It’s 2:30pm on a Saturday, the year 2021. A country once again seeks solace in the constant stream of Premier League football. A glance to the schedule, a thought of watching the three o’clock fixture. Newcastle and West Brom will be – for what seems the umpteenth time this season – limply locking horns.
This final, perhaps decisive reduction of English football’s 3pm tradition must be reversed when fans return. Every match being shown on our screens is currently a welcome and necessary accompaniment to a global pandemic, where fans are deprived of the usual antidote to their working-week ailments at home grounds across the country.
But amongst talk of maintaining this mass broadcasting beyond the return of fans, football threatens once again to implode through its own ignorance. Many at this stage would call this author a waffling purist, living in the dark ages of television blackout laws, the source of the 3pm tradition dating back to the 1960s.
Back then footballing authorities were leaping in fright at the sight of the television’s development. But sixty years later, English football’s wall of defence against increasingly powerful broadcasters threatens to crumble.
The counterargument goes that having multiple 3pm fixtures which are not broadcast prevents lower-earning fans from seeing their team play, given the increasingly extortionate nature of going to grounds.
Fans, of course, must return for three o’clock to be resuscitated as a concept. But when they do, dispelling even a reduced version of block fixtures on a Saturday afternoon – for example, four a week being played in 2019 – would endorse the game’s greed. It would be synonymous with accepting defeat to rising ticket prices, relinquishing the game from the hands of the fans.
One of the harsh truths of today’s game is that many are falling out of love with it. This is understandable given they are trapped on their sofas watching endless replays of blank-faced officials enquiring into whether Patrick Bamford’s index finger was offside. It is also understandable given the necessary yet unrelenting Covid-19 fixture list, watching football matches being diluted into an act as quotidian as going to the shops.
Mystery has deserted football. One does not experience any sense of occasion sitting down in front of the big game on a Sunday anymore. This, I repeat, is a by-product of necessary actions taken to remedy games being played behind closed doors. What I am arguing for is a revitalised future for football.
People now watch almost every fixture, and by the time Sunday afternoon rolls around, there is a sense of fatigue amongst fervent viewers. The build-up to every game is exhausting, an endless hyperbole of false pretences, high stakes and breathless action. When every game is a big game, the big game ceases to exist.
But the understandable will become a constant, post-Covid-19 reality if multiple, unscreened 3pm kick-offs are scrapped. If the relentless drip-feed of televised football remains, worries far bigger than novelty and mystery will begin to threaten the game.
Broadcasters will tighten their already dominant hold over English football. Clubs and the league will never be held accountable for draining the pockets of their loyal fans. One of the few certainties that this year has provided us with has been the desperate importance of the fans, and the debt of gratitude the sport owes them. They deserve to be given back the game, as it is them who make it.
Even to speak of three o’clock as a tradition implies some sort of anachronism, an association that must be forgotten. Yet, it is so important to the game’s identity and sense of collective involvement. It is so important to the enjoyment of the Premier League. But it means even more than identity. If they are scrapped, football will never be rid of its fiscal greed. The fans will never get their game back.
Empty rhetoric of affection towards absent attendees has been rife in the context of lifeless games devoid of feeling and festivity. By continuing to have every game shown on TV, with Saturday’s 3pm slot the graveyard shift of a drab scrap amongst the league’s bottom half, the game will lose its intrigue and sense of togetherness.
It will also, more importantly, encourage a fan who cannot afford a matchday ticket to watch the game at home without saying a word. It will silence active protest against the extortion that the viewer is experiencing. The fans returning is the most important thing, but they must be greeted with a game that still belongs to them, a game that holds on to the two-hour slot on a Saturday that defined it.
Image: Grey World via Creative Commons