IMPLAUSIBLE as it may sound now, Manchester City once agreed to move a Premier League match to 11.15am on a Sunday because they needed the £253,000 of TV money it would bring.
Before that game, against Everton in October 2005, I asked City’s then-manager Stuart Pearce if that was the earliest kick-off of his career. He said no: he had played in a game for Coventry in the mid-1980s that, for reasons he couldn’t remember, had started at 11am.
There have been a few 11am kick-offs in the Football League in recent times. The most notable, perhaps, was a Cardiff-Swansea derby, played on a Sunday morning in April 2009. The police asked for an early kick-off on safety grounds, perhaps hoping that fans would have less time for pre-match drinking. However, some local publicans decided that the best response to an early kick-off was to open up at 8am. Trouble ensued both outside and inside Ninian Park, as referee Mike Dean was hit on the head by a coin thrown from the crowd.
In the Premier League, though, that Manchester City-Everton game remains the earliest kick-off. Even in an age where the demands of television, UEFA and the police can shift matches to all sorts of odd times, pre-noon kick-offs are still a rarity in this country. For a professional game to start in the morning, there has to be a special reason or a large cheque involved. City certainly don’t need to agree to those kind of shifts for the sake of a quarter of a million quid any more.
I’ve never come across a professional league match in England or Scotland that has started before 11am – although maybe you know differently. A few years ago, though, the Guardian’s ever-reliable The Knowledge column did come up with a couple of earlier kick-offs; one from Spain, one from the FA Cup.
Coventry were once involved in a game that started even earlier than the one Pearce played in. In 1895/96, Coventry – then known as Singer’s FC – were drawn at home to Burton Swifts in the third qualifying round of the FA Cup. Apparently, because Burton played in a higher division, they had the right to arrange the game to suit their fixture list. And they could kick off whenever they wanted. So they went for an 8am start. Ah, the magic of the cup.
(Pearce, whose press conferences at Manchester City frequently began even earlier than their 8.30am scheduled start, would have approved, I feel.)
It did the trick, anyway, as Burton won 2-0, and made it all the way to the first round proper before getting a 4-1 stuffing at Blackpool.
That’s still not the record, though. According to The Knowledge, the earliest-ever kick-off time for a professional match is 12.05am. That record was set in September 2003, when Barcelona played Sevilla in a Primera Liga match at the Nou Camp.
The story goes that the game was played in the midweek before an international weekend, and that FIFA rules require players called up for their countries to be released by their clubs four days in advance. Barca wanted to play on the Tuesday night, as their international players would have been unable to figure on the Wednesday.
But as both clubs had played the previous Sunday, Sevilla refused, pointing to a rule stating that no team could play two matches in 48 hours without a mutual agreement. Barca’s response was to play the game as early as possible on Wednesday morning – to get round the 48-hour rule – and hope FIFA and the various national associations would cut them some slack.
It didn’t quite work, as only Portugal’s Ricardo Quaresma was given permission to play, although it did make for something of a novelty experience for Barca’s support. To attract more fans to a game unlikely to finish much before 2am, the club laid on free gazpacho and 100,000 KitKats. (I’d have gone just for the biscuits.)
There were also stand-up comics to entertain the crowd, and live telephone link-ups with Barca legends Ronald Koeman and Hristo Stoichkov to whip up the crowd. It all seemed to work, as 80,000 people turned up. They saw Ronaldinho score his first Barcelona goal in a 1-1 draw, and the roar from the crowd apparently registered on the city’s earthquake monitors.
So, you see, you can whip up an atmosphere for an early kick-off. It just needs a bit of thought.
MOTD’s final match: Aston Villa 0 Wolves 0
Commentator: Jonathan Pearce
The big West Midlands derbies pretty much always kick off at lunchtime now. Clearly, the local police don’t want to take any chances after the hoo-hah at a couple of Birmingham-Aston Villa evening games in recent years.
Mind you, yesterday’s derby between Villa and Wolves, which started at 12.05pm – a full 12 hours after Barca’s record breaker – wasn’t even the earliest Premier League kick-off this season. Sunderland’s match against Newcastle last weekend beat it by a full five minutes.
Perhaps wary of whipping up the atmosphere too much, Villa decided against bringing in any pre-match comedy turns. (I’m sure Birmingham fan Jasper Carrott would have gone down a storm, but perhaps not in the right way. Although if Alex McLeish can pitch up at Villa Park, then I guess anything is possible.) There were no video messages from Villa legends either. There weren’t even any free KitKats, for goodness sake. And there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of atmosphere.
A ground that holds nearly 43,000 contained a crowd of just under 31,000. “It’s not as fierce a derby in this part of the country as Villa against Birmingham or Wolves against West Brom,” remarked former Birmingham University student Jonathan Pearce on commentary. “But it’s still disappointing to see so many empty seats around the ground.”
Well, the fact that tickets for the game cost between £25 and £43 and we’re in a recession might have been a factor. Watching football is a very expensive pastime these days. If clubs want to charge that kind of money for a game that kicks off at lunchtime and is live on TV, that’s entirely up to them. But they can’t be too surprised if the cameras end up panning across rows and rows of empty seats.
Those who kept their money in their pocket made the right choice. It was a poor game. Wolves, helped by the inspired signing of Roger Johnson from Birmingham, are already looking a lot more solid in defence this season. Villa, shorn of Ashley Young and Stewart Downing, look as if they might struggle to score goals – something that was a problem for McLeish at Birmingham.
Actually, Villa might be a good bet for the Gubbometer title this season. After three Premier League games, they’ve already notched up two goalless draws and have been last on Match of the Day twice. Early starters, you might say.
1. Aston Villa: 2 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
2. Wigan: 1 (2L: 1, 3L: 1)
3. Swansea: 1 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
4: Wolves: 1 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
5. Fulham: 1 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
6. Blackburn: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 1)
7. Norwich: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
7. Sunderland: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
9. Chelsea: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
9. QPR: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
9. West Brom: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
12. Arsenal: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
12. Bolton: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
12. Everton: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
12: Liverpool: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
12. Manchester City: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
12. Manchester United: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
12. Newcastle: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
12. Stoke: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
12. Tottenham: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
2L = On second last (Swansea 0 Sunderland 0)
3L = On third last (Wigan 2 QPR 0)
(Teams receive one point every time they are last on MOTD. Teams level are separated by the number of times they are on second last, then by the number of times they are on third last. MOTD2 not included.)