THE relentless schedules faced by England’s elite sports teams may be raking in cash and coverage like never before but they may also be undermining achievement.
Every time the national football team reach the finals of the World Cup or European Championships, they arrive with their optimism gauge on full and their energy levels close to empty.
After the most demanding fixture list undertaken by any of the world’s top football nations, England’s players are usually battle-scarred, nursing minor injuries or recovering from major ones, and mentally jaded.
Invariably one or two top players have been left behind, robbed by injury of their chance to play in a major international tournament. Theo Walcott will miss Brazil this summer and you can be sure he won’t be the only big-name absentee.
For all the squad rotation practised by the top managers, the fixture list – with 38 Premier League games, two cup competitions and still no prospect of a mid-season winter break – continues to put our footballers at a disadvantage come summer.
The frantic pace and physicality of the English game makes it all but impossible for elite footballers to sustain their form and fitness over such a long period. The age-old debate about club versus country has been well and truly won by the Premier League.
Now similar problems seem to be a major factor behind the problems gripping England’s cricket team. No other nation faces an overloaded, year-round fixture calendar; the other Test-playing countries get a break during the English summer.
Alastair Cook and his players have been trudging around Australia since October. Soon they head for the West Indies before going to Bangladesh in March for the World Twenty20 competition. Then they host Sri Lanka and India in the summer before starting the build-up for the 50-over World Cup.
It’s a crazy, unrealistic schedule and it will prove self-defeating if the team continue to slide down the rankings and, just as importantly, if the paying public become disillusioned and overdosed on the product.
Departing England coach Andy Flower – who should be remembered for his extraordinary achievements with the England cricket team rather than this winter’s Ashes debacle – was a victim of the system as much as anything else.
Whoever is appointed to replace him may have to spend as much time confronting off-the-field issues as repairing the damage that the Aussies have inflicted on his players.