Like pre-match pints, obscene chants, half-time Bovrils and roads varnished in horse manure, the Saturday 3pm kick-off is one of English football’s longstanding traditions.
At least, it was. Until Saturday 6th October, 2007.
That day saw a perfect storm of commercial commitments cause havoc with all but one of the Premier League’s matches, as Villa Park set an English record by becoming the only top flight ground in action at the traditional time of 3pm.
With four games chosen by broadcasters Sky and Setanta, four moved due to the UEFA Cup (“Thursday night, Channel Five”), and one rearranged on police advice, the long-held suspicion that the game’s puppeteers were now to be found in swanky TV studios was all but confirmed.
“It is extraordinary and it will be a dark weekend for football supporters,” raged Malcolm Clarke, chairman of the Football Supporters’ Federation. “It’s symbolic of the way things are going but the views of the match-going fan seem to be bottom of the list of priorities. We will certainly bring this up at our next meeting with the Premier League.”
Never ones to miss out on a populist bandwagon, even politicians weighed in on the controversy. Sports Minister Gerry Sutcliffe said: “the Saturday three o’clock kick-off is a great tradition of English football and one that supporters, myself included, would like to see continue”, before adding the caveat that demonstrated that he – like Premier League execs – knew exactly where his bread was buttered: “TV rights have contributed to the success of the Premier League – money from which is now filtering down to lower league and community football”.
With nervous Match of the Day producers watching on, the game at Villa Park did at least have one other angle of interest than simply the fact it was sitting alone on the fixture list. England manager Steve McLaren (don’t laugh) would be in attendance to see the 14 Englishman on show as he looked ahead to Euro 2008 (ok, laugh away). However, the match itself proved as lame as England’s qualification campaign, with a deflected free-kick from Craig Gardner proving the difference between the sides.
Thankfully for Lineker and co, they were saved from having to spend 45 minutes micro-analysing the game’s talking points (“so Alan, what did you make of Luis Boa Morte’s throw-ins today?”) by the day’s earlier game, a 12.45pm kick-off at Old Trafford that saw Manchester United pump four past a sorry Wigan side to go back to the top of the Premier League.
Fast forward nearly 10 years and it’s unlikely many fans remember the furore. More tellingly, if the same were to happen this weekend, it’s even more unlikely that anyone would notice.