Scottish football season: Should it be moved to the summer?

 

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

And, given the recent struggles of Scotland's national side, there is a growing feeling that summer football could well be the answer.

The Scottish Football Association (SFA) has commissioned academics to examine various options surrounding the fixtures calendar.

Three options are understood to be on the table: preserving the status quo; having an extended winter break; and switching to a season running from April to October.

As well as including a case study on the merits of the Scandinavian model - in which football is played from March to November - researchers at the University of Stirling have looked at the quality of playing surfaces at different times of year, weather patterns, daylight hours and the impact of weather on injuries.

Closer to home, the League of Ireland moved to summer football in 2003.

Scottish Women's football - at all levels - is in its fourth season of playing March to November. Attendances are up and there is more interest than ever in the sport.

In its first campaign post-switch in 2010, the Women's Premier League did not lose a single game to the weather, compared with 31 in the 2006-07 season.

Grant Hanley

Scotland are bottom of their 2014 World Cup qualifying group, behind Macedonia

Scottish boys, at Under-12 level and below, are currently in the second campaign of a summer season.

For those proposing a summer switch, the benefits seem obvious. Better weather equals better pitches, bigger attendances and more attractive football.

And it could mean that the Scottish game suddenly has a unique selling point in the ever-more-competitive global TV market.

It is a move that has worked well for rugby league in England since the sport's calendar switch in the mid-90s.

Dundee United boss Jackie McNamara believes it could revitalise football in Scotland.

He told BBC Sport: "They do it in other countries, so it's not as if no-one has ever done it elsewhere, and they all seem to manage to qualify for big tournaments and European football."

Sweden, whose domestic season began in late March this year, have qualified for three World Cups and five European Championships since 1990.

The Danish Superliga has a break between early December and March, and the national side has emulated Sweden's success over the same period.

Scotland's record of trying to qualify for major tournaments makes more painful reading.

The Scottish precedent

Scotland international Jennifer Love
  • Women's football: All levels have played March to November for the last four seasons
  • Boys' football: Under-12s and below are in their second March-November season

In 1990, Scotland appeared in their fifth consecutive World Cup but have only qualified once (in 1998) since then, and have appeared at only two European Championships (1992 and 1996).

Of course, summer football is not the only reason for success, but many believe it has helped the Scandinavian countries at national and club level.

Scotland are 24th in the Uefa rankings this season - based on the country's performance in European competitions - while Denmark are 15th. Back in 2006-07, Scotland were 10th and Denmark 19th.

Former SFA chief executive Gordon Smith proposes shutting down the Scottish game for two months in January and February, with the new season running from July to December and then March to June.

Former Rangers striker Smith, 58, experienced summer football during his own playing career, when he was with FC Admira Wacker in Austria and Basel in Switzerland.

"I think it (traditionalism) needs to be brushed past," said Smith, who was the SFA's chief executive from 2007 to 2010 and now works in financial services and the media.

"Even in my time at the SFA we came up against things whereby people were against something only because we had never done it before rather than looking at how something could be improved.

"When I was in Austria and Switzerland they had December, January and February off. We did play in better conditions and it made a difference.

"When you came back the pitches were in better condition because they had had a break."

McNamara believes players would welcome a switch, insisting there are times when some of his squad are unable to go the extra mile in training because of the weather.

Smith actually produced a paper on his proposals and presented his findings to the Scottish Premier League in 2000.

Scotland's qualifying record since 1990

  • Euro 2012: DNQ
  • World Cup 2010: DNQ
  • Euro 2008: DNQ
  • World Cup 2006: DNQ
  • Euro 2004: DNQ
  • World Cup 2002: DNQ
  • Euro 2000: DNQ
  • World Cup 1998: Qualified
  • Euro 1996: Qualified
  • World Cup 1994: DNQ
  • Euro1992: Qualified

"They called me in and listened to what I had to say," he added. "Then, having listened to me, they did away with the month break that they had in place at the time."

The University of Stirling's findings are about to be submitted to the SFA. After reviewing them, the governing body will take the results to the professional and non-professional game board.

Leading the study, Professor Leigh Robinson said the research was designed to provide the game's decision-makers with information, rather than recommendations.

The SFA said the study would consider how the various ideas would affect both the professional and amateur game.

Change could be unpopular with the SPL's big hitters like Celtic, with the later stages of European competitions likely to fall within a break period.

Major international tournaments could also present a headache, clashing with the Scottish season. Either a host of Scotland internationals could be unavailable to their clubs or, the more likely scenario at present, there could be an exodus of international stars from the SPL.

Smith believes any such situation would be easily remedied, with the calendar reverting to its current dates in the event of the national team qualifying for a major tournament.

A further stumbling block is the fickle beast that is the Scottish weather. March's unseasonably cold offerings this year would have made something of a mockery of a winter break.

But would a two or even three-month gap in cash flow be hard for clubs to stomach?

Former SFA chief Smith believes earnings would be made up elsewhere during the year, while McNamara reckons a winter break could actually cut costs.

"The undersoil heating does the pitch a lot of damage in the rest of the season, and by having that break you would also save a lot of money on electricity in regards to floodlights," he argued.

Snow at Albion Rovers

Scotland's lower leagues can lose entire weekends of fixtures to the weather in winter

"Anything is possible; it will be all be dictated by finance with regards to the TV though."

Ex-Aberdeen boss Alex Smith told BBC Sport: "Sky TV likes football to be almost seven days a week, eight hours a day. In the winter they're saturated and almost spoilt for choice with football all over Europe.

"Whereas in the summer they only have Scandinavian countries offering them that kind of service. Scotland could buy into that slot."

What would the fans make of such a move?

Celtic supporter Dougie Gunning, who edits the Scottish Amateur Football Forum, said: "From a fan's perspective I wouldn't be in favour but from a practical perspective it makes sense."

There is a similarly pragmatic view from the lower end of Scottish football's pyramid.

Ross Jack, manager of Division Three outfit Elgin City, said: "If people are all together behind it and back the whole concept across the leagues then great, that would be the way to do it.

"If people are a bit selfish and do it for their own reasons, then that is a worry without a doubt. The whole structure has got to benefit. We have got to be singing from the same hymn sheet."