A look at the complicated fixture compilation process
The collective intake of breath witnessed in Cumbria on fixture release day back in June caused an event which was almost visible from space as United fans digested the fact that their first Tuesday night away game was to be the near-780 mile round trip to Plymouth.
Our director of external affairs John Nixon did a bit of digging recently to help us to get to the bottom of how the longest journey of the season can even begin to fall out of the fixture computer in that way.
As you would expect, something as complicated as the compilation of a season-long fixture list is governed by a set of rules which, by nature of the beast, are probably best described as guidelines, particularly as you start to get into the nitty gritty of trying to satisfy the needs of a nationwide competition.
For example, one of the primary objectives each season is to ensure that as many fixtures as possible will kick off at 3pm on a Saturday.
At this point we need to consider that the Football League is made up of three divisions, with 24 member clubs in each of those divisions.
For each club within those divisions to fulfil its home and away league fixture requirement a total of 46 dates are needed (23 home games and 23 away). Out of interest, that’s a total of 1,656 matches across all three of our divisions.
Between a season start date of 6 August and a season end date of 6 May [purely as an example] there are 39 Saturdays, 39 mid-weeks and three Bank Holidays, within which those 46 fixture dates must be hosted.
Also to be factored into that timeframe, just to make things more interesting than they already were, are 12 international dates, 19 UEFA competition dates, 14 FA Cup dates, 8 League Cup dates, 7 Football League Trophy dates and 5 play-off dates.
Add that lot together and we suddenly have 111 fixture dates to be catered for. You can certainly start to see why Football League officials say that ‘ultimately the fixture list on the whole is a compromise solution across all divisions’ as they insist that ‘a fair and equitable approach is taken with every aspect of the compilation process.’
You can also see why, as things stand, it is only possible for two clubs per division to have a perfect Saturday home / away sequence. That, by the way, takes into account the fact that Boxing Day, New Year’s Day and Easter Monday are counted as Saturday fixtures. With that in mind, the schedule around that important festive period is always put together so that a club playing a home fixture on Boxing Day will have an away fixture on New Year’s Day, and vice versa. At the same time, the distance and number of journeys to away fixtures over the Christmas period is minimised wherever possible.
Although the aim is to hit as close to a season long home-away run for each club as possible, it’s sometimes unavoidable that back-to-back home or away fixtures will appear, particularly when it comes to Saturday-Tuesday fixtures. This, of course, is to bring the home-away run back into balance should a club’s fixture schedule fall out of line.
Where possible, each club should have an equal number of home and away mid-week fixtures, assuming an even number are scheduled. The inclusion of mid-week fixtures naturally disrupts the home and away sequence of the fixture schedule.
An already complex set of requirements are further complicated when more considerations, this time designed to make the competition as fair as possible, are thrown into the mix.
Here we go ... clubs should not be scheduled to play each other twice in a single four-week period (rearranged fixtures excluded). Whenever possible, no club should have two successive Saturday fixtures at home or away, and no club should play three consecutive home or away fixtures.
Still with us? Here’s a few more ... all clubs should have an alternating sequence of home and away Saturday fixtures at both the beginning and end of the season. This may, for example, be four at the beginning and two at the end of each season.
Mid-week fixtures are allocated as required but it is not always possible to schedule only short journeys for mid-week fixtures. The football authorities will identify, during review of the draft fixtures, journeys considered to be excessive, however, this does not always facilitate a change to the fixture schedule.
The current priority is to ensure that local and potentially well attended fixtures are not placed in mid-week and stats show that this approach has had a positive impact on attendance figures.
Every attempt is made to minimise excessive travel when back-to-back away fixtures are to be played but, and as was the case with our much talked about trip to Plymouth in August, success (or not) in achieving this can often be dictated by the geographical profile of the division.
And ultimately, within that last paragraph, lies the answer to the question of how we can be sent to Plymouth on a Tuesday night. All factors considered – all 15,742.8 miles of them (cup and home away games included) – we were quite simply faced with a division very much centred south of the Watford Gap.
Now, who fancies Newport, Wimbledon, Dagenham, Exeter, Yeovil, Portsmouth ... etc, etc between now and the end of the season!
NB – not discussed in this article is the issue of pairings. Pairings include clubs whose home grounds are in a very close proximity and where a clash of home fixtures would put an impossible strain on local services. Compulsory club pairings must be accommodated in the fixture compilation process and the primary aim is for no clashes to occur between these clubs. These pairings and police requests in relation to public order issues are accommodated wherever possible, whether they apply to a specific date or kick off time.