Fan anger at final day Championship fixture moves

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Last week’s Football League announcement that final day fixtures in the Championship were to be brought forward from Sunday 8th May (3pm) to Saturday 7th May 2011 (12.45pm) was another reminder, if one was needed, that TV trumps the match going fan in the eyes of the football authorities.

Final day fixtures always kick-off simultaneously in order to avoid teams having prior knowledge of their rivals’ results and the Football League confirmed it had moved all 12 fixtures “after consultation with Sky Sports, the BBC and the clubs involved”. Can you spot the missing party? The fans, of course.

On Monday the Football Supporters’ Federation met with the Football League in Preston and this issue was obviously high on the agenda. As this set of fixtures is less than three months away many hundreds, if not thousands, of fans will have already bought advance rail tickets which come onto the market 12 weeks in advance of the date of travel.

While the Football League argues that fixture flexibility has to be maintained to help broadcasters they acknowledge that it is unfortunate that in this case the fixtures were not moved earlier.  As a result of this meeting the Football League has agreed to review its processes in future when making large-scale changes to the fixture list.

The Football League's head of communications, John Nagle, said: “The Football League operates a four week minimum notice period for the re-scheduling of matches for broadcasting reasons during the closing stages of the season. This is extended to six weeks at other times of the season.

“The League has now agreed to review its processes when considering re-scheduling blocks of fixtures so that, wherever possible, we take into account this 12 week travel window in future. The matter will discussed further at our Fixtures Working Party meetings, at which the FSF is represented. However for individual match selections our normal contracted notice periods with our broadcasters will continue to apply.”

The fact that the Football League has agreed to review its processes to take advance rail tickets into account in future is a step in the right direction. Advance rail tickets are often non-refundable and fans who have bought them will therefore be left out of pocket. What is doubly frustrating for many fans in this incident is that the announcement came 11 weeks before the fixtures were due to be played. If the Football League had moved the Championship’s final day fixtures two weeks ago no fans would have booked rail tickets as they weren’t on the market.

Of course fans might have still been a little disgruntled, getting from one end of the country to another for a 12.45pm kick-off isn’t the easiest task and there are going to be some bleary-eyed fans making long journeys that day. Portsmouth’s trek to Scunthorpe (500+ miles roundtrip) is arguably the pick of the bunch although plenty more sides have cross-country trips to make. Cardiff, Hull, Leeds, Millwall, Sheffield United, and Watford all have roundtrips of 380 miles or more.

So why were the fixtures moved? “Basically, this was due to a request from their broadcast partners because of a clash - specifically the screening of the Turkish Grand Prix on BBC,” said FSF deputy chair Jon Keen, who met the Football League along with fellow FSF National Council members Alan Bloore, Martin O’Hara, and Mike Williamson.

“Other possible time slots were looked at but later on the Sunday clashed with Sky’s Premier League matches so was not available (Sky are another Football League broadcast partner). 5.15pm on Saturday was not acceptable to the 12 different police forces involved, so Saturday 12.45pm was all that was left.”

At present the Football League’s contract with broadcasters stipulates that the broadcaster must give six weeks notice if it wishes to move a game. As the BBC did, on this occasion, give 11 weeks notice the Football League chose to do just that. The Football League has also just issued tender documents for its next broadcast document and is obviously looking to maximise the value of that contract.

On this occasion fans have suffered in order to help the Football League show willing to broadcasters and, by extension, the armchair viewer. It’s not the first, time this has happened and it certainly won’t be the last. Writing in Sunday’s Observer Paul Hayward rightly pointed out the glaring contradiction in all of this.

“The stock defence is that TV pays the bills and can do what it wants. Wrong. The spectator pays the bills, either by buying a ticket for the match or a TV licence or cable/satellite subscription, or both. So TV is disregarding the wishes of its customers while citing the wishes of its customers as justification for playing havoc with the schedule,” said Hayward.

The words nail and head spring to mind.

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