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Jan 9, 2010

Safety first attitude a real bore

We usually look forward to a Premier League weekend. Even when working, the thrill of the football is something to keep the blood pumping but, just when the temperature required it, there was a distinct lack of heat in England's top-flight this weekend.

That is not to overlook the quality on show at the Emirates and St Andrew's on Saturday as Arsenal and Birmingham managed to get their games going, but merely to highlight an attitude change that has seen 36 games postponed this weekend, including seven in the Premier League.

And why have these games been postponed? Not because the freezing conditions have hardened the pitches to such an extent that they have been made unplayable - no, it is because of the safety fears around the grounds for the spectators.

This weekend has been the most weather-disrupted since the Premier League came into being in 1992 and, while you can understand the lower league clubs struggling to clear the snow and ice with their modest budgets, it should be no such concern for those who eat at the top table in England.

There has been plenty of warning about the adverse weather and, putting it into perspective, it's hardly like the kind of conditions you can find on the continent. Somehow, other leagues in Europe continue to operate despite temperatures that will occasionally see beads of sweat freeze before they are wiped off the players' brows, yet England utters a collective sigh and opts to hide under a blanket instead.

The root of the problem, in fact, undermines the traditional British 'stiff upper lip', and indeed the very point of undersoil heating. The pitches were fine (barring Wigan's), but concerns that fans may slip and injure themselves while on the football club's property lies at the heart of the decision to postpone the games.

Millions may have been spent on ensuring that Premier League pitches remain a billiard table to play on and have the ability to generate temperatures up to three times as high under the soil as on top of it, but if games are to be stopped over safety fears outside the ground, what is the point?

It all comes down to the worry that, if an accident occurs, legal action can be taken against the offending club. No matter how many 'Warning!' signs are put down, the clubs could leave themselves exposed to criminal proceedings if they fail to act on the advice of police or local authorities.

Obviously the need for police, medical personnel and stewards to be present at games has an impact, but one feels that more could be done to ensure that a game goes ahead if (as we have seen this week) there is enough warning. The infrastructure certainly must change but, before that, so must the attitude.

The other option, of course, is a winter break. The German Bundesliga does not start again until January 15 and, although it has two fewer teams than the Premier League, it has avoided the worst months of bad weather as well as a ridiculously packed Christmas period.

It has always been odd that during the time when the rest of Europe takes a well-earned break, England goes into overdrive. Eight games came in the space of a month for those still in the FA Cup and it is little wonder that there are so many complaints from managers and players alike about fitness when the New Year arrives.

Now there will be further arguments about the placement of the rearranged fixtures. The midweek programmes are already full of Carling Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Champions League games and the next few weeks also see a number of midweek Premier League games scheduled. Where to put the games has become a real problem and it is of their own making.

Ultimately, the Premier League must learn to adapt to its surroundings. If a few inches of snow is going to cause this amount of upheaval every year, a long-term plan has to be formulated. England is blessed with a pretty temperate climate and it risks becoming a laughing stock if it continues to adopt an overly cautious approach.

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