The Last Defender: Midweek fixture traveling

Matt Stead

The sorites paradox poses the question: if a heap of sand is reduced one grain at a time, at what point does it cease to be sensibly defined as a heap? Is a single grain of sand a heap? And if you answered ‘no’ to that because you’re not a ridiculous person, do you accept that a number exists at which heapiness can be rightly attributed? So what if I remove a single grain from that? Does it really make all the difference? And how does one remove a single grain, anyway? I don’t tend to carry that kind of equipment with me; this isn’t exactly a situation I find myself in all that often, unlike you, who seemingly can’t so much as walk past a grit bin without leaping into it head-first with your magnifying glass and your tiny tweezers and your ontology. You’re weird mate. You’re weird.

All this is to poncily say, sometimes it’s difficult to know where to draw the line. When is too much too much? That’s the position traveling fans find themselves in with TV rescheduling: how often is too often, and how far is too far? The complaint is understandable…nobody wants to spend eight or more hours traveling the length of the country at the best of times, let alone in the evening, which for many people means taking time off work and either getting in at 3am or paying a premium to stay at one of Burnley’s finest hostelries. When we’re talking about thousands of people who are already paying stupid prices for tickets (though this is improving thanks to the Twenty’s Plenty campaign), the inconvenience is undoubtedly considerable.

However, if you’ve ever tried to organise, well, anything at all, you’ll know what a pain it is. I used to run small-sided football leagues and had to try to accommodate every side’s kick-off time requests; this side can only do lates, this side can only do earlies, this side can’t play after dark during full moons because their goalie’s a werewolf, that kind of thing. It’s a right pain. And that’s without taking into account the knock-on effects from European five-a-side commitments or contractual agreements with the broadcasters who put the overwhelming majority of money into my Egham 5-a-side league (Eurosport, probably?). If each player attracted 500 fans apiece, and they all wanted a say in the scheduling too, it’d be practically impossible.

I don’t disagree that where possible fans should come first – there’s no game without us, we pay your wages, etc – but there are too many practical considerations involved in getting the games played at all.

But let’s play along and see how bad things are, starting with how often midweek fixtures actually occur. I’ve looked at how many time each Premier League side played on each day of the week between the 2010-11 and 2015-16 seasons – six seasons of Premier League football in total – and in truth, it’s not too bad.

26 out of 32 teams suffer four or fewer after-work journeys in a typical season, which doesn’t seem too crazy to me. This figure is mitigated further when you consider that one or two of those non-weekend games tend to be down to either Christmas scheduling (four of the last six Boxing Days have been weekdays, but I’ve counted them anyway) or fixtures that have been moved for cup games: for instance, two of Watford’s four Wednesday kickoffs last season were a direct result of their run to the FA Cup semi-final, without which it’d be 27 out of 32. (The others, by the way, are Newcastle, Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and Everton).

The other factor is geography. “Playing on a Monday night is all well and good,” we say, “I like watching football on the telly. But do they really have to send Southampton fans up to Sunderland for those games? That’s just insensible.”

But actually, on the whole the Premier League does seem to make an effort to keep midweek journey times down, even despite the whims of Sky and BT Sport. The stats show that midweek games generally involve shorter journeys for midweek fixtures than the average Premier Lague road trip, with the longer journeys typically kept to the weekend. The Premier League does a lot wrong, but they cannae change the laws of geography.

I would suggest if we’re going to look after away fans, what we need isn’t greater consideration from the Premier League and the TV companies, but for the league as a whole to arrange better transportation and significantly discounted hotel rooms for traveling fans. Besides, I and millions of others actually quite like watching football on TV, and don’t particularly want that to change.

That all said: enjoy your eight-hour Boxing Day round trip to Swansea, West Ham fans!


Steven Chicken – follow him on Twitter