DARLINGTON Station on the last day of the season and the icy hand of fears grips the heart of even battle-hardened awayday travellers. We were going to West Ham, which is a doddle. The train to Kings Cross whizzes there in less than three hours: plenty of time to write up the match report and interviews – or time to shift a six pack in the old money.
But ten minutes before the Darlo-KX, the ghost of Christmas Future had chugged away ominously from the same platform. The cross country “express” to Plymouth eased away from platform four leaving white faces behind. The announcer had just read out a schedule from hell … “the train now leaving the Premiership glory years behind is the new reality shuttle service to Plymouth calling at York, Leeds, Sheffield, Chesterfield, Derby, Burton-on-Trent, Birmingham New Street, Cheltenham Spa, Bristol Parkway, Bristol Temple Meads, Taunton, Tiverton, Exeter St Davids, Newton Abbot and Totnes.”
Six long hours and 38 bloody minutes. Great. And there’s Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea to look out for when the fixtures come out tomorrow too. Welcome to the two thousand plus extra miles, numb-bummed cabin fever grind of the 46 game Championship.
So Plymouth away is one to look out for. I understand Boro have asked for that game to be played on a Saturday to ease the suffering of the bedraggled fans risking DVT in cattle class or no doubt the legendary fixture computer would send us there on a Tuesday in January, which is a real old school rites of passage of a game (Uncle Eric has travelled down for a match that was postponed a hour before kick off.).
On the subject of the fixtures, there is an excellent and enlightening feature on the BBC website which has shed some light on what has long been regard as a semi-mystical process.
There are a lot of factors to balance: the needs of clubs in the same city not to have home games that clash (especially that of smaller neighbours); demands of the police that teams with bitter rivalries should not travel along the same routes to away games if possible; the need for regular home games to ensure cash flow is preserved; the need to ensure games either side of FA Cup dates are not both away to prevent the possibility of three successive trips that would impact on not only fans’ pockets but also the teams’ chances to train and prepare for games; and security concerns… the likes of Leeds are not generally scheduled for an away game at a seaside resort on Bank Holiday weekend for instance. They’ve only just finished rebuilding Bournemouth.
Each club get “three wishes” when it comes to the fixtures, requests they can make to the compiler to factor in when he sets to work. Some clubs may wish to avoid a local music festival for instance because of the impact on attendance or transport systems.
In recent years on of Boro’s requests has been not to be drawn at home to Manchester United on Boxing Day. United are pretty much a guaranteed sell out whatever day they play on while the holiday game is traditionally also a bumper gate so to have the Home Counties finest on that day is a wasted opportunity. No such problems this year, although presumably we will now be looking to avoid Newcastle over Christmas. The Plymouth one has already been mentioned. What could the third be? That the Football League ensure sunshine when we go to Blackpool?
Still on the fixtures, they will of course be in the Gazette tomorrow. We, like PA, Sky, the BBC etc get them earlier but they are embargoed on pain of death. Leaks do occur but most of the mooted full lists that float around cyber-space are hoaxes, guesses or, occasionally, embarassing cock-ups.
The fixtures are a political hand-grenade. They are a lucrative resource that the leagues guard jealously and woe betide anyone who uses them without a licence. Football DataCo, the group the leagues have set up to compile the fixtures, police them fiercely which is why so few fan sites carry them. Fanzines – notably Watford’s – have been taken to court and threatened with closure for unauthorised use.
It costs ÃÂ£435 + VAT for a single use of one club’s fixtures and ÃÂ£4244 +VAT to use them all. Each club has a nominated fanzine (I am not sure if Boro have anointed Fly Me To The Moon) who can use them for ÃÂ£1 but with all the management charges it still works out at ÃÂ£104 and I’m not sure fanzines run on a shoestring will pay that when they can just as easily link to their official club website of the BBC for free.
Newspapers are in a state of cold war with the game over the issue of rights on fixtures (and rights on other issues too – there was almost a news blackout of the game five years ago when the clubs wanted papers to hand over the copyright of every word or image generated inside their stadiums).
We obviously believe that as they are in the public domain and freely available then any and all media outlets have a right to print and distribute them. There is an argument that if anything we are advertising football’s product and we should charge them. Major musical promoters for instance take out paid for advertising for their fixtures and see it as a normal and necessary way of reaching their target market.
There have been tensions between the leagues and the Newspaper Society over the issue but no one wants to go court over it and shell out ÃÂ£200,000k on a High Court test case that produces a no-score draw. The Gazette can use the full fixtures once, which is why we do it big and make it a cut-out-and-keep colour special and why we no longer do handy wallet sized fixture lists to give away free in the Borough Road reception (and why we spend 25% of the next month fielding phone calls about them).
So the bottom line is that the fixtures are top secret, you can look at them once then you have to forget them. Technically I can be killed for even discussing them. Actually, that’s not true. I can discuss them (in a “news context”), so long as I don’t reproduce them. I did last year and they threatened to send the heavies around.
So this thread is to discuss the fixtures when they come out and the reality hits home that we are starting away at Cardiff then have Peterborough at home.
I’m looking forward to some new grounds – Cardiff, Swansea and Leicester have new stadiums since I last went and I’ve never been to Doncaster or Scunthorpe – and some old favourites from Ayresome Park days like Barnsley, Blackpool and Preston.
But I’m not looking forward to the testing train trek to Plymouth.