Do not adjust our football fixture list

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FIDDLING the finale for the benefit of their television benefactors is an art newly practised but not yet perfected by our sporting leaders and is steadily getting up the noses of those struggling to keep pace with the blossoming denouements of our winter games.

Even as we speak, we have yet to learn whether Blackburn Rovers' final Premiership game of the season against Ipswich this week will take place on Saturday or Sunday. It is in the official fixture list - soon to be renamed 'A Vague Guide to When Your Team Might be Playing' - for Saturday but was recently changed to Sunday. Sky expected the championship to be settled on that day and planned to show the climactic flourishes of both Blackburn and Manchester United, who play Coventry.

This brought protests from the other end of the Premiership - the Derriereship, we can call it - that this could give Ipswich an unfair advantage over their relegation rivals who are all scrambling for precious points on Saturday. Ipswich would therefore know exactly what result they needed when they went into action 24 hours later.

That may now change, not through any sympathy for the strugglers but because Manchester United may make next Sunday redundant conclusion-wise by winning the title sooner. The League will thus apply a simple formula to the situation over the next few days. This, in a nutshell the size of the Albert Hall, is what will happen:

If Manchester United lose to Ipswich today and Blackburn win at Coventry tomorrow, both final matches (Blackburn v Ipswich and Manchester United v Coventry) will be played in front of the Sky cameras on Sunday. The same will apply if United draw at Ipswich and Blackburn beat Coventry. But if United beat Ipswich, the

Blackburn-Ipswich game will revert to Saturday, leaving United the undivided glory on Sunday; that's if they have not already won the title on Wednesday, and Sunday falls a little flat.

If United draw at Ipswich, Blackburn draw at Coventry and United lose at home to Southampton on Wednesday the Blackburn- Ipswich match will still be played on Saturday, even though a Blackburn victory would require United to gain a point on Sunday. This would give United the advantage that everyone begrudges Ipswich. They would know exactly what they had to do. However, should they fail to get a point and lose on Sunday, it means that Blackburn would have won the title on Saturday with not a Sky viewer in sight. This would cause a serious outbreak of hysterical laughter among the millions who don't have access to satellite television and leave the Premiership and Sky glaring at each other.

None of this will do, of course. I am all in favour of capitalising on the drama of sporting events, whether for the benefit of satellite or terrestrial viewers, but there are limits. Football has already reached those by playing the FA Cup semi-finals over two consecutive days at Wembley and devaluing Saturday afternoon by plundering its juicier matches. No good will come of it.

But it becomes acutely serious when less than five days before a fixture, supporters are uncertain when they will be required to turn up and render their irreplaceable

services to the game's income and its atmosphere.

It is possible for a climax to be faked without too much inconvenience to the fans. They did it in rugby league last weekend and it worked out perfectly. Wigan, Bradford Northern and Warrington were level on points with one match to go. Again, our obliging friends from Sky organised it so that Warrington played their last match on Friday night, Bradford played theirs on Saturday afternoon and Wigan on Sunday evening. It was an arrangement heavily weighted in Wigan's favour but, in fairness, the rival teams played in ascending order of points difference.

Warrington duly won their match against Sheffield and went to the top of the table. The following day Bradford won and took their place on high and on the third day Wigan rose to finish as champions. It was all neat and progressive, far more so than it would have been if the order of matches had been reversed. If they had played last, Warrington would have needed to win 180-0, which is an impossibility unless you happen to be playing Leeds the week before the Challenge Cup final.

It is important that the interests of the paying supporter do not become forgotten. The more that sport becomes a stage for television channels and their viewers, the less wise we are to forget the human backcloth. Any dwindling presence at the grounds is bound to result in a diminishing of the atmosphere at games that would be noticeable even to those imprisoned in an armchair.

I was on a long journey last Monday night listening to Radio 5 on the car radio and after an excellent half-hour programme about Ron Atkinson, they brought on Listen with Mellor. It was a bit late for kids but they explained that it had been postponed from the previous Saturday evening because it clashed with one of these dreadful five o'clock kick-offs. One of those who heeded his blandishments to telephone was a lady season-ticket holder who objected strongly to the sudden rearrangement of fixtures. She bought her ticket expecting most of the games to be held at the traditional time on Saturday afternoons. She felt that switching games to Sunday or Monday was in breach of her contract with the club and I am sure that many who still enjoy a patterned life at the weekend would agree.

Football might care to consider what happened in the world of golf last weekend. While the star men of the European Tour were playing before a meagre audience in Spain, the Ford Women's Classic at Woburn attracted a crowd of more than 50,000 during its four days and on the last day traffic jams stretched 14 miles from the course. The sponsors, Ford, had sent six free tickets to the ladies' section of every golf club and had given them away at their showrooms. In the theatre it is known as papering the house, but it proved to be a very good idea. The women got the galleries they deserved, the fans were entertained and other sponsors raised their eyebrows.

Perhaps a similar gesture from football may one day be necessary if they want to preserve the game's appeal to the television audience. As it is, they may have to think of rewarding the loyalty of the faithful with cheaper admission when they mess around with the fixtures.

PUBLICATION of the 1993 earnings of the top sports stars reveals few shocks as one glances down the familiar names. Lennox Lewis - pounds 10.5m; Nigel Mansell - pounds 7.5m; Nick Faldo - pounds 7.5m . . . routine stuff, really.

The top football earner was Paul Gascoigne at pounds 2.9m, which is no surprise. The Japan-based Gary Lineker was at ninth place with pounds 2.1m, and David Platt took pounds 1.5m out of Italian football. But it is a shock to see that the top-earning home-based player is Wimbledon's John Fashanu at 13th place on pounds 1.3 million. It shows that it is not just ability that gets a man to the top. A little bit of elbow grease goes a long way.