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How The Football League Prepare The Fixture Lists!

By: The Football League
Date: 08/07/2003

JUNE 19 was the release date for the 2003/2004 Fixture List. But when do you think work starts to prepare the fixture list? A few weeks before the start of the season? The end of the previous season? The day the list comes out? Try TWO YEARS in advance.

The popular misconception among the general public is that the fixture list is simply churned out by a computer and it is then lump it or leave it for the clubs and the supporters.

But that little list that gets fans across the country so excited each June is the result of an incredible amount of work.

Sandra Whiteside, Head of Fixtures, Events and Competitions, and David Cookson, Fixtures Secretary, have the arduous task of trying to accommodate the requests of FIFA, UEFA, the FA, the clubs, the police and the fans into a 46-week fixture calendar.

With more than 50 years experience at The Football League between them Sandra and David have built up a wealth of knowledge that allows them to know instinctively what will work and what won't. Sandra said: "There are lots of misconceptions that surround our job. It has got increasingly difficult over the years and there is far more fixture congestion now. But the job is still interesting."

"It has become a real balancing act and we do try our best to come up with the fixtures that are balanced. At the end of the day we want a published set of fixtures that the clubs can complete."

The fixture preparation begins when FIFA put out their list of international dates, to which UEFA and other federations around the world respond in a draft format.

"These lists remain provisional until very late in the day," David said. "We are currently working on a draft list for 2004/2005 which is subject to change."

Although there is technically a pecking order when it comes to the programme (i.e. FA Cup dates are usually set in stone) all the fixtures are then thrown into the melting pot to get a draft list.

"In real terms we have to look at the whole lot together to get any solution," David said. "Whilst there is a pecking order the two leagues (Premier League and Nationwide Football League) and the FA work closely together to find a mutually acceptable schedule."

Pairings have to be established to ensure certain clubs are not at home on the same day (i.e. Manchester United and Manchester City), local events such as the Northampton Balloon Festival, Darlington Orange Festival and Nottingham Goose Festival have to be considered, in addition to requests and observations by the police.

".…It is never simply a case of clubs playing home and away on alternate Saturdays!…."

These details are collated via a questionnaire, which is sent to clubs each March. The experience of the staff involved irons out most of the potential problems before working parties meet in June to formulate the final list.

David said: "It is never simply a case of clubs playing home and away on alternate Saturdays throughout the season. There are various sequences of fixtures that are used and we have to fit pairings, cup dates, international dates and various other elements into these sequences."

"There are certain rules, like clubs can't have three successive home Saturday matches or three consecutive away matches. It is a misconception that all clubs can have a perfect home and away sequence."

The sequences are worked out by hand and on computers at the offices of Schlumberger in Wilmslow, Cheshire and their draft list is then put before representatives of the clubs, the police, supporters groups and finally the television organisations.

Once the initial list is finalised clubs have a set period in which they can request matches to be moved. This usually takes the form of Wednesday night games moving to Tuesday or switching a fixture to change the home game to away, and vice versa, to accommodate delays in ground improvement works.

But nothing is ever as simple as that sounds.

Sandra explained: "It is another misconception that you can simply move a fixture. Any game that is moved involves at least two teams on four playing dates and more often than not you could be looking at reviewing the fixtures for 12 clubs on four dates. This is because teams are grouped with their pairings and any movement will affect pairings up and down the country and may put several sets of fans in one area at the same time."

"That is why there isn't usually a great deal of movement in fixtures. The usual movement during a season is for television or when the clubs exercise their right to move a fixture at a weekend. We have a rule that states three matches per weekend can be moved to the Friday or the Sunday, and that does not include television."

The fixtures are usually published in late June, but then come the usual complaints about fans having to travel long distances in midweek or over holiday periods.

"One of the main problems is travel and that is a real stumbling block," said Sandra. "Fans do need to know that we do try and help them as much as we can. But at the end of the day The Football League has to place public order and safety above midweek travel in the order of priority."

"In fact some of the dates are down to the clubs themselves. Some clubs prefer to make long journeys in midweek."

Once the list is published and the season is underway Sandra and David's next big headache is the weather. Season 2001/2002 was one of the worst in living memory for postponements meaning that certain teams were left with major fixture congestion towards the end of the season. Many managers called for winter breaks in the League programme but according to Sandra and David this is simply not feasible with the number of clubs in each division.

Sandra explained: "Two seasons ago we had 119 matches postponed due to the weather compared to just 17 the year before. When that happens the sequencing just goes out of the window. It is then up to us to find the first possible date for the games to be played. If we broke for two weeks in December or January that's four dates out of the schedule and the task would become almost impossible."

The job of fixture preparation has become more and more complicated over the years, and with ever increasing demands of European competition and international fixtures it is not set to become any easier in future years.

"It makes life harder and it makes it harder to sequence", Sandra said. "The more things in the equation the harder it becomes to get an acceptable fixture list."

"But the experience and systems are in place to ensure come June each year the fans will have that fixture list for their wall."

© The Football League

The Fishy would like to thank the Football League for granting us permission to use this feature article from their website. Visit the Football League website at: http://www.football-league.premiumtv.co.uk.




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