Wednesday 17 June ~

Next season's fixtures, released today, have caused controversy as the football authorities try to accommodate European competitions and next year's World Cup. But as Roger Titford reported in WSC 159 (May 2000) current levels are nothing like they were in the past

Once again, the top clubs are calling for a reduction in the number of fixtures. Arsène Wenger (31 players used already this season) is to the fore of the complaints, while Alex Ferguson’s strategy for managing his club’s 60-game workload is plain to see. “The recovery time is too short,” Wenger said after Arsenal’s defeat at Middlesbrough in March, which followed a midweek UEFA Cup match. “It is nonsense to have only two and a half days of preparation."

They make it sound as though the 60 games a season grind is an unprecedented burden. Far from it. Looking back 20 years we find one of the most tragic cases of fixture overload. Bobby Robson’s brilliant Ipswich Town played 66 games with a group of basically 13 players and almost won a Treble. The majority of these players also played in World Cup qualifiers and Home Internationals.

Ipswich lost just two of the first 32 league games but seven of their last ten, missing the title by only four points. They lost an FA Cup semi-final in extra time but had enough left to win the UEFA Cup after a campaign that took in Prague, Salonika and four other trips. Paul Mariner and Mick Mills were still playing for England in Budapest in June. Thirteen players, sadly, did not a squad make. How Robson could have done with a bit of “rotation” then.

Don Revie’s Leeds had more resources when taking on 120 games over two seasons. Their 1968-69 season began with the 1967-68 Fairs Cup final left over from the previous season and ended 57 games later with the league title. But their 1969-70 campaign (fruitless apart from the Charity Shield) is remembered as the classic fixture congestion story. The league season began on August 9 and finished on April 18, unprecedentedly early, to allow preparation time for the Mexico World Cup. In all, Leeds played 63 games, losing the league title on the run-in, the FA Cup final replay in extra time and the European Cup in the semi-final. Again, most players were also on international duty, though they were excused the Home Internationals.

Heavy seasons do not necessarily equate with failure. Everton, in 1984-85, played 63 games and won the league, the Cup-Winners Cup and the Charity Shield, as well as reaching the FA Cup final. The ultimate schedule that springs to mind is from Wenger’s own club. Arsenal played 70 games in 1979-80, including an FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool that went to three replays. The Gunners played in the Charity Shield (lost), reached the FA Cup and Cup-Winners Cup finals (both lost) and the quarter-finals of the League Cup, and finished fourth in the league. Brian Talbot, bless him, didn’t miss a single match.

Despite the complaints of the big clubs, it is often in the lower divisions that clubs really are playing more than they used to. Although they too have fewer FA Cup and League Cup replays to take into account, the introduction of the Auto Windscreens Shield (maximum seven games) and the play-offs mean it is perfectly possible for smaller clubs to play over 60 games a season, as Wigan did last year. While the Latics squad was larger than some, clubs of their size clearly do not have the same resources as Manchester United to cope with such marathons. And had Tranmere won the League Cup, how would they have fitted in the proposed group stages of the UEFA Cup and a 46-match league season next year?

Last season Manchester United won everything but the Charity Shield and the League Cup over 63 games and, if they retain the European Cup this season, will play “only” 62 (including three in Brazil and one in Japan). They will only have 40 domestic games in this mix. Compared with Ipswich’s 13 players of 1980-81, United’s Treble winners fielded 18 men who made a significant contribution in the league last season and several others in the “lesser” competitions.

What has changed most significantly is the number of European games at the expense of domestic fixtures. Sixteen European games a season will soon not be unusual and that, it must be restated, is the choice of the major clubs. For the clinching example, look back on Manchester United’s 1969-70 season, which comprised 57 games, none of them in Europe. At the end of it they had nothing to show except qualification for the Watney Cup.

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