The New Church
Let’s be clear. Fixture planning has never been something done in the interests of fans. Take Newcastle United versus Plymouth Argyle, for instance. This geographically hostile pairing has been scheduled to meet at one end of the country or another on both New Year’s Day, in 1936, and Christmas Eve, in 1938.
These days, though, things are arguably even worse. The fixture list published in June is barely worth the paper it’s printed on – or the bandwidth required to download it – so subject to change is it at the whim of clubs, the police or, far more likely, television schedulers.
It wasn’t always this way. Until January 1974 – a full 111 years since the Football Association was born and 86 years on from the formation of the Football League – Sundays had remained sacrosanct. After all, shops weren’t permitted to open on Sundays by law until the eighties; even those that did, such as newsagents, were limited in their scope. So what happened?
The ‘lightbulb’ moment arrived as most people’s lights were, quite literally, going out. In the late autumn of 1973, the United Kingdom was a country for which the prefix ‘crisis’ had been invented.
Edward Heath, leader of the right of centre Conservative Party, had become the country’s unlikely Prime Minister in June 1970 when the electorate, a large part of which was no doubt sulking over England’s World Cup exit, had booted out Harold Wilson’s Labour government.
Ted was always more of a sailor than a soccer fan, and under his stewardship the country had been navigating choppy economic waters from Day One. But the Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War of October 1973, and the subsequent quadrupling of crude oil prices, finally holed the already-listing SS Heath below the waterline.
Inflation was rampant, real wages falling and, to conserve fragile power supplies, the government was forced to impose a three-day working week, since electricity companies were no longer able to guarantee the provision of a reliable supply to homes and factories. Domestic power cuts became routine and national television went off-air at 10.30pm each evening. (As a ten-year-old, this was great, as Match of the Day now finished just before my weekend bedtime.) Couples were even exhorted to share a bath.
It was a period when the national game was also concerned about going down the metaphorical plughole. Clubs, by now accustomed to playing at 3pm all year round thanks to the introduction of floodlighting in the 1950s, had been obliged by the state of emergency to bring forward kick-offs to ensure games could be played in daylight. Some match programmes were even slimmed down in a war on waste.
Some enterprising clubs hired generators to get round the power squeeze. This included my own Portsmouth: in the second half against Luton on one grey Saturday afternoon, however, the machine gave up, forcing the mains to have to be switched on for safety reasons. Happily the national interest remained, just about, intact.
By now, midweek afternoon kick-offs had become the norm, and the idea of extending the season into June had been seriously entertained. Faced with dwindling crowds, the FA and Football League came up with a cunning plan: to use the other half of the weekend when, after all, not much else was going on to strain the National Grid.
In December 1973, after the FA had consulted with the Home Office, it was announced that clubs could, from the New Year, exceptionally stage games on Sunday. Many – anxious to see whether it could persuade more fans to attend matches – would choose to, but the innovation was not without controversy and complication.
To be fair, experimenting with match scheduling was nothing new. In the sixties and seventies a few lower division clubs had already challenged the prevailing ‘Saturday at 3pm’ hegemony: Stockport, for example, had staged Friday evening games and Torquay Saturday evening games in an attempt to pull in more punters.
Playing on Good Friday or even Christmas Day had never troubled the league or its members in the past. Nevertheless, religious groups and those of a religious persuasion, including many in football, were up in arms at the thought of playing on the Sabbath. The then-Arsenal General Manager Bob Wall, who had been working at the club since the 1920s, was unequivocal: “Playing football and making profits on a Sunday is wrong. We will not disturb the peace and quiet of Highbury on that day,” he was reported to have said at the time.
The Sunday Observance Act of 1780 also threw up another challenge. Under its eighteenth century provisions clubs couldn’t legally charge for admission. The solution? Fans were obliged to buy a ‘programme’, the sale of which was permitted at the turnstile, in return for access to the ground. Invariably this new addition was more of a team-sheet: no point losing real programme sales after all.
On Sunday 20th January, 1974, the first 12 league fixtures in English football were played – and Pandora’s Box opened. The honour of being the first-ever game went to Millwall, who flew in the face of the religious lobby by scheduling their second division game with Fulham for 11am.
For the purposes of historical accuracy, it should be pointed out that four FA Cup third round ties had taken place a fortnight earlier. Cambridge United claimed the first of the firsts when they hosted a tie against Oldham at the Abbey Stadium on the morning of 6th January.
How attendances in the pulpits of south-east London (or Cambridge, for that matter) were affected is not recorded, but The Lions’ one-nil win, in front of a crowd of 15,340 – 50 per cent up on the season average at The Den – certainly was. It was a pattern repeated across the country as fans – no religious pun intended – flocked to grounds.
A week later, I squeezed into Fratton Park on the day after my eleventh birthday along with almost 33,000 others – more than twice the league average – for Pompey’s first foray into Sunday football: a fourth round FA Cup tie against fellow second division-dwellers Leyton Orient. Even the Rothmans Football Yearbook for 1974-75, in its review of the previous season, felt moved to note encouraging attendances at fixtures as prosaic as Barnsley versus Reading and Hartlepool against Stockport.
The experiment, or, more accurately, expedience, was over fairly quickly. A minority Labour government was elected in the February, as lighter spring evenings arrived. Their first job in office was to head off a double whammy in the energy sector as striking miners were appeased, with an inflation-busting pay rise, over beer and sandwiches at Number Ten. The final Sunday fixtures were played that month as the quasi-national state of emergency retreated, and I went back to cleaning my teeth in my pyjamas to the strains of the Match of the Day theme tune.
But a seed had been sown, as the then FA Secretary Ted Croker acknowledged. “Football is the national game and we should be concerned to give the public what they want when they want it. A lot of people want to watch football on Sundays,” he said.
His analysis didn’t quite stand the test of time, however – at least initially. Sunday fixtures wouldn’t return until the beginning of the next decade, when trading laws began to be liberalised; arguably, by then, the novelty had worn off. Pompey’s third home Sunday fixture in March 1981 attracted a below average gate of 12,000. It would be another 11 years before their fourth, and even then it was only so it could be shown live on ITV.
For the real significance of the introduction of Sunday football was that it ultimately opened the door for television to drive a fleet of carts and a stable of (arguably Trojan) horses through fixture scheduling.
There had been an abortive ITV attempt at screening live league football in 1960 – Blackpool versus Bolton was the first, being a resonant fixture with the public in those days – but it had been scuppered by other clubs’ resistance.
In 1983 ITV tried again, having struck a deal with the league along with the BBC. This time, there would be no going back, save for a brief television blackout in the mid-1980s. Spurs against Nottingham Forest kicked things off on Sunday 2nd October, and a few weeks later the Beeb followed suit when Manchester United also met Spurs at Old Trafford on a Friday evening.
The once-immutable fixture list, extending over nine months like a precision telescope, could now be turned into a child’s kaleidoscope, and English football would never be quite the same again. I blame Ted Heath.