THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Premier League fixtures get unfixed. Football League matches get put off at short notice. Steve Parish wonders whether internationals are worth the chaos

Premier League clubs, with only 38 matches to play, get Saturdays off when there are international matches on, but down in the Nationwide First Division those weekends bring chaos.

Football League rules allow postponements if clubs have three or more players called up, but only when squads are announced – giving about ten days notice to call off matches, when tickets have been sold, programmes drafted, and pies and police ordered. If a third player is called up late to replace an injured squad member, matches can still be called off at very short notice.

Manchester City – for all their woes they still boast several full internationals – are likely to play fewer than ten of their 23 home matches on Saturday afternoons once TV demands wreak further havoc with the schedules.

At least the Football League may now allow the penultimate match of the season to be brought forward if clubs are likely to have three players out – otherwise Kinkladze might be playing for Georgia at Wembley on the Wednesday and for City at Norwich on the Thursday.

Incredibly, international matches have been arranged for Easter week, wiping out Easter weekend football for most supporters. Premier League clubs have been allowed to anticipate this: games due on the Saturday of Easter weekend can be brought forward to 28th/29th January, while 14th December games can be played the following midweek. Some clubs had been keeping quiet about this, but the Premier League have now asked them to pick new dates if they do intend to switch.

After Euro 96 it would be churlish and probably hopeless to argue that it’s wrong to have regular fans messed about just for internationals. The supposed “boost” to the game if “the country” does well outweighs the risk of losing bedrock fans by breaking a pattern of support with historic roots.

The patterns already well cracked. If that regular Saturday afternoon ritual is finally broken, can there be the same loyalty to alternatives, especially if they are movable feasts, never the same night, never the same time? “Friday Night is County Night” may have worked for Stockport in the 60s, but nowadays it’s not yuppies who need a personal organizer, but season ticket holders. “Let’s diarize our engagements,” as the new Koppites are always saying.

With these balmy, globally-warmed nights, and higher car ownership, perhaps it doesn’t really matter, but to those dependent on public transport, getting back could be awkward after a home match and a nightmare after an away match. And woe betide us if cold winters ever return. Of course, it would just boost pay-as-you-view revenues from those stuck in their armchairs. Never mind ‘they used to play on grass’ – think of a time when we true supporters, we happy few, will be paid as extras to turn up and create some approximation of atmosphere for the cameras. We’ll get lapel microphones handed out on the gate to amplify the chants – but with a V-chip to cut out the obscenities for family viewing.

The Saturday afternoon habit of a lifetime was probably on the way out with the end of the five-and-a-half-day working week (now replaced by the seven day working week, such is progress). Why should the last Saturday before Christmas be a bad week for gates when you can shop till you drop every evening and on Sunday? Are there that many of us who are desperate for the fixtures each June so we can plan all the other things we need to fit in (including holidays in August)? Well, of course there are, but who in the game cares?

The FA has at least made some noises to UEFA to try and get some uniformity over international dates, but UEFA and FIFA are plainly not too bothered about Man City’s Easter fixtures. Good heavens! What a thought! It wasn’t Peter Swales on the FA International Committee keeping FIFA in touch with reality, was it?

From WSC 118 December 1996. What was happening this month

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