Secrets of the fixture compiler

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Ian Todd, the FSF representative on the Fixtures Working Party, sheds some light on the process by which 'the fixure computer' comes up with something that never fails to cause grief and annoyance for some...

46 and a half hours before the new 2013-14 fixtures were revealed, The Fixtures Working Party, on which I am the supporters’ representative, met in Preston for a limited preview of the proposals.  I say limited because, as part of the commendably tight security over the whole process, the members had sight of no more than 8 of the sets of games in each division.  And we didn’t even have hard copies - only an opportunity to see the fixtures shown on a screen.

The Working Party, as well as the fixture compilers of the Premier and Football Leagues and their colleagues, has representatives from the FA (because of international and UEFA fixture implications), each of the four leagues, myself and the external guru whose computer system plans the whole process and churns out the initial drafts for tweaking.

The group had met previously in March, at which point the 92 clubs had already been invited to submit any special requests. These can range from asking to be away on a specific date as there’s a major local event that weekend, or to things like "we’ve been away on Boxing Day the last three seasons, can we be at home this time please?" At that meeting a set of criteria, some absolute, some preferred, against which the process should be planned were agreed.  We also considered the complexity of a calendar into which international breaks, two European and three domestic trophy competitions had to be integrated with the domestic league programmes.  This was the point at which league representatives had the option to express preferences into which weeks midweek games should be slotted.

But now it was time to witness, at least in part, the result of the detailed process which had gone on since the results of the play-offs were known.  And we were warned at the outset that it had been one of the most difficult tasks for a number of seasons.  In fact, around 600 changes had been made to the initial draft in the two days before our meeting. We were then shown the first two and last two sets of games for each league as well as the Christmas and Easter holiday games to identify any obvious problems.  This is, in itself, instructive as an attempt to change any single fixture will usually affect around 4 other games and hence 8 other teams.  On the one we examined we decided the alternative was worse overall than the original.

As the supporters‘ representative my main concern over the years has been holiday and midweek travel for fans.  The Boxing and New Year’s Day games, constrained by non-existent or limited public transport, are now manually inserted into the schedule so that the distances travelled are minimised. The aspirations of fans of clubs such as Plymouth and Swansea are sometimes difficult to accommodate in this respect. It is important to note too that, since the criteria determine that if you are at home on Boxing Day you are away on New Year’s Day and vice versa, each club will have a HHA or AAH sequence with the possibility that the intervening game (treated as a normal weekend, because of the constraints of the system) could involve a long journey for some.  Just ask Sunderland, who travel to Cardiff on December 28th this year!

In previous years I believe I have managed to have some influence on midweek travel and am now provided with my own print of all these fixtures.  It is impossible to eliminate long journeys from all such games, but there has been a commendable attempt by the compilers in recent years to ensure that no club will have more than one really long midweek trip. 

I was warned this year that the clubs themselves had asked for priority to be given to local matches on Saturdays to allow more people to attend the bigger games over the weekend rather than having these midweek. Whilst attempts were then made to reduce travel on the remaining fixtures it had been difficult and it was clear that some clubs have received less than desirable midweek travel.  It should be noted, by the way, that one of the reasons the Football League is starting a week earlier this coming season is to reduce the number of midweek fixtures.

I hope this will have answered most of the queries we normally get after the fixtures are released.  One new one this year, though, was why some clubs have both their initial and final games at home. First of all this is not one of the criteria agreed at the February meeting - and by the very nature of the need to switch a few clubs every now and again by means of 2 consecutive home or away games, it’s bound to happen sometimes  Having checked just the Premier League for the last 3 seasons it has applied to 50% of their teams, so is not something new.

Finally, you may wonder why some of the initial members of the Football League, now in the Premier League, are not participating in the Football League’s 125th Anniversary.  The latter actually falls on the international break weekend of mid September when there are no Premier League games and a limited number of Football League games.  The Football League decided on 3rd August as the next best option to maximise publicity, but of course there are no Premier League games on that day.  

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