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Secrets of the fixture computer

Paul Fletcher | 07:00 UK time, Monday, 15 June 2009

Ever wondered why you have had to travel the length of the country on a wet Tuesday night to watch your team in action?

Or you haven't played at home on Boxing Day for the last three years?

Like me, you've probably just blamed the fixture computer, that mythical piece of technology that determines where you will be and when throughout the football season.

I have always imagined it to be some great beast of a machine like bertha, firing out tickertape full of fixtures while some overworked scientist desperately tries to make sense of the information spewing forth.

The fixtures for the 2009-2010 season are released at 1000 BST on Wednesday and last week I spoke to some of the key people involved in the formation of the schedule.

I wanted to find out exactly how the fixture list is put together and just how difficult a job it is. Needless to say, I spent a large chunk of last weekend in a dark and cool room as my brain tried to come to terms with its most serious case of information overload since I asked my wife to point out my most obvious flaws.

Putting the fixture list together is incredibly complex - with a whole series of factors ensuring it is an increasingly difficult task.

Just to give you one example; every club is paired with another in regard to when they play their home and away fixtures. This is done for a number of reasons, one being so that clubs like Everton and Liverpool do not play at home on the same weekend.

West Ham, it turns out, are paired with Dagenham and Redbridge. But for reasons of revenue Southend request they do not play at home on the same day as the Hammers as they believe it impacts upon their attendance.Football League fixtures officer Paul Snellgrove, Glenn Thompson of Atos Origin and FSF president Ian Todd with the actual fixtures computer

Southend, though, are in Essex, as are Colchester, so they cannot play together on the same weekend. Colchester share stewards with Ipswich so those two clubs also request they do not play home games on the same weekend. Transport links dictate Ipswich and Norwich do not play together on the same weekend either. In other words, when West Ham play at home can have an impact on when a club as far away as Norwich (108.8 miles) play their home fixtures. And there are 12 other professional clubs in London....

Confused? Read on and I guarantee you will be.

The compilation of the fixture list is done jointly between the Premier League and the Football League. The whole process starts upwards of a year in advance when Fifa and Uefa release their match calendars but work starts in earnest in the final months of the previous season.

The Football League, for example, sends out a questionnaire to all their clubs in March. This is a club's opportunity to request specific dates they would like to avoid and what other team they would like to be paired with. The questionnaire is jointly signed off by the police and also reflects their concerns - issues such as ensuring high-profile matches do not clash with big events in a city.

During this time the main man in the process - Glenn Thompson of Atos Origin, an international IT services company, - starts the process he describes as sequencing.

For most of the year Glenn works as an IT professional in Scotland but he has been compiling the fixtures since the 1993-94 season and describes the task both as an enormous puzzle and his summer job. He is the man who owns the laptop that is the fixture computer.

Sequencing involves mapping out on what days all the fixtures will take place and the pattern of home and away games that a team will play.

There are rules governing sequencing - for example clubs will play no more than two home games consecutively and, with one eye on the financial situation at lower league clubs, the games either side of an FA Cup fixture should not both be away from home.

But slotting all the fixtures into the calendar is becoming more and more difficult.

Paul Snellgrove is the Football League fixtures officer. I get the impression he is a very amiable man but mention the fixture calendar and it quickly becomes obvious this is a complicating factor in his life.

The increase in European club competition fixtures - with the inaugural Europa League next season - is eating into the available space; as are international friendlies and World Cup qualifiers. Next season is followed by the World Cup so the campaign ends early. The Champions League final next season takes place on a Saturday, eating into another weekend when Premier League fixtures cannot be played.

Out of necessity, next season's play-off finals are split across two weekends, with the Championship finale taking place on the same day as the Champions League final.

There are 10 rounds of midweek Championship fixtures to squeeze in, six for League One and League Two and four in the Premier League. Then you have the FA Cup, the Carling Cup and the Johnstone's Paint Trophy.

The process of sequencing took Thompson 10 days this year - and once the season finished he plotted his pairings into a grid and started wading through the lists of requests from the clubs and the police. Snellgrove estimated there were about 90 this year from the Premier and Football League clubs, while on average Thompson reckons about 80% of the home and away requests are accommodated.

He also manually creates the fixtures for Boxing Day and 28 December to try to minimise the travelling distance for fans. As Thompson readily admits, the computer has no concept of the distance between grounds.

Once the sequencing and plotting was finished - are you still with me here? - Thompson fed all the information into the programme on his laptop. The methodology was created in 1982 and was updated a decade ago. Way back when the computer was a desktop based in Wilmslow and compiling a division's fixtures was an overnight job. These days it can knock out a division in 5-10 minutes.

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."

At this stage only Thompson sees the list, as he adjusts and tweaks it until he comes up with a calendar that he is happy to take to the Premier League and the Football League.

Last Wednesday, Thompson headed to Preston where he met with both the governing bodies - and a further process of refinement took place over the following days.

Thompson reckons he does the job because he enjoys it and derives great satisfaction from producing a body of work that has a very tangible end product. But it must be an agonising, head-scratching process that slowly strips you of the will to live.

For instance, every time a fixture is changed it affects at least seven other fixtures and can easily impact on as many as 48.manutdnew595.jpg

Ian Todd is the president of the Football Supporters' Federation and sits on the fixtures working party that meets to discuss Thompson's list. One year he objected to Morecambe playing at Dagenham and Redbridge in midweek. They tried to alter the fixture but found out that it would negatively impact on so many other games that what Todd calls "the least worst option" was to maintain the status quo.

The fixtures working party met last Saturday to discuss this year's calendar. In addition to Todd, Thompson and Snellgrove, the Premier League and Football Association are represented as well as people from the top flight, Championship, League One and League Two clubs.

Todd estimates he has between 30-45 minutes to scan the fixtures and point out any concerns that might impact negatively on supporters.

Monday involves a meeting with various police chiefs and the British Transport Police. Again, there are potential issues here that had never crossed my mind. They look at potential logistical problems such as whether there will be too many fans from different clubs all heading to one train station in London for a particular set of fixtures on any given weekend.

On Tuesday the list will be signed off and on Wednesday morning we will all see the fruits of a lot of hard work.

Not everyone will be happy but Snellgrove is confident that if certain clubs' requests have not been accommodated then at least he will be able to explain why.

Thompson sometimes has nightmares about the job but always hopes to produce a list that is balanced and neutral. He reckons this year's list will not be the best they have produced but will be far from the worst.

The story doesn't end there.

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.

Thompson will start dealing with reserve fixtures, academy games and feeder leagues to the Blue Square Premier.

This year when I see some ridiculous fixtures my club have been asked to play I hope I show a little bit more understanding. Though I seriously doubt it.

The 2009-2010 Premier League, Football League and Scottish fixtures will be available on the BBC website from 1000 BST on Wednesday.

Comments

Page 1 of 4

  • Comment number 1.

    really interesting article! had no idea so much went in to it!

  • Comment number 2.

    Yes well I am sure this will all come as comfort to those required to travel to say, Middlesborough from London for the noon kick off on Boxing Day!!

  • Comment number 3.

    zysfgyasunxx

    That's the sound my brain's making right now. Managers should go easy on these guys!

  • Comment number 4.

    good interesting article, always wanted to know what went into making the fixture list. I have a lot more understanding and respect for that guy, however, i will still complain about having to go from sheffield to plymouth on a wednesday night!
    I suppose when the fixtures are announced, thats when the tv companies stick their noses in and change all the fixtures again!! lol
    So when the fixtures come out we can start preparing for the new season, only 8 weeks to go!!

  • Comment number 5.

    You seemed to have missed another level of scrutiny that will be added this year - the 'Fergie Factor'. Rafa says so, so it must be a fact.

  • Comment number 6.

    As a total football geek and my job involves logistics which effectively what this is the article was excelent and I'm sure you could have plowed even more detail into it if you thought necessary.

    I was aware that certain things had to be obeyed but didn't understand the relationship nearby (and nearby can be no where near) was so strong. Effectively West Ham as a Premier League side have a huge geoegraphical and finiancial hinterland (a word no used since GSCE Geograpghy) One can only imagne how congested the influence is for areas such as the NW and London.

    I've always thought the list does determine part of the optimisim I feel going into a season. I hate starting away from home and need to avoid the top four inthe first six or so fixtures....

    for example last year my team Everton had all three promoted teams as our first three away fixtures......despite an indifferent home record we took 7/9 points

    The fixture computer can certainly control your teams destiny

  • Comment number 7.

    Excellent article, I new about some of this but you clarified more.\it is a difficult job indeed!well done to the people that do it.

  • Comment number 8.

    Well after 4 home fixtures in 17 seasons for spurs on opening day lets hope the "random" computer manages to give us a home game this year.

  • Comment number 9.

    Wow! I had no idea. I thought it was as simple as just pairing teams up for each weekend - a randomly generated list. I had no idea that certain (neighbouring) teams couldn't play at home on the same weekend or any of the other factors involved.

    This is really eye-opening.

    2/3

  • Comment number 10.

    what a great insight into the fixtures! an unbelievably hard job to do. great credit to the guys who do it. and there was rafa thinking SAF had the brains to do all this

  • Comment number 11.

    Just as long as Southampton actually have fixtures next season, then I don't care when we are playing.

  • Comment number 12.

    Finally something really orignal and interesting to read, instead "Best of 2008/09 this and/or that". Whole operation looks like using WOPR [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WOPR] from "Wargames".

    Excellent. Now please put this into context with so-called facts from Rafa and "Fergie - Factor". I know you can! :)

  • Comment number 13.

    I still think in these tough economic times there is a case for a return to the lower divisions being regionalised as the old Division 3 North and South were.

  • Comment number 14.

    "It has no concept of distance" (re Boxing Day fixtures) because "it" hasn't been programmed that way). A post code and something like the RAC Route Planner software would give them the data they need ie distance and the computer could compute the rest. Sounds like a pretty creaky old programme to me. Then again probably a nice "summer job" earner.

  • Comment number 15.

    Totally agree with #13 - bring back regionalisation. More local derbies, bigger crowds, better carbon footprints. Whats stopping them?

  • Comment number 16.

    Basically, to sum up - when West Ham United, Norwich City and Colchester United all play at home; Dagenham, Southend and Ipswich all play away.

    Why does the machine have no concept of geography? It would take a lot of initial effort, but the distance (either in miles or travel time) between every 2 grounds could be added. Then you can say on mid-Week games the maximum distance should be 200 miles/3 hours. You can even set more limited variants for boxing day (100 miles/2 hours), and so avoid the ever-present Fulham-Chelsea clash.

    To make Sky happy, you can set a rule that Super Weekends (Man U vs Arsenal vs Chelsea vs Liverpool) happen 3 times a year. Or even have a Super Derby weekend - Manchester, Merseyside, North London, Birmingham, West London, North East so they can cover the 5/6 TV slots. These can even be scheduled for Xmas/Boxing Day, or around Easter.

    Maybe a more powerful computer could be used...

  • Comment number 17.

    What happened before we had computers hey ?

    In my youth i can remember that the Boxing Day fixtures were generally local "derbies", due to the lack of availability of public transport.

    Surely it would make some sense to adopt some of the USA teams methods, ie 'going on the road', especially for occasions when say a team from the South coast has to travel to the North East several times in the same season. In these times of restricted funds being made available from the supporter base, any loss in revenue from travelling support could be made up from the television companies - instead of giving the money to the top tier, who quite frankly don't need it.

  • Comment number 18.

    ........and then Sky and Setanta come in and mess the whole thing up. Great article - I have always suspected that setting the fixtures is an incredibly difficult job with so many co-dependencies and geographical quirks. I have admiration for the guys that do it and, for my club at least, they tend to do a pretty reasonable job (given the constraints). However, what really irks me, particularly as a fan who travels 230 miles each way for every home match, is the TV impact. Saturday 12.45s and Sunday 4pms - not great for the distance fan and moreover, for the stadium atmosphere. It also makes travel a headache - do you risk taking advantage of the early booker deals on Trainline for that London away match only to find that the fixture gets moved or do you hold out and risk paying through the nose for your rail ticket? I have come a cropper both ways! I guess thats all about the revenue though.

    Nevertheless, as always, I eagerly look forward to getting my first look at the new seasons fixtures - will we be home first day, when will the derbies be played, what sort of run in do we have. Always brings out the excited kid in me!

  • Comment number 19.

    jes that must take 4eva.... d pay must b reli good do in fairness!!!!!
    thanks 4 dis tremedous insight on fixture scheduling!!

  • Comment number 20.

    Agreeing with #14. The scheduling program is probably a "constraint-based optimisation engine". Such programs can easily take into account more factors, including pre-setting certain matches to minimise travel at christmas and easter, grouping clubs to minimise home-home conflicts.

    Disagreeing with #13 - the range of standard over the leagues 1,2 regionalised would reduce competition and involve many less clubs in promotion/relegation contests - making the leagues less competitive and less interesting for the fans and players.

    I do wonder if some teams could join a "European League" full-time with the national league teams then taking part in uefa-cup style promotion ... say the last 16 of the Champ League and the 4 of the Euefa cup made a first Euro league, and then 4 places were promoted/relegated ...? thoughts?

  • Comment number 21.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 22.

    Surely it would not be hard for geographical distances to be programmed in to the computer software to try and reduce the stupid long-distance midweek games that many clubs face?

    Also, do the TV companies take any of this into account when they get their hands on the fixture list?

    Whatever the fixture list is issues there's always going to be the same old Premier League bosses moaning that it's been fixed against them! They complain that their fixtures are too congested during the season (because their team competes in "too many" cup competitions - oh, how hard it must be to be successful!) so they want the season extended to help spread out the fixtures....then realise it eats into their lucrative summer tours so want to maintain the long summer break! They'll never be happy!

  • Comment number 23.

    Very interesting read Paul.

    I too simply thought that a computer whacked out the fixtures and whatever it came up with, that's that.

    Every team is going to have fixtures they don't like. I remember in the 2007-08 season my team, Nottingham Forest, had a trip up to Carlisle on a tuesday night which was a nightmare (Although the 2-0 victory made it sweeter). But I guess it's hard to accomodate for 92 seperate club's individual needs.

  • Comment number 24.

    Very interesting piece, pity they go to all this trouble just for the TV companies to decree that games played between teams who are the furthest apart geographicaly, are shifted to a Monday night, a Saturday evening or a Sunday morning. The teams can afford to stay in hotels but a lot of the fans can't.

  • Comment number 25.

    Can't they just hack into football manager and let it do all the work. I'm sure it's database has locations of clubs. In all seriousness computers have moved on so much in the last decade surely they can get a better computer programme designed?

  • Comment number 26.

    hehe very interesting :)

  • Comment number 27.

    Very interesting - but in this day and age of large-scale parallel processing, I'm surprised that a more modern program hasn't been written with all of these "rules" programmed in, which crunches millions of random combinations (called a Monte Carlo process) and score each permutation for how well all the rules are kept. Then a shortlist of the best permutations can be examined closely by eye to pick out any shortcomings. Obviously certain rules would have to be more important than others, but regardless of complexity it *could* be done more elegantly I'm sure... but I don't work in IT, so perhaps it's not that simple!

    I guess you just can't replace the good ol' personal touch.

  • Comment number 28.

    Very interesting but there are concerns raised by this article, namely;

    Why are "potentially sensitive fixtures" not allowed to be played on the last day of the season? Does this rule out local derbies for e.g. Liverpool, Man. Utd on the final day? This seems inappropriate.

    The programme should take travelling distance and probable routes into account rather than rely upon eyeballing by the police and fans' representatives. This is particularly appropriate over 2-fixture weekends or holidays.

    Why, after all the effort that goes into creating the fixture list, are the television companies allowed to move fixtures at their whim?

  • Comment number 29.

    "He also manually creates the fixtures for Boxing Day and 28 December to try to minimise the travelling distance for fans."

    All this yells out at me that those Chelsea v Arsenal and Man Utd v Liverpool weekends aren't exactly random.

  • Comment number 30.

    so these are the people that had United away at Portsmouth, Chelsea and Liverpool by week 4 and followed that up by sending them away to City, Villa, Spurs and Arsenal all before Christmas. well done to them, I'm sure it was a great help to the English champions as they represented the league in Monaco and in Tokyo.

    they certainly seem to plan these things very carefully don't they.

    spot on about the Sky fixtures as well Cyborgia!

  • Comment number 31.

    I now know why so many football managers sometimes have a go at the fixture list, because the process is so complex and painstaking.
    However, what was not made clear in this article was the issue of time. We are not clearly told how and who determined the final times of each of the fixtures. I say this because, some of the big teams playing in European competitions always complain about early Saturday kick-off.

  • Comment number 32.

    I always wondered how the fixture lists were arranged.

    Great article Paul, in a sad sort of way this has made my day!

  • Comment number 33.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 34.

    What happened before we had computers hey ?

    ----------

    What happenned was plenty of games clashing with other local events such as rugby matches, racing festivals, music events etc. London clubs within stonesthrow of each other with fans who hate each other both playing at home and arriving at the same stations together. Oh and copious amounts of rescheduling of matches, often at short notice adn to the detrement of fns everywhere.

    'Going on the road' is a completely pointless idea, it works in America because of the distances involved in travelling and the fact tht they often play 4 games in 3 days. Playing twice a week does not justify the cost of staying, the handicap induced from not being able to properly train for 3 or 4 days between matches and it will also lead to more fluctuating income as clubs would go weeks without a home game.

    I would like to see moe traditional games over Christmas but I also understand the need to not have the same ones each year and to continually adapt to fit everyone in. For instance If Bristol Rovers, City, Cardiff and Plymouth were all in the same division it would be nice to see Rovers vs. City on Boxing Day, but that would leave Cardiff and/or Plynmouth fans having to travel a long way so having them each play a Bristol team is the fairest result for all four clubs.

  • Comment number 35.

    My team is Lincoln City and every year for years it was a pilgrimage for us to go to Sincil Bank on Boxing Day. I remember the first time they down to played away on that day as being quite a shock. On the otherside of the coin, my local team Peterborough United were almost always away from home on Boxing day.

    The Imps seemed to have it easy but invariably it ended in a 1-1 draw and a mid-table finish.

  • Comment number 36.

    Fascinating.

    It would certainly also be interesting to get an update from Mr Thompson about some of the questions above, for example including geographical distances and especially the suggested Monte Carlo simulation.

    As for Sky 'moving' fixtures, do they move between weeks, or just *within* them (e.g. from a Saturday to a Sunday).

  • Comment number 37.

    Wow now that is a verrry lonnngg process, and we all thought it was a man with a pen and some paper just making them up.

  • Comment number 38.

    Good article. I see no reason why a local derby should not be either the first or final game of the season, except that paranoid managers will spout their conspiracy theories. I agree it should be simple to program in distances and also that no matter what, the TV companies will step in and butcher all that hard work.

  • Comment number 39.

    I'm guessing it's just how it works out though that Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and Man Utd are all playing on the same day every season?

  • Comment number 40.

    A local derby on the last day of the season would be great. it would mean there would still be something to play for for a lot of teams who's season was over a few weeks before.

  • Comment number 41.

    Very good article, however you seemed to have missed another vital factor in fixture compiling, SKY! We are all grateful for their excellent coverage but get a little annoyed when they switch things around just to suit their viewing figures.

  • Comment number 42.

    An excellent article. But I note it only covers what happens in England.

    Is anyone at the BBC able to shed any light on the inner-workings of the minds of the people at Hampden Park who repeatedly churn out Dundee and Dundee United at home on the same day, despite the two clubs sharing the same STREET (never mind City)?

  • Comment number 43.

    Interesting indeed.

    Also Paul, instead of going through the annual process of randomization and tweaking, isn't it simpler if they created three or four "best-case" fixture lists and used these cyclically over three or four seasons (Of course, making adjustments only to accommodate promotions and relegations) ?

  • Comment number 44.

    I'm amazed at how many clubs could be affected! Would be an interesting Job but 1 minor fixture change could affect many clubs and yourself personally!

  • Comment number 45.

    In reply to #42

    There's no need for a Scottish computer. The fixture list writes itself:

    Rangers v Celtic
    Celtic v Rangers
    Celtic v Rangers (Scottish Cup)
    Rangers v Celtic
    Celtic v Rangers (McKewans let's have another old firm game Cup)
    Rangers v Celtic

    etc...

    :)

  • Comment number 46.

    Interesting and insightful. Thanks Paul.

  • Comment number 47.

    Very interesting article. But can somebody make sure that Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal face each other in the last few weeks of the season. That would make for some top end-of-season entertainment. http://www.loserscomesecond.com/

  • Comment number 48.

    Unfortunately, the two most entertaining things about this article were that Ipswich got mentioned twice and Rio Ferdinand taking a shot.

    Who knew.

  • Comment number 49.

    I too am amazed that it is such a 'manual' process, particuarly re the distances involved because this is obviously a very easily measurable and definable bit of data and therefore relatively easy to apply some kind of rules to.

  • Comment number 50.

    I had a decent idea of this because I also follow the NFL here in the US. They explained the whole thing pretty well and mentioned that TV companies also get involved in this. Another problem that teams in US face is that they share games with teams from other leagues(e.g. baseball). So leagues are in touch with each other to avoid possible clashes e.g. this year's NBA playoffs where WWE Raw was scheduled in Denver. Denver didn't believe that they would progress that far and is turns out their home game clashed with the WWE show :-)) The show had to be shifted to LA.

  • Comment number 51.

    With number 30) "so these are the people that had United away at Portsmouth, Chelsea and Liverpool by week 4 and followed that up by sending them away to City, Villa, Spurs and Arsenal all before Christmas." - they're probably taking into account Manchester United fans live all over the country and why does it matter if its by week 4 or before christmas?
    Hopefully next year Setanta won't be around to move BSP games to a thursday night, a couple of days prior

  • Comment number 52.

    could be worse, newcastle to plymouth is 820mile round trip, imagine that on a cold wednesday night or boxing day

  • Comment number 53.

    Anyone who thinks this can be solved with a "better" computer or program is unfortunately unaware that this problem is one of the hardest to solve in computer science. It's called an NP-complete problem (engineer shorthand for really really really hard); if you have ever heard of the travelling salesmen problem it's a similar problem. They are characterised by the huge number of permutations to the problem and a complexity in assessing if a permutation is better than another. There is also an unclaimed $1,000,000 prize fund for someone who can describe the relationship between NP and P (very easy problems) which if someone did claim it then this would be easy & there would probably be an Excel macro to do it.

    In short a computer program will not do as good a job as these guys are doing for quite some time and it doesn't matter how many computers you chuck at it. Kudos to them & please give Blackburn as the last game of the season so we can send them down ;)

  • Comment number 54.

    Please no Cardiff v Swansea 11am Sunday kick off again!!

  • Comment number 55.

    I will never complain again about fixture schedules.

  • Comment number 56.

    Yet another great article Paul. I'm sure that for most fans it won't come as much of a suprise that a computer system is at the forefront of the compilation process, and I only hope to God that they take backups of the thing! Can you imagine what the scenario would be if it went 'missing' from the back seat of the car? Then we'd have to go back to bits of paper with numbers on and draw them out of a hat ... One other thing - If a fixture is entered with a sort of 'is this going to be OK' type of tag attached - does it respond with 'Computer says NO ...' :-)

  • Comment number 57.

    As long as Hull City dont go into the last day needing the same sort of results elsewhere & dont have to face Manchester United, I will be a happy man.

  • Comment number 58.

    41. well, maybe not all of us - sick to death of early kick offs on a Saturday, and of all the games kicking ioff at different times


    51. well it matters because the article says no team will play more than 2 games on the trot home or away for a start. it also matters because it would have to be a very very long odds chance that all those fixtures could turn out to be away first and home second. and an even longer odds chance that each of United's matches after a CL group game would also be away from home.

    as for your point about United fans living all over the country? yes that's true, although why limit it to just all over the country? United fans live all over the world, as I'm sure fans of many other English and Scottish sides do. i realise you were simply firing off a standard 'witty' barb in the spirit of "we support our local team - especially when they're playing United at home", but even so you really could do better. Or at least, you could at least try; go on, give it a whirl, you might surprise yourself.

  • Comment number 59.

    interesting now all the newcastle fans will be able to visit diffrent places and no need to go to Manchester or merseyside anymore, but wait for next season can they return to Leeds.

  • Comment number 60.

    good article Paul

    can you explain why tottenham always seem to play away from home, at a northern team, consistently on the first game of the season?

    no backbone is the explanation for why we always lose the fixture... but an explanation of why 'them up the road' have a cushty home fixture, and we have an away one, nearly every year, would be nice.

  • Comment number 61.

    Very intersting. Thanks, Paul.

    But I would like to know why in the Premier League we do not have a season in two halves like they do in Italy, where the second half of the season is exactly the same matches as the first half, in the same order, but the home teams are now away, and vice versa. This also lets them have a reasonably fair, if unofficial, "midseason champion". It also means that both of the matches between two teams will not take place in the gloom and mud of mid-winter.

    Presumably, the Premiership computer currently has a factor for avoiding that the home and away games between two teams are too close together, so you would replace this factor with the one that produces the mirror image season.

  • Comment number 62.

    Interesting article, but I can't help but think that it ignores one glaring factor - TV.

    It's not a coincidence that the awful 'Grandslam Sunday' appears now on a regular basis, with the Sky 4 all playing each other on the same weekend. This article ignores this.

    Why won't fans be told about television companies leaning on the premier league to engineer the fixture list to reflect their wishes?

  • Comment number 63.

    In reply to #31 & #36...

    You'll see when the fixtures are released they'll nearly all be 3pm Saturday kick-offs, aside from the few other days when fixtures are played (Boxing Day, the occasional midweek game that pops up midway through the season etc.) The TV companies then come in and make their picks for the slots they have, so for example Sky will pick the games they want for the Saturday 12:15, Sunday 4:00 etc. and Setanta pick their Saturday 5:15 games. These slots are fixed in the TV contracts but I understand there is some involvement with the police as well, for example they don't tend to allow sensitive derbies to be played late on a Saturday after both sets of fans have had all day to drink.

    The TV companies can only move fixtures within a weekend, they can't change the week, the furthest they can take a fixture from Saturday 3pm is Setanta with it's Monday night slot (which is moving to Sky from the 10/11 regardless of Setanta's future).

    Aside from the TV companies getting involved, the other thing that changes fixtures is the cup competitions, with things like Europa League sides having their games moved to Sunday (even when not on TV) after playing on the Thursday, and teams who get to the Carling Cup final etc. having games postponed usually to midweek later in the season.

  • Comment number 64.

    58) The only reason United had 3 away games in a row was because of the super cup, the fixture organiser can't be expected to account for extra fixture such as this and trips to Japan on top of everything else.
    And no it wasn't your run of the mill "barb" at Man United fans, the club I support is 4 divisions below the EPL and would be impossible to support my local team just for UTD visits. The point I was trying to make is I actually think less concern will be put into the scheduling of their fixtures as they're likely to be moved for TV anyway and whenever/wherever United games are played they will get near on full attendance and revenue will not be affected unlike smaller clubs.

  • Comment number 65.

    Re; Spearmint fresh No. 51. Imagine having to play teams away from home, such an inconvenience. Don't you realise you got to play all these fantastic teams at home in the 2nd half of the season?? It isn't always about Man Utd. Infact there isn't a mention of them.

  • Comment number 66.

    And after all this hard work ensuring clubs don't have long midweek treks, the tv companies schedule games so that supporters that have season tickets can look forward to a 500 round trip on a Monday night. As for #54, the police move certain games to breakfast time, not the fixtures committee, so set your alarm clock for 11am again next season.

  • Comment number 67.

    Very interesting article and it is something we have been looking at for a while (especially wrt #14 and 22).

    Take a look at

    http://www.cs.nott.ac.uk/~gxk/papers/gxkjors2008.pdf

    which looks at four seasons to see if we are able to schedule Christmas/New Year fixtures over four seasons.

    We have some follow up work in preparation which looks at seven seasons worth of data and uses more sophisticated techniques (which is particularly related to #53). Using these more sophisticated techniques we get even "better" solutions.

    We are just about to do this seasons fixtures to see how we compare with the fixtures that will be published very soon.

    Of course, we are conscious that we are only scheduling Xmas/New Year at the moment, but we are just about to start working on the complete seasons data.

    We would also be interested on any feedback to the work we have done so far - and we are happy to let anybody have a look at our "work in progress" if they are interested.

    Thanks again, very good article.

  • Comment number 68.

    So long as Argyle don't have mid-week fixtures against Newcastle,Middlesbro,Norwich, Preston and Blackpool.

    All round trips of more than 600 miles. Some people have to work the following day.

  • Comment number 69.

    Responding to a few points above:

    TV companies get their hands on the schedule after its announced, then request their live matches from this. So the decision of who gets the 12:30 match on a Saturday, or the Monday evening game, for example, is taken by them. This is done in two batches i.e. the TV games for the first half of the season are decided in July, then for the second half in December I think.

    I don't know if the 'Super Sunday' events are generated by Sky after the fixture list is created but if you think about how many football matches there are and the relatively low number of potential variations, a random generator will throw up a few weekends of big matches every season.

    @#30 - the computer does not allow for the 'strength' of various teams, so if one club has a tough start or finish it is simply a result of the random generation. Utd's start this season was a bit skewed as well due to the fact they missed out on a match due to the European Super Cup.

    @#40 - local derbies aren't played on the final day, or first day of the season, as clubs know that those matches are guaranteed high attendance and revenue, so to have a derby on that day would be to 'waste' the high-attendance levels of the derby.

  • Comment number 70.

    Great article, I remember reading a funny story about a guy who once did a week of work experience with the fixture computer.

    You can read it here:

    http://www.b3ta.com/questions/workexperience/post79365

  • Comment number 71.

    Great article, shame about the Newcastle picture. It reminds me of hope, good players (Given and Milner), Keegan and above all a 1-1 with Man U, when we couldn't even score against Hull...

  • Comment number 72.

    Thanks Paul, very interesting. So now we know that sorting out the football fixtures is akin to brain surgery in terms of complexity; pity then...."the computor has no concept of distance between grounds".
    Mr Thompson's having a laugh surely????

  • Comment number 73.

    over here, from division 3 down (league one or whatever) is divided into north and south.

    saves travel and costs. gets better crowds. and as someone said, less petrol is used so it's better for the environment.

    why not the same in the UK for the lower leagues?

  • Comment number 74.

    Very interesting stuff and intriguing. I always wondered why, when you can set up a basic algorithm to give you almost perfect home-then-away fixtures for any even number of teams, that we landed up with the vastly mixed and confusing schedule that we do. Now I know! Thanks!

  • Comment number 75.

    69. the European Super Cup is an annual event. the fixture compilers in each country know exactly who will be playing in it. there is no excuse at all for it to mean a team playing in Monaco has to play 3 consecutive away matches in their domestic league. compiling the fixtures to force them to do so is therefore deliberate, since as the article repeatedly states - and as we all know anyway - there is a certain leeway to alter the fixture list where appropriate.

    similarly, the idea that the fixtures are simply a random generation is ludicrous. for instance, as has been pointed out, the chances of the top 4 all playing each other on any single weekend are remote in a random draw. the chances that this scenario is repeated in a random draw the following season - or even in the same season - are negligible.

    United's fixtures in the 1st half of last season were laid out thus:

    I) played 3 away games on the trot in the first 4 matches
    II) played Everton, City, Spurs, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Portsmouth and Villa away from home
    III) played away from home immediately after each of their CL group games

    Now, in a fixture list slaved over during its compilation for weeks on end, and tweaked according to that article at least 30 or 40 times to accommodate individual circumstances, the United fixtures were loaded against them in a way that certainly was NOT random.

    History shows that they were still able to close a 7pt gap at christmas and win the league with a game or two to spare, but let's just say that the fixture compilers' mandate did them no favours.

  • Comment number 76.


    Great article, I often wondered how it worked out with the teams no in the premiership.

    However as a spurs fan I'll be far from amused if we play this season opener away as it will the 5th year in the row and we're rubbish away!

  • Comment number 77.

    Oh for the days of just a Saturday kick off at 3.00pm for ALL games, including the FA Cup.It worked ok for years............. However Sky now calls the tune, "its my way or the highway"

  • Comment number 78.

    What a fascinating article.

    The only thing missing though is Fergie - doesnt he get the final say as to who Man U play, when, where and how long the match will be?!?!

    If not, Rafa, Wenger and a couple of others should probably think about apologising to Taggart.

  • Comment number 79.

    In response to No42, with the exception of the Old Firm Scottish football doesn't actually involve many paying spectators so it doesn't become an issue about local clubs playing at the same time. An example in Inverness recently there were more competitors in a charity run than watching a vital SPL relegation battle on the same day!

  • Comment number 80.

    Clubs have woken up to the fact that Boxing Day crowds will be large no matter whom they play, whilst games just before Christmas are traditionally low. Hence put the attractive local derbies two weeks before Christmas and have unattractive fixtures on Boxing Day, increasing overall crowds!

  • Comment number 81.

    And then after all that hard work Sky go and mess it all about so's they can show the matches on the telly.

    But I want to know why the Mersyside Derby always features the first game at Analfield and the return fixture at Goodison and never the other way around?

  • Comment number 82.

    81. At 11:20am on 15 Jun 2009, supa1878 wrote:
    And then after all that hard work Sky go and mess it all about so's they can show the matches on the telly.

    But I want to know why the Mersyside Derby always features the first game at Analfield and the return fixture at Goodison and never the other way around?

    ----------------------------------------------
    it doesnt, liverpool have played at goodison for the last 2 seasons first!

  • Comment number 83.

    Funny how the Premier league "Big 4" always have at least one weekend together though isn't it!!

  • Comment number 84.

    Inappropriate games are ones like sending Leeds to Bournemouth on May Bank Holiday weekend for the last fixture, or a (relatively for 4th Division) well-supported Wolves (who had just missed out in the play offs) to new-boys Scarborough for their first football league fixture, both of which happened some years ago and caused problems for the locals.

  • Comment number 85.

    In reply to No 45, when was the last time Celtic & Rangers met in the early rounds of a cup? Any conspiracy theories here?

  • Comment number 86.

    I skipped most of the end because it hurt my head. And I thought revision was bad...

  • Comment number 87.

    Supa1878-what are you talking about? The last 2 seasons the Merseyside Derby has been at Woodison first and Anfield second. Also, I wonder will Liverpool get a home fixture first this season as they havent had one since 03-04.

  • Comment number 88.

    2. At 07:28am on 15 Jun 2009, PhnomPenhHoops wrote:
    Yes well I am sure this will all come as comfort to those required to travel to say, Middlesborough from London for the noon kick off on Boxing Day!!

    -------------------

    I'm sure you will find we are called Middlesbrough - just a little irritation we find up here that you southerners can't even be bothered to get our towns name right

  • Comment number 89.

    Great piece Paul, very useful information. I'd say this is possibly a slightly better solution than Fergie doing it in his office...

  • Comment number 90.

    Fascinating article, Paul.
    My team, Middlesbrough, played Everton in the League twice last season - in November and December - before we'd played Man Utd at all.
    This seems to happen most seasons with different clubs - any reasoning behind it?

  • Comment number 91.

    For the Super Sunday (Chelsea, Arsenal, United and Liverpool all playing in the matchday):

    Without loss of generality:

    There are 6 times that Chelsea will be playing Arsenal, United or Liverpool.

    When Chelsea play Arsenal, there is a 1 in 17 chance that United will be playing Liverpool.

    Or, when Chelsea are playing Arsenal, there is a 16/17 chance that Sky WON'T get it's Super Sunday. (again all without loss of generality).

    Sky only have to beat this odd once out of a possible 6 attempts (when Chelsea play a top 4 team). This works out as a probability of around 0.3. (That is [1 - (16/17)^6] or the probability of at least one Super Sunday.)

    While it is small, it's not small enough to say that there is a definite fix. However, with all his discretionary changes I'd be suprised to not see at least one!

  • Comment number 92.

    Really interesting article...sounds a lot more complicated than GCSE IT!

  • Comment number 93.

    Great blog and a good insight in to how the fixtures are set up.

    Don't know if it's just me but I'd love to do this job!! Sounds like 1 massive jigsaw puzzle only with real outcomes to real people.

    How do they decide who get's this job because there can't be many other jobs like it in the world.

  • Comment number 94.

    It would literally be impossible to please every club with the fixture lists and cup competitions the clubs all have. It's a miracle the fixtures can get compiled at all and that they generally work out very well. There will always be a few oddities thrown up but now we can understand that this is usually the lesser of 48 other evils. Good article - thank you.

  • Comment number 95.

    i saw a section about this on a football focus a few years back, really interesting i think.

    as long as the tigers are away at the emirates and white hart lane the first 2 games cause an easy 6 points would be just the start we need haha!

  • Comment number 96.

    Now then,

    Many thanks for all your posts.

    I'm honestly not sure why the fixtures computer does not take into account travel distances. I guess I should have asked that question but I had enough trouble getting my head around all the other maths involved.

    I reckon that it just would not work - that trying to factor in distance as well would perhaps break the programme!

    As for people wondering about fixtures changing - there is scope to move a fixture around a particular weekend, say from Saturday to Friday or Sunday. TV do not get involved until the list has some out and although they can change day, to the best of my understanding they cannot change weekend.

  • Comment number 97.

    Hi Paul,

    Very interesting. Now...if you could find out how Shoot League Ladders are made...

    Seriously though, on the back of ToffeeGirl's point and your updated comment - I know the police can request a change in kick off time, but notwithstanding that, are all weekend fixtures assumed to start at 3pm and weekend ones at 7.45? Is it really just TV that sets any variances or are there other factors involved?

  • Comment number 98.

    Confused.com :S

  • Comment number 99.

    Lets not forget Sky Sport's demands. Anyone remember the unbeaten season of Arsenal - The game to go unbeaten for the 50th time (including the season before) was against Man U. Sky went potty with their graphics about this milestone. Arsenal spent the first half of that season playing low end clubs and only a couple of top half clubs (not the big four) at home.

    Grand Slam Sunday anyone?

  • Comment number 100.

    I've written a fixture generator program myself. Took me about a day and a half and I think it probably does everything the official one does *and* is semi-aware of geographical concerns too, because clubs are assigned to a region. One extra column in the database, and one more thing to factor into the fixture generations. Probably added about ten minutes dev time max.

    Oh, and it also has the capacity to flag newly promoted/relegated teams or teams who have moved to new stadiums, so their home games aren't midweek or Boxing Day, in order to let as many visiting fans as possible get to the new ground.

    I ran the generator a minute ago, and it came up with Coventry at home to Newcastle on the opening day.

 

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