Christmas 2008 ~
A Boxing Day derby at Hillsborough in 1979 attracted a record crowd for a third-level match, with 49,309 seeing a 4-0 win for the home side. The city will stage another derby on December 26 this year, but doesn't involve Wednesday and United. The game will be in the Unibond League Division One (South), between Stocksbridge Park Steels and Sheffield FC. The two sides also met on the same day last year. Higher up the football pyramid, however, such festive season fixtures are rare these days. This year, for example, Wigan play Newcastle while Blackburn visit Sunderland; Reading host Cardiff; Huddersfield go to Carlisle and Chesterfield play Luton.
Each summer the 14-person League Fixtures Working Party is tasked with compiling the schedule of every Premier League and Football League club. Their resulting lists, released in June, consider many factors, such as the need to keep same-city clubs apart each weekend. The process begins with the programming of certain factors into the computer used to generate the fixtures. Neighbouring clubs are firstly paired off so that one is away while the other is home. These pairings can be matched to specific club requests – Southend, for example, ask to go opposite West Ham in order to benefit from higher gates when there is no match at Upton Park. Next are high-priority police requirements that limit the number of games one force has to manage on a given day, followed by logistics, such as shared stewards – a peculiarity affecting Colchester and Ipswich – and all other club requirements, including requests to open the season at home if they had been away for the past few years.
The results of this complex procedure will never satisfy everyone, something that members of the Working Party David Cookson and Glenn Thompson accepted when speaking back in June – “The fixture list is a compromise solution, it is the best you can make while being as fair as possible to all concerned” – which seems fair especially considering the long hours dedicated to the task. Curiously though, they added: “Boxing Day games… are hand-picked to ensure that travel is minimised, with no clubs having more than a two and a half hours journey.”
Clearly the practice is not rigid if certain fixtures can be chosen before the random generation even begins. Various reasons might be offered for why derbies are not pre-picked at this stage. Firstly and undeniably, there is the impossibility of scheduling games to suit everyone. If a Sunderland v Newcastle derby were picked, Middlesbrough would still need an opponent. There is a lack of public transport at Christmas but that only means that fans intending to travel to a Boxing Day match will be even more inconvenienced. There is a fear of crowd trouble that might generate prohibitive policing bills. Yet several of this year's games, such Stoke v Man Utd and Leeds v Leicester, could attract violence anyway.
As ever with modern football, it all boils down to money. Matches on December 26 are always well attended with extended families going together or individuals take in their traditional solitary game of the season. Whoever the opponents on Boxing Day, a club's gate is likely to rival that of the season's opener in August and the last home game nine months later. So if you're travelling 200 miles to watch a match this Christmas, I hope it proves to be worth the effort. Tom Whitworth