This weekend Liverpool and Everton both have 3pm Saturday fixtures for only the fifth time in 2012 – but Ian Doyle asks if the erosion of the traditional kick-off slot actually matters
SOMETHING extremely unusual will happen this weekend. Something that for years was a given, but is now as rare as an away team winning a penalty at Old Trafford.
Both Everton and Liverpool will kick off at 3pm on a Saturday.
It’s only the fifth time this calendar year both Merseyside clubs will be simultaneously involved in a match at what has long been considered the traditional time for English football.
The increasing influence of television, police advice and European commitments continue to threaten one of the oldest mainstays in the game.
But does it really matter any more?
For the armchair supporter, the 3pm Saturday fixture is an inconvenience given that, with Premier League rules stating none can be broadcast live in this country, viewing requires either a foreign satellite feed or a dodgy internet stream.
For the matchgoing fan, however, it remains the ideal time.
Statistics prove the point. Liverpool’s average Anfield attendance last season was higher for games held in the traditional slot than those at other times.
And while the reverse was true for Everton, the figures were somewhat skewed by the fact that of the club’s most frequently highest-attended matches irrespective of time and date – the derby, the visit of Manchester United and the last home game of the season – none were on a Saturday afternoon.
All told, of Everton’s 26 home games in 2011-12 in all competitions, only 10 were at the traditional weekend time. For Liverpool, that number drops to seven in 25.
“It’s horrendous,” says Kenny Sweeney of West Cheshire Blues, an Everton supporters club.
“Everyone accepts there will be midweek games, but having too many midweek games, particularly on a Monday night, has an impact because it means kids are not likely to go as they have school in the morning. Some of the lads I know have decided it’s a waste of time having a season ticket. If you miss two midweek games and can’t sell the ticket on, then the discount has gone.
“Working life has changed now. Sunday used to be a day of rest but gradually that has changed. People don’t work the same hours and that becomes a problem when fixtures are altered near to the game.
“Then there are people who like to play Sunday league football. With games being played on a Sunday lunchtime, they can’t possibly get to both.
“It’s great that Everton have such a big walk-up following, but the chopping and changing the kick-off times is preventing people from outside the city turning up.”
That chopping and changing has caused particular consternation with two long-haul January trips for the Goodison faithful.
Adds Sweeney: “I know fans in the Northern Ireland supporters’ group who try to book flights over as far as possible in advance, and then have to pay more because games have been changed.
“Look at the trip to Newcastle. It was initially New Year’s Day. But now it’s 8pm on January 2, and that’s realistically one or two days off work to get there and back. The same goes for Southampton on a Monday night later in the month.”
A brief history. It wasn’t until 1974 that the first top-flight game was played on a Sunday between Stoke City and Chelsea, a week after the first Football League game on a Sunday saw Millwall take on Fulham at the ridiculously early time of 11.30am.
The first Sunday league game for Liverpool and Everton came in November 1983 when the pair met at Anfield, the home side winning 3-0.
Now, with a £3billion television deal due to start next season, the demand for live football is higher than ever, with 158 of the season’s 360 Premier League games being broadcast.
Sweeney pinpoints an issue that has already caused alarm among many top-flight clubs is not being helped by the gradual shift away from traditional – and convenient – Saturday afternoon football.
“It’s in danger of pushing away the kids,” he says. “They just aren’t going. They can’t afford it and the times don’t suit them.
“To be fair, Everton have identified this and are trying to attract younger fans with initiatives such as £99 half-season tickets for under-16s.
“As a result, we are seeing a lot more young people coming in, especially younger girls with their dads. and it’s creating a better atmosphere.”
There is a flip side on Merseyside.
Tranmere Rovers used to regularly host matches on a Friday night until a combination of rival clubs cottoning on to the advantage it gave the home side and problems with regularly policing the matches made them switch to a Saturday afternoon.
“When games are on television, it helps Rovers,” says Andy Doyle, chairman of the Tranmere Rovers Supporters Association. “But when either Everton or Liverpool are on at 3pm on a Saturday, people are torn between going there or to Tranmere.
“It’s not by design, it’s more a by-product of television’s interference that we are being helped by it.
“Rovers used to be famous for playing on a Friday, bringing in big crowds and having a tremendous atmosphere.
“Now we are playing this Friday in a game shown on television (against MK Dons), and the club are having to cut prices and have initiatives to get people to actually turn up. It’s a double-edged sword.”
The FA Cup has also been affected.
Until as recently as 1989, Cup semi-finals were not televised live and both started at 3pm on a Saturday while the rest of English football continued their league campaigns.
Since winning the FA Cup in 2001, Liverpool have played 33 matches in the competition of which only four have taken place on Saturday at 3pm, one of which was the final in 2006.
But even the showpiece is no longer sacred. Liverpool’s clash with Chelsea at Wembley in May was shifted to 5.15pm on a weekend in which the rail service between Liverpool and London was crippled by closures.
Not that the FA bothered disguising their motives. “The later time maximises a bigger domestic and global TV audience for broadcasters,” they said.
And the authorities wonder why the FA Cup doesn’t quite have the same lustre as yesteryear.
It isn’t just in England where there is a problem. This weekend in Spain, all 10 La Liga games will kick off at different times, staggered to suit the television companies.
Earlier in the season there was outrage that some games were not finishing until near 1am on a Monday morning, hardly conducive to attracting big crowds with the trifling matter of work and school a few hours later.
Money, though, talks.
“Every time a team is live on television they are guaranteed £500,000, and they aren’t going to turn down that kind of money,” adds Sweeney.
“But you can see how people are drifting away and watching games on the television more. Even if you go by yourself, you’ll need £100 to go to a match and make a day of it. Loyalty only lasts so long. Disposable income is being eroded and even the most loyal fans are starting to think twice of going to the game when they can go to the pub and for the cost of a few pints watch the game.”
Football, a television sport? Worryingly, you didn’t hear it here first.