SAFC v Spurs

Secrets of the fixture computer

by Stuart Vose

We dip into the archives for a classic pre-fixture release feature.

The release of the new fixture lists is a key date in the footballing calendar for all supporters, and the culmination of weeks of hard work behind the scenes.

Glenn Thompson of Atos Origin is the man responsible for producing the fixture lists for all 20 clubs in the Barclays Premier League, plus the 72 clubs which make up the three divisions of the Npower Football League.

It's a huge task for Thompson, who is tasked with feeding the fixture information into the famous fixture computer bemoaned by managers and fans around the country.

But it isn't just a case of inputting team details and waiting for the computer to crunch the numbers. Thompson and his team have to cram weeks of work into the short window following the play-off finals and the release of the new season's fixtures.

Then he must win approval from the boards of both leagues before publishing the lists.

"Our work begins in earnest at the start of the year; that is when we start to look at how we are going to sequence the games for the season," Thompson said.

"I will occasionally go back to The Football League and The Premier League and see if we can change a couple of midweek matches, that then gets fed back into the process.

"I will spend roughly ten days sequencing the games into a mathematical formula, which is then approved by The Football League and The Premier League.

"There are a set of rules that are drawn up by both leagues that we aim to satisfy. For example, no-one will play more than two home or away games in a row; for every five games, three are at home, two are away or vice versa.

We try to balance the number of midweek matches so if a team has ten games, five are at home and five away, if we can't do that we'll try and make it six-four or vice-versa. We try to adhere to the rules to ensure the fixtures come out as fair to all clubs as possible.

"I might come up with the fixtures but it is The Premier League and The Football League that have the final say - they can knock back anything I give them.

"It is nerve-wracking attending meetings with a set of fixtures, you turn up hopefully having followed most of the rules, aware of a few clashes and hope they won't send me straight back to work on them again."

There are many diffferent criteria which must be incorporated into the lists. Boxing Day games are always scheduled locally where possible due to the lack of public transport.

Local rivalries have to be taken into account, as do requests from the police and clubs themselves, who can make specific requests. These club requests, though, are not guaranteed to be borne out in the final fixture lists.

Thompson continued: "Most years we meet 80% of all date requests that the clubs put in. Where pairings are important we are hitting 95%+. We do get reports from the system that shows how we are doing in respect of the clubs' wishes for date requests and pairings.

"There are a number of pairings that are fairly obvious, the likes of Sheffield Wednesday can't be at home on the same time as Sheffield United.

"Southend United like to be opposite West Ham because it affects their support but Southend United have to pair with Colchester United for Essex Police reasons and Colchester have to pair with Ipswich Town due to shared stewards. Also, for police reasons Ipswich have to pair with Norwich City.

"In addition to this, Tottenham Hotspur also like to be opposite West Ham United in the Premier League so that brings Arsenal into the mix, which affects Barnet. That is just one example and taking it to the extremes, shows that the fixtures for eleven clubs are linked together to varying degrees.

"Obviously there are some pairings that have different levels of importance and the main ones have to take precedence. We can't satisfy everyone, all of the time. The whole fixture process is a compromise across all 92 clubs and we can't show any favouritism to any particular club. You have to be fair - the integrity of the process is very important.

"A lot of effort goes into them and you have tight deadlines to work to, if I have a problem I can't expect the leagues to delay publication by a week. If you had six months to do this, you may be able to come up with something a bit better but you have a finite amount of time. Therefore you come up with the best solution you can, in the time you have got to do this."

Fans, players and managers around the country will be looking forward to seeing the fruits of his labours.