Premier League’s Festive Slog: Adored by Fans, Endured by Players

Fans at a Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Southampton in London on Dec. 26, 2014. Credit Christopher Lee/Getty Images

As a player, Graeme Le Saux would flick straight to December when he received the Premier League schedule for the coming season.

His teammates tended to be more concerned with which rival they would face on the campaign’s opening day, or working out when the season’s big derby matches were, or checking whether their last game fell at home or on the road. Le Saux always had one priority: to find out whether the list was naughty or nice.

“The key thing was whether Christmas had been kind to you,” he said. “If you had two home matches, or did not have to travel far, that made a massive difference. It kind of makes or breaks Christmas. It was the first thing I looked for: Where are we on Boxing Day?”

It is almost impossible to exaggerate the importance of the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day to English soccer. It is a connection to a longstanding tradition, one that dates back more than a century. It is a core tenet of the ultramodern Premier League’s international branding, a chance to reassert its popularity when most of its peers go into hibernation.

It is a source of immense pride, a central pillar of the league’s identity as the toughest on the planet, the festive slog through three games in what can be as little as seven days, seen as proof of just how uniquely mentally and physically draining it is.

To most, it is sacrosanct; the idea of not playing on Boxing Day, New Year’s Day and various points in between is seen as somewhere between anathema and heresy.

Fabian Delph of Manchester City during his team’s Premier League match at home against Sunderland on Dec. 26, 2015. Credit Jan Kruger/Getty Images

The week’s popularity bears that out: Even in the Premier League, where most seats in most stadiums are sold on most match days, what soccer’s executives call the occupancy rate notches even higher over the holiday period.

Last year, for example, 96 percent of seats were sold over the course of the Premier League season. On Boxing Day, that went up to 98 percent. The next round of games was played less than 72 hours later. Stadiums across the country were at 98 percent capacity then, too.

The love affair is not just local. The Premier League games broadcast over Christmas and New Year’s are regularly among the most watched of the entire season across the world. Rivals, most notably France’s Ligue 1, believe it gives English soccer a competitive advantage in the global battle for viewers.

Jean-Michel Aulas, the president of Olympique Lyon, for one, has suggested France would do well to reconfigure its league calendar to incorporate a Dec. 26 fixture. English soccer’s holy week is looked on with envy and admiration worldwide.

Except, perhaps, for those inside it. To millions of fans, Boxing Day and the games that follow are a staple of the calendar, a high point of the year. To those tasked with providing the entertainment, though, it is less a period to be enjoyed and more one to be endured.

For managers, of course, the next 10 days or so will be spent fretting, biting their nails as their million-dollar assets are put through such strain, fearing that their seasons, so carefully plotted, might be broken simply through exhaustion.

“It is really tough,” Ronald Koeman, the Everton manager, said. “The big teams have more players of the same level, so maybe they can make more rotations. The TV channels pay good money, the stadiums are full, it is a great competition. I don’t have any problem with any of that. But it is my opinion that individual players need a break.”

There is now a groundswell of opinion within English soccer that Koeman is right; the majority of Premier League clubs would support some sort of winter break, and the Football Association, which governs the English game, is broadly behind the idea, too. If and when it is introduced, though, the assumption is that a hiatus would come after the Christmas week fixtures. This week is too special to be touched.

“If we ever do have a midseason break, it won’t be over this period,” Mark Hughes, the Stoke City manager, said. “It will be sometime in January. I can see the sense in that. I don’t think anybody, really deep down, wants to change the Christmas period, because it is unique to this country.”

To the players, the physical demands are only part of the problem posed at this time of year.

“The only game you play over Christmas when you are 100 percent fit is the first one,” Le Saux said. “Even then, you are naturally very conservative, because you know you won’t have much time to recover.

“If we were winning comfortably on Boxing Day,” he continued, “I’d always think: ‘I won’t make that run forward now.’ You start saving energy straightaway, really, just to get through it, which raises the question whether fans are actually getting value for money in the performances.”

Though the promise of a winter break at the end of it might alleviate the physical concerns, the mental challenge would remain. The pictures that players paint of their Christmases verge on the bleak.

When he was at Manchester United, the striker Danny Welbeck described having to spend Christmas night on his own in a hotel room waiting for a Boxing Day game as among “the worst parts” of being a professional. Joey Barton, who rejoined Burnley this week, once wrote that he had spent Christmas watching “enviously” as his family “ate turkey and drank wine.”

It can be especially difficult for foreign players, of course, who are unused to the Premier League’s endless rhythm. “I can’t say any of them enjoy it; they think we’re nuts,” Hughes said.

That, certainly, is the verdict of Thomas Müller, the Bayern Munich forward. Playing three games in a week when you could be resting at Christmas? “It’s crazy,” he said.

Indeed, for all that recent additions to the league tend to eulogize the Christmas period, a vast majority of players are — at best — ambivalent about it. Hughes acknowledged that while he enjoyed the games, he was less enthused by having “to come in to train while everyone else is enjoying themselves.”

Few players in the Premier League will enjoy much of a break over Christmas. Most clubs gave their squads some time off at the start of last week, a couple of days to spend with their families and to rest before the most arduous period of the season. Only one of the elite teams — Tottenham Hotspur — will be at home on Christmas Day.

For the rest, it is work. Clubs vary when they train: Some will ask their players to come in a little earlier, so they can enjoy lunch with their families; others prefer to train in the afternoon, giving players the chance to spend the morning with their children. In some places — including Newcastle United — democracy takes hold: Manager Rafael Benítez tends to ask his players what they would prefer, then goes with the majority verdict.

Later, players for whom the Christmas schedule has not been kind will set off for away trips in the early evening, spending the night in a hotel. Increasingly, that is true of teams playing at home, too, as the tendency to gather players together on the eve of a match catches on. Having to be absent from families leads, in Le Saux’s words, to feeling “guilty for not being around.”

That, he conceded, “comes with the territory,” a punishment for the privilege of playing professional soccer. And it could be worse: Until 1959, English clubs played back-to-back games, home and away against the same opposition, on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. As far back as 1919, Hull City played on Dec. 25, 26 and 27. It lost the first two games to Spurs, but then beat Wolves, 10-3. No wonder soccer at Christmas caught on.