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Compilers prove the fixture list is unfair

Fixtures are always, every year, without doubt, a source of great contention amongst football fans. 

“What?! Our third last game is in the north east again! It was in the north east 12 seasons ago! It’s a fu*king fix!” 

And not only the fixtures are they are first published, but as the season progresses. Rearranged fixtures on top of rearranged fixtures on top of postponed matches on top of replays. It’s all one big sodding nightmare.

They should just get all 92 teams from the English league and drop them into Wembley, with a single ball and a variety of bibs, and play the whole season out in one go. The referee can dangle from a blimp with a pair of opera glasses holding Pot Noodle cup with a number of strings coming out if it. Officials stationed at various positions around the gantry will hold the receivers, each one capable of issuing yellows and reds with US military sniper rifles converted to fire paintballs incredibly accurately (or at least as accurately as yellows and reds are distributed at present).

Why they have managed to get hold of US military-grade sniper rifles but yet still have to rely on Pot Noodle cups to communicate I’m not really sure, but that’s beside the point.

Anyway, that probably won’t happen this year so we’ll likely have to rely on the actual fixtures as produced by the mythical ‘fixture computer’. And we’ll more than likely complain our bollocks off about them.

I read this article on the BBC website earlier today (it is admittedly 4 years old) – shared by Tim Stillman – which, in Tim’s words, illustrates the “hell fixture compilers have to go through to put the season together”. It’s an interesting article, and I certainly don’t envy the compilers themselves, but the overriding feeling I got when reading it was not sympathy for the compilers but astonishment over just how much tinkering is needed to get the fixtures ‘right’.

Now, I’m a naive, innocent until proven guilty, “of course you can borrow my phone and take it around the corner to phone your mother, strange man on the street who I’ve never met” sort of guy, but I assumed that the fixtures were almost entirely randomised. I assumed that on any given match day of any season you had the chance of facing any of the other teams in your division.

I was well wrong.

Going by the article – and given how old it is things may have changed by now – it seems that a fair few fixtures are prohibited by the computer, entered “manually”, or even amended multiple times at a later date. And when I say a fair few, I really mean an unfair few.

Now I’m not criticising the motives of the fixture compilers, and the reasons given for taking away the chance element for certain fixtures are often noble - on Boxing Day, for example, where it’s done in order to ensure minimal travelling distance for fans, or when too many fans may be heading to certain station on a given weekend. But you could easily argue that the amount of tinkering that occurs takes away the chance element so much as to render the fixture list unfair, whether intentionally or not.

And there is a whole lot of tinkering:

“Five days after the Championship play-off final Thompson produced his first draft of the fixtures. From that moment onwards it was all a case of refinement, refinement, refinement, with Thompson returning to his computer 30-40 times to try to improve his list.

These might include issues such as potentially sensitive fixtures being played on the opening or final weekends of the season and derby fixtures taking place in midweek.

As Snellgrove puts it: ‘There is a huge amount of information crunched - by the time the fixtures actually come out the original list has been changed goodness knows how many times.’”

And this tinkering is not just undertaken on general principles. Clubs can make individual requests for fixture changes:

“Over the following week Snellgrove will deal with requests by clubs to switch days. Clubs cannot move a game away from an allocated weekend but they can switch the day of the match. Cheltenham, for example, often play a home game on a Friday when there is a clash with the horse racing festival.”

Now you would hope that this was all above board, but even if it was the fixtures are still being changed in response to individual club’s requests or on an arbitrary judgement of ‘fairness’. What if one club’s request is ignored and another accepted? What if your club’s concept of ‘fair’ differs wildly from that of the fixture compilers?

The likelihood is that both of those are true on a regular basis and this will impact your club and your season and your points total and that’s just the way that it is.

Of course, you have to face every team twice and therefore it could be argued that the fixtures are never ‘unfair’, but in reality we all know that’s a load of nonsense. One such common example which affects Arsenal is the number of away games a team plays after European competition, which can certainly be arranged so as to benefit one team more than another.

Imagine if Arsenal were due to have 6 home games after European competition but 4 of those fixtures were rearranged due to travel arrangement for clubs in the lower divisions and replaced with away games. As a result of the reshuffle, which affects a large number of clubs, Chelsea’s 4 away games after European competition are changed to home games. That’s a seemingly reasonable move for the fixture compilers to make with an unfair outcome for Arsenal.

I’m not claiming to have an ultimate solution to this problem, but I think there is a justification for complaint if this is how the fixtures are compiled, even there is no obvious means of improvement. It’s unlikely that anyone will ever be 100% happy with their fixtures - so I suppose that’s fair in being unfair on everyone – but even so, just one rearranged fixture can be the difference between winning the title or not, or even between relegation and survival and possibly even financial stability.

At the end of the day the compilers hope “to produce a list that is balanced and neutral” and perhaps that’s all we can ever reasonably expect. But you better cross your fingers, toes and eyes and hope that their version of “balanced and neutral” is in accordance with your own.

William Benn

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