Football: Are the FA not aware that absence makes the heart grow fonder?

Olivia Blair ON SATURDAY
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Just like the national curriculum, Government policies and the Royal family, football has had to change with the times. Indeed, many of the recent changes means it is approaching the millennium in a healthier state than ever before instead of being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. However, it still seems that the game is undergoing a programme of plastic surgery that threatens to give it an ugly countenance and render it unrecognisable from the beautiful game it was designed to be.

Take this week for example. Not only has the idea resurfaced - at the suggestion of two German television companies - that a match should consist of three periods of 30 minutes rather than the traditional two halves (a proposal which would concede further ground to television in the power struggle for football's supremacy), but the Football Association has announced plans for a 12-month season to avoid fixture congestion. Is the FA not aware that absence makes the heart grow fonder, of the "scarcity value of the game", as the agent Jon Holmes put it?

Obviously not, but as we approach yet another period of postponed games due to international matches, the fact is that domestic fixture congestion is threatening to make a mockery of the notion that football is a simple game affording simple pleasures.

Time was when a fan's week consisted of Saturday afternoon games with the odd midweek clash thrown in for good measure. Now, you pays your money and you take your chances: Friday night; Saturdays (morning or afternoon for heaven's sake); Sundays at 1pm or 4pm; Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights; and even Thursdays on occasions. Sky weren't joking when they promised "football seven days a week".

But it's easy to blame Rupert Murdoch and his millions for a fixture list as haphazard as Estonia's timekeeping. Surely Sky's only crime was to have offered financial carrots to the Premier and Football Leagues which neither could resist? In the latter's case the deal is worth pounds 125m over five years, money the League calls "the lifeblood of the smaller clubs".

But it comes at a cost. The Charlton manager, Alan Curbishley, thinks the League has been held to ransom by Sky: "That Sky made the Football League kick off on a Friday night says it all to me as to where the power lies. It makes my job harder because if you play on Friday night, you'll watch a game on the Saturday and probably have to assess potential opponents on Sunday too."

Charlton are among those First Division clubs who face a backlog of postponed games due to international involvement. "We forced the issue over international players," Curbishley says, "and we know we can't have our cake and eat it. But you can't ask fans to watch a team without three of its top stars. They're the ones being mucked around."

The club versus country situation takes on a more ludicrous hue in Charlton's case when you consider that their England Under-21 players were released for a game that attracted less than 4,000 fans and forced the postponement of a game that would have drawn around 10,000 to The Valley. But Curbishley is also unhappy about the midweek fixture list which, last Tuesday, saw the Robins having to travel to Tranmere and Manchester City to Southend.

However, organising a fixture list to please everybody all of the time is no easy matter. It involves a lengthy process which begins in October to be ready for the following August. It is a far cry from the 1880s when, with only 12 clubs to consider, a ballot determined which clubs would play at home on the first Saturday - and the clubs worked the rest out themselves. From 1915 to 1967 the League paid a little lawyer called Charles Sutcliffe 150 guineas for a fixture list which took three days to complete and was invariably so foolproof that the first draft seldom needed more than eight changes, a standard even the most modern computer can't better. Sutcliffe's charts resembled a chequerboard of 924 red and white squares, each club being allocated a different number each season. Apparently the only mistake he ever made was once to mix up Sheffield Wednesday with United.

In 1967 the League's secretary, Alan Hardaker, paid pounds 400 for the copyright of Sutcliffe's system, but computers soon rendered it obsolete. However, the same criteria still have to be taken into account today, such as holiday dates like Christmas and new year when no club wants to play away; midweek variations (every club has its own preferences depending on local customs); cash flow (no club can have three or more home games in a row, and none want a derby fixture on the first day of the season, a traditionally lucrative fixture date); local problems (Bury, Stockport, Manchester City and Rochdale all want to avoid clashes with Manchester United, as do both Everton and Tranmere with Liverpool); policing (Scarborough and York are 41 miles apart yet policed by the same force so they can't play at home on the same day); and events outside football like the Grand National, party conferences and the Nottingham Goose Fair which affect teams in Liverpool, Brighton, Blackpool, Bournemouth and Nottingham with regard to the police and transport facilities.

So it's inevitable that occasionally Darlington will have to play Torquay at Christmas and West Ham fans will have to get up at 5am on New Year's Day to catch a coach to Maine Road, as happened last year. But we're not asking for miracles here, just a little restraint. Making the Coca-Cola Cup a one-legged affair might help, but then that is tinkering with football's traditions as much as expanding the fixture list is. Charles Sutcliffe must be turning in his grave.

Olivia Blair is assistant editor of FourFourTwo magazine