The maddening West Ham and Everton decision that should see footballers rebel

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Players are playing more games, are injured more often and get fewer breaks than ever before - so why don't they speak out?

With FA Cup third round weekend done, we enter the Premier League’s staggered, slightly half-hearted winter break, which will see every team in the top flight get a weekend off in order to rest up and recover from the increasing number of injuries they are suffering this season. Except, of course, that not all of them will – seven teams have had their break wiped out by the need to replay their third round game.

Newly-installed Nottingham Forest manager Nuno Espirito Santo has been the latest to complain following his side’s 2-2 draw with League One Blackpool, who will now get a second, more lucrative crack at Premier League opposition at Bloomfield Road.

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“Everybody is aware there is a big congestion of games, fixtures are every day,” said the Portuguese coach. “It is something we have to look at… I think it should be finished on the day, extra time, penalties, all allow the players to have a bit more time to recover. Premier League teams are suffering… issues with injuries and one of the things is the amount of fixtures.”

Forest had expected to spend some time at St. George’s Park, the training headquarters for the England national teams, but that will now be reassessed as they have to make the trip to the Lancashire coast on Tuesday 16 January, just four days before their next league match away to Brentford. For their players, it is yet another match piled onto the schedule, and it’s even worse for teams who have European competition to worry about as well. West Ham United are one of the other half-dozen teams who have to juggle an extra domestic game, in their case alongside their Premier League commitments and a Europa League campaign - and they picked up three fresh injuries in their 1-1 draw with Bristol City, including Jarrod Bowen.

Replays in later rounds of the FA Cup have already been scrapped in order to clear space in an increasingly packed schedule – one that will be under even more pressure next season, when two additional matches are added to the first round of the Champions League, Europa League and Europa Conference League. Add in the soon-to-be expanded Club World Cup, an extra round in the World Cup and European Championships and the demand for increased numbers of money-spinning friendlies in the United States and elsewhere, and players are playing more than ever – and getting hurt more than ever.

A recent report by the BBC found that incidents of injuries were up around 15% in the wake of the winter World Cup in Qatar in 2022, one of the biggest intrusions ever into the traditional calendar of the game. There has also been a marked uptick in the volume and severity of injuries being suffered by high-profile young players. The injury issues range from the severe, as may be the case with Pedri, who is already enduring his fourth major injury lay-off at Barcelona to the potentially insidious such as Bukayo Saka, who has limped out of games twice this season and withdrawn from an England squad without being given a break by Arsenal. Saka is now reported to be playing through an Achilles injury.

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There winners of the expanded and more malleable schedule of the modern game are the big-money stakeholders at the top of football’s financial tree – FIFA, the federations, and broadcast rights holders. The extra games make them more money and provide additional commercial revenues. But the losers are the players and, potentially, the smaller clubs whose interests are being gradually sidelined because of the thirst for cash further up the pyramid.

If Blackpool had been asked to settle matters at the City Ground on Sunday afternoon, then they would have missed out on a possible sell-out game at home and the chance for some additional broadcast cash. For a League One team, FA Cup replays are an occasional but important source of income. For Premier League teams, they are an inconvenience, and so we see replays gradually being scraped away from the schedule – and they will likely soon disappear forever as the FA are asked to find space for another couple of games by UEFA.

The other victim of the new world order with its endless demands for more and more football is the playing staff of the teams involved. Many people may find it hard to find too much pity for the multi-millionaires who play at the top level, but their bodies are being put though more and more, the time they get to rest is being reduced further and further, and the strain applied both physically and mentally is excessive.

Not only is there a demonstrable increase in injuries but there is an increasing discussion about mental well-being in top-flight football, with more players openly discussing the stresses that the game puts on them. They may be remarkably well paid for their labour, but they are also being put through a wringer from which not all emerge unscathed. Both the players and the product are being damaged, to nobody’s long-term benefit.

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The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), the players’ union in England, have spoken out extensively about their concerns over the demands being placed on their charges. The complaints don’t end with scheduling but also take in the expanded length of games in the post-VAR world, their summer breaks and the safety of the players in English grounds. According to the PFA, a majority of players in the EFL are against extra time added on and fear that it could be causing further injuries, and a similar majority fear that a lack of recovery time is another aggravating factor – but these are arguments that have received almost no coverage in the national sporting media so far.

In the ‘real world’, outside of the professional game, labour organisations are used to throwing their weight around in order to support the needs and demands of their members – but as is the case in most sports, the PFA and other organisations around the world are far more passive, as if there is an attitude that their members should be grateful for the great good fortune they have in being footballers and not kick up too much of a fuss. It’s a strange state of affairs, when you consider what the purpose of the PFA is.

There has only been one threat of strike action by the entire playing body in the history of the English game, in 1961 when the late Jimmy Hill led a campaign to abolish the maximum wage. Nearly 700 players in England agreed to go on strike on 21 January – but they never had to, as the pressure worked, the FA caved in and the maximum wage was permanently abolished. In the 63 years since, the PFA seems to have forgotten that it has teeth.

It shouldn’t fall to the players to kick up a stink, of course, but the game is now almost entirely run – at both national and international level – by bureaucrats fretting over finances and not people who view their role as custodians of the game, or who seek to make the sport better without making it richer. It is eminently clear that nobody in a position to achieve anything at FIFA, UEFA or the FA gives enough of a damn about player welfare to speak up for them, or about the damage done to the revenue streams of clubs further down the ladder than the Premier League or Championship. So it may be that the only people who can push back against the tide of money-spinning extra games is the players. Let’s hope they realise how much power they wield, because if they do get together to prevent fixture congestion from getting worse, the game will be better for everyone watching it as well.

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