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Big freeze threatens chaos and world cup burn-out

JACK FROST grabbed his hat-trick yesterday as Arsenal's Premier League game against Bolton Wanderers became the third high-profile match of the week lost to the weather.

Arsenal were optimistic that the game would take place despite snow in the capital but unexpectedly heavy flurries in the afternoon prompted them to concede defeat to the elements. The postponement was announced only four hours before the scheduled kick-off time of 7.45pm. An Arsenal win would have moved them within a point of Chelsea, the leaders.

The outlook of continued cold weather and snow showers across much of the country over the next couple of days raises the possibility of the weekend's fixtures being severely affected. Should the cold linger, a log jam of fixtures will develop, leaving leading clubs with punishing schedules in the build-up to the World Cup finals and hurting lower-league sides' finances (small clubs are heavily reliant on gate money).

Manchester United's FA Cup exit eased the immediate pressure on their calendar despite the postponement of their Carling Cup semi-final, first leg away to Manchester City yesterday. However, delays and victories in the coming weeks could take their toll.

If United reach the Carling Cup final, their league match against West Ham United on February 27 will have to move. And if United also make it to the Champions League semi-finals, they face playing 14 games in March and April -- two games a week almost every week, raising the spectre of player fatigue before the World Cup.

United's second leg with City is on January 27, four days before their trip to Arsenal.

Arsene Wenger's side are still in the FA Cup and progress in that competition and in Europe, along with further postponements, could force Arsenal to play three times in a week at some point in the spring.

The fixture list is especially tight because the Premier League is ending on May 9 -- two weeks earlier than last season, giving England manager Fabio Capello more preparation time for the World Cup finals, which start on June 11. However, injury risk and burnout would be concerns if many games had to be rearranged.

The present chill is merely a nip in the air compared with the 1962-63 "Big Freeze" -- one of the coldest winters in England and Wales on record. Bolton were unable to play between December 8 and February 16, and between March 6 and May 17, they played 21 matches -- an average of more than three a week.

In 1946-47, severe weather struck from late January until early March. The season did not end until June 14. Mark Platt, co-author of At The End Of The Storm, a book chronicling that campaign, believes a repeat now is highly improbable. He said: "It peaked on March 8, with 'Black Saturday', when 27 of the 44 scheduled games fell foul of the arctic weather.

"It is hard to imagine that such a situation could occur again. It wouldn't be all that big a surprise, though, if the season had to be extended in the lower divisions."

Mandatory

Undersoil heating is mandatory for Premier League clubs, but the pitch is only part of the challenge.

Stadiums and the land around them that is owned by clubs, such as car parks, are the clubs' responsibility.

In an increasingly litigious society that places greater emphasis on health and safety, clubs, police and local authorities are sensitive to the risks posed by slippery access roads and walkways, as well as the problems that staff and fans may face travelling to matches.

"Supporters' safety and travel arrangements were major factors," Arsenal said yesterday.

"It's difficult when you have weather conditions of this nature and the police advising not to travel unless it is absolutely necessary," the Premier League said. "Clubs work with the police and local authorities. All we ask our clubs is to make public their decision as soon as possible."

The Metropolitan Police said that they do not order fixtures to be postponed. "We offer commonsense advice, as do local authorities," they said. "But it's the club's call."

© The Times, London


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