John Brewin: The sad decline of the Premier League 3pm Saturday kickoff

The times, they have a-changed.

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Within the central Manchester headquarters of the Professional Football Association is the 1928 painting by LS Lowry entitled Going To The Match, a depiction of fans making their way to Bolton Wanderers’ Burnden Park. It takes little in the way of art history knowledge to deduce this is a scene set sometime on an early Saturday afternoon.

“What time’s kick-off?” was once a redundant question. Saturday, 3pm was the invariable answer but that has not been the case since the Premier League began. This Saturday, there will be five matches, and it has to be said that Tottenham v Southampton and Chelsea v Brighton take the eye, not least because both London clubs have made disappointing starts to their season.

Villa v Burnley, Bournemouth v West Ham and Wolves v Watford, less so. The traditional slot has become the preserve of such matches, featuring teams either battling against relegation or to be mid-table best of the rest, where finishing above Everton would seem the limit of ambitions. Either that or the lesser lights being served up as cannon fodder for the top six.

Last weekend, as Manchester City pummelled Watford 8-0, at least the Sunday newspapers had a headline maker. There were only two other matches played in the 3pm slot: Norwich’s coming back down to Earth at Burnley and Everton’s home loss to Sheffield United, matches that would not exactly have taken the eye but did end up throwing up decent enough storylines.

European football and the demands of TV have cut into the old routines. The Europa League’s Thursday-Sunday schedule puts Manchester United, Wolves and Arsenal on that treadmill, and Sky’s push into Friday night entertainment had moved Southampton’s south-coast derby with Bournemouth and its Carragher and Neville double act to compete with the One Show, Coronation Street and Gogglebox for viewership.

The fan has become secondary to such concerns.

Football is no longer a weekend respite from the rest of working and family life with the odd midweek match under the floodlights thrown in. Broadcasters’ drive for content each night of the week has made football a seven-day sport whereas it was once something that could be put aside until the big game at the weekend.

Liverpool’s home match with Leicester on October 5th will be their first Saturday 3pm kick-off at Anfield of the season with their only other previous kick-off at that time coming way down at Southampton on August 17th. For those fans who wish to attend every match, the red-eye train journey for a 12.30 kick-off or a dash to make the last Intercity on a Saturday or Sunday evening have been the order of the season.

The price of success for fans of such clubs is the loss of a body clock, or a severe chipping into their annual leave before the cost of travelling at peak times is even considered. Saturday afternoon is often either a time of travel or for a barely interested following of the rest of the results as they come in. The large crowds at a Premier League match and the fervency of the crowd have been big selling points as a televisual spectacle across the globe, but little care is shown to the time management or bank balance of those fans who fill stadia.

A Saturday 3pm kick-off allows time to get things done in the morning and then even in the evening, too. And that schedule became set in stone at a time in the early 20th century when workers were often employed for six days a week, with Saturday able to be taken as a half-day.

Today’s more modern working practices – there was no such thing as working from home back then – do allow greater flexibility but football has done its best to eat into the time opened up. From the early knockings of the Sky revolution that began with a Super Sunday of just a single match – with two-hour build-up – and Monday Night Football, as copied from the NFL, has come a spread over the full width of the week.

If managers talk of tired players, then the committed armchair viewer might be suffering from strained, dry eyes if they choose to sit through a week of football, taking in Football League, Uefa competitions and matches from the top foreign leagues.

And that has meant that top-level football in England has become something of a side issue rather than the main event of a Saturday afternoon. If anything, Jeff Stelling’s Soccer Saturday crew feels like more of a day out for the Football League and its myriad storylines while a minimal amount of lesser Premier League games chug on in the background.

Gillette Soccer Saturday

The English football fan is an accepting sort, as compared to his counterpart in the Bundesliga. Last November, the German league had to announce that Monday night matches had been discontinued after a collective protest by fans from all clubs. Five Monday evening matches were introduced to the Bundesliga to ease the burden on clubs playing in Europe but Montagsspiele met with revolt.

The disruption to the working week, travel at late night across a large country and being behoved to TV companies, all stuff that has been sucked up by the English and Scottish fan for a generation now, were considered beyond the pale.

German football, where nobody can own more than 50 percent of a club, has the fan as the king, the arbiter of what is acceptable. There is no better country to attend matches as a fan, though there is also the argument that the football played is not at the standard of the top clubs in England or Spain.

In England, fans of Premier League clubs, or more properly top-six clubs, had such rights traded in long ago to watch expensive players and successful teams. And that came at the cost of the traditional framework and timetable of the game.

Saturday, 3pm: A full range of Premier League kickoffs over on paddypower.com

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