Meet Ferguson’s foe: the fixture list planner

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THE NEXT time Sir Alex Ferguson alleges that the Premier League fixture list is biased against Manchester United, Glenn Thompson will react as calmly as usual. “Over the years you get used to it,” he said.

Thompson, who works for the IT company Atos Origin in Livingston, has been compiling the fixtures that decide the weekly destinations of hundreds of thousands of supporters for the past 18 seasons. “A manager who has a bad run of results can blame the fixtures, and if I was in their position I would probably do the same,” he said. “But you have to ensure that all 92 clubs, not just one or two, are treated fairly and you can’t satisfy everyone.”

Blackpool might have preferred a more glamorous Premier League debut than today’s game with Wigan, and West Bromwich may travel to Chelsea with trepidation at tea-time, but Thompson has to look at the bigger picture, and has under three weeks to deliver 2,036 fixtures, not to mention those in the Scottish Football League and other levels of the football pyramid.

“I try to get the fixtures out within 18 days of the final play-off game,” he said. “It is a 70- or 80-hour week, and weekends disappear. You can’t say, ‘Guess what I’ve just been doing’ to friends in the pub, because you don’t go out.”

The basis of Thompson’s planning is the “pairing” of neighbouring clubs so that when one is at home, the other is away, Everton and Liverpool being an obvious example. Once the parameters for a group of fixtures have been inputted, including clubs’ requests for pairings and away games on certain dates, one of Thompson’s two laptops will present him with a set of matches. The exceptions are Boxing Day and new year games, which he handpicks in order to minimise travel. This season, though, he was unable to pull out a plum for his team, Darlington – the Blue Square Conference makes its own arrangements.

His results are scrutinised by a working party that includes representatives of the Football Association and clubs, before the police get final approval. But there are still complaints, such as one from Ferguson last year, that the fixtures have been rigged against certain clubs, which baffle Thompson.

“Sooner or later you have to play every other club, home and away,” he said. “The main complaint is usually where clubs are after European matches, but the Premier League fixtures come out before Uefa knows the Champions League groups and whether clubs will be at home or away on a Tuesday or a Wednesday night.”

He works on the Premier League first, “because there you have the largest number of fans travelling, and you try to fit in with police requirements and other local events. And all the other fixtures flow from that. Then you move down the divisions. Occasionally if you can’t make League Two work, you might have to go back up the levels and tweak the fixtures to ensure that you get something that satisfies everyone.

“But after 18 years, you’re aware of the likely issues. The company devised the original program back in 1982 but although it has been through several rewrites, it’s still largely the same, and it’s still a one-man operation for the main leagues. You can’t really delegate.”

Or bask in much glory? “It’s sometimes nice for the computer to be blamed rather than someone by name.”