The host of complaints arising from the decision to tamper with the last day of the Championship season are not specific to Leeds United.
A glance at the fixture list confirms that more supporters besides theirs will be inconvenienced by the Football League’s decision to acquiesce to the wishes of their “broadcast partners”.
The shift from May 8 to May 7 and a revision of the time at which all 12 games will start – 12.45pm in preference to 3pm – has implications for the following of a club based in West Yorkshire and due at Queens Park Rangers. But those implications are essentially division-wide. The cursory tone of last week’s announcement obscured the impact of the change agreed by the Football League.
In addition to Leeds’ appearance at Loftus Road, there is Portsmouth at Scunthorpe United, Sheffield United at Swansea City and Watford at Preston. Eight of the games will involve round trips of close to 400 miles. That is something of a coincidence in a division where matches are scheduled electonically, but also a reason why the original date of May 8 should, at this late stage, have been sacrosanct. The Football League’s rethink was without consideration for the majority who will suffer for it.
Revised fixtures are a stock feature of Leeds United’s domestic seasons. Since August, the number of rearranged games is 11. Sky’s broadcast of Saturday’s defeat at Swansea City asked 3,000 fans to cover the ground to south Wales for a 12.45pm kick-off, a demand as unsympathetic as a Tuesday night appearance in Cardiff.
There is finance involved and Leeds as a club often benefit (though chairman Ken Bates sounds more and more dubious about the value of televised matches, particularly at Elland Road); savings never pass to supporters but fixture lists announced in June have always been subject to change.
In the case of Leeds, the likelihood of change is absolute.
The exception to that rule is (or was) the last day of the season. It is (or was) the one date when the need for concurrent kick-offs protected the Football League’s schedule. A spokesman for the Leeds United Supporters Club said: “Leeds fans are used to having fixtures moved but, when the fixture list was published, the one thing we could all be sure of was that the QPR game would not be. It was safe to book that trip.” Or so they thought.
The Football League might question the extent to which a change of little more than 24 hours affects spectators across the Championship, but correspondence with the YEP this week says the disruption is far from negligible.
There are some who have already paid for hotels and train fares and will now forfeit the cost; others who altered holiday plans to ensure their arrival in England in time for Leeds’ game at Loftus Road. One who, because of that, expects to be flying home at the very moment when United’s fixture against QPR begins. Television coverage will not compensate him.
The explanation for the change of dates was nothing if not honest. The Football League said it was down to “discussions with both our broadcast partners (BBC & Sky).” To translate, May 7 suited the corporations so the season was moved to accommodate their needs. It is a fine example of where power resides in the administration of English football.
Only the naive will be surprised at that. The power of broadcasting rights supercedes most other concerns in the sport. But the demoralising feature of the rearrangement was the Football League’s admission that the step had been taken after “consultation with the clubs involved”. You expect television executives to suit themselves; you do not expect clubs themselves to be so reticent. One of their duties is to fight the corner of the hundreds and thousands who keep them in business.
United’s support, sadly, are victims of their own loyalty. This is a club who sell their entire allocation for every away fixture and who, in spite of a 12.45pm start, produced the largest following ever seen at the Liberty Stadium, more than fives years after the ground opened. The argument goes that the average fan will lose patience eventually. Not in Leeds they won’t. Relegation, administration and a brutal period of self-examination failed to scatch the surface of United’s away support. An obtuse reworking of the last day of the season is a niggle in comparison.
The silver lining of the Football League’s flexibility is that, with Sky and the BBC satisfied, United’s game at QPR might be among the matches selected for live broadcast. If the fixture is not a dead rubber then it has endless appeal, an obvious choice in the right circumstances.
Many in Leeds would be pleased by that and grateful for the chance to avoid an afternoon at the mercy of the radio. But the interest of the general public should always defer to the interest of those who sacrifice most to make football the spectator sport it is.
United’s away fixtures, and the attendances they attract, do not support the argument that television is killing the game. What they speak of time and again is a disregard for its heartbeat.