Damiano played a major part in establishing the French national side as the considerable force they are in world football today. Household names like Henry, Trezeguet and Anelka all owe the man a substantial debt for his contribution to their development. This is someone then, who knows what he is talking about.

"The most important thing in football is the players," Damiano said, in between training sessions at the Motspur Park training ground, "During the season they have to play fifty or fifty-five games and they have to do it in the best condition and in the best form. The big problem for all the managers is to keep their players in top form. If you have many games in a short period, it is impossible for the players to stay strong all the time.

"If a new calendar can be organised in the future that could be a lot wider, then that would be a big improvement. Perhaps the season could start at the beginning of August and finish at the end of May or in early June. Of course, sometimes you might have a World Cup or European tournament to think about, but a schedule could be adapted to take that into account.

"If the season was extended like that, then you could have a break of one or two weeks after perhaps the eighth or tenth of January, and that would be very beneficial for both the players and the pitches.

"This would mean you would get more matches on good pitches, as opposed to having games when the pitches are so bad that it's impossible to play football on them. At the moment the fans don't get the opportunity to see entertaining games and there is more chance of players getting injured."

This season's schedule is particularly hard to fathom with teams having to wait two weeks to play their final game. For most clubs, these matches are meaningless fixtures, and as Damiano says, it is not easy keeping players' minds on the job in these circumstances.

"It is very difficult for the team. Through the season they have a target - to stay in the Premiership, but now they know they have achieved that goal. For us now, we want to get into the InterToto Cup, and perhaps we will start at the second round, so we will have a lot of games to play to qualify for the UEFA Cup. So that will make our season even longer, and we will have to start earlier, and this is the same problem for a lot of teams. A break in the middle of the season would help our players get their breath back a little bit!

"It is very difficult to keep all the players completely focussed all season. Many countries have a one or two week break in the winter. In this country we play a lot of games at Christmas time and I think this is great because the fans get a lot of enjoyment going to football matches over the holiday period, but afterwards you need to give the players a little respect and give them a rest for a couple of weeks.

"If you want the highest quality all the time, you need to have some balance in what you can expect the players to do physically.

"The other factor to take into account is that there are twenty teams competing in the Premiership - I think eighteen is preferable. If you have fewer teams you have a better quality.

"However, I understand that clubs want to stay at twenty; there are many financial considerations and these are very important. In an ideal situation it would be eighteen, but you would have to make sure that the business side of the club could cope with that. Often it's very difficult to balance the playing requirements of a club with the financial ones.

"Everybody knows that the quality of English football is fantastic, but I think that if you could alter these things then it could be the best in the world. Already, it is the most exciting and is the best spectacle; it just needs to improve the protection of the players - let them rest and give them better pitches to play on. The football here, for me, is great, and I enjoy it very much."

It's difficult to disagree with the reasoning behind the argument. At the end of the day, fitter, less-fatigued players competing on better quality pitches can only improve the spectacle of the game. Anything that can assist in that has got to be worthy of consideration.