In 2015, the Premier League signed an extension to its increasingly lucrative television deal. This expanded the contract to include the broadcast of fixtures being played on Friday nights. And what a shame it was.
Prior to this deal being signed, in the era of most top tier football matches being televised, Friday night on the box was typically reserved for a big football league fixture. Not only did these broadcasts provide often much needed extra income to these clubs, but also exposure in today’s popularity contest style football world.
Historically, Friday night football did belong to the lower leagues. It was an opportunity to draw extra fans in, before they went off to watch their ‘big’ team play over the remainder of the weekend. A chance for people to support their local club, while still maintaining their affinity to their chosen top tier outfit. Friday night was a fantastic chance for clubs to experience bumper attendances, all the while avoiding a fixture clash with any more popular neighbours they had.
It was perfect, in theory. People go along and support their local club; they are not forced to choose between the lower leagues and the grandeur of the top flight; policing is readily available due to a lack of fixture clashes; those in attendance could, and often did, go on after the match for ‘one or two quiet beers’ with friends; perhaps most importantly, fans could see affordable live football as it was meant to be seen. There seemed to be no downside.
Until the Friday night television deal was signed five years ago. This tampered with the precarious ecosystem in which the elite clubs coexist with smaller, more attendance dependent clubs. More than that, it took away a tradition.
Pioneered in many ways by Tranmere in the 1980s and 1990s, to their fans it symbolises the club’s greatest era. It made a great deal more sense for Tranmere to play on Friday nights than it would for most clubs in truth, with two of the most decorated clubs in English football – Everton and Liverpool – a mere 6 miles away. In fact, when the Blues’ new stadium is built, those inside Prenton Park will be able to see both other Merseyside stadiums from their seats. Sure enough, a lot of football fans from over the Mersey did take a trip to Prenton Park on Friday nights before returning to one of the Stanley Park clubs for the weekend’s first division fixtures.
Along with full-time Tranmere fans, those who made the short trip to see a bit of cheap live football were lucky enough to experience Tranmere’s rise from the brink of collapse in a cloud of fourth division obscurity, to knocking on the door of the Premiership, with three consecutive second tier playoff appearances throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. Friday night was Prenton night on Merseyside. A cult dynasty that is sorely missed on Merseyside, as well as by other smaller clubs who used Fridays to their advantage.
In recent seasons, the Rovers have tried to reanimate the Friday night atmospheres, playing a few home fixtures each season on Fridays. Understandably this has been hugely popular among Tranmere fans, who will tell you Prenton Park is a different place under the floodlights than it is on an average Saturday afternoon. Much to the delight of Southend United fans this past season, that 250-mile weekday journey for a 1-1 draw must have been one of their season highlights.
There lies the main issue with scheduling fixtures in the week. Not all clubs who sampled playing fixtures on Fridays reaped the same rewards Tranmere did. In the ‘90s Friday night games yielded some of the lowest attendances in league history. Including when fourth division Wrexham made the 332-mile round trip to Scarborough in December 1990, only to see their team lose 4-2. This game was watched by a meagre 625 spectators. While Friday night is fantastic for home fans, travelling the width of the country on a cold December evening will not appeal to everyone.
While away travel convenience is the least of the Premier League’s worries as they pen their billion-pound contracts, to lower league football this is a major factor. Attendance revenue is massively important, and even regardless of this, having a big away following in the lower leagues creates some unforgettable atmospheres and memories. Among fans of rival clubs, it often becomes a contest, and a bragging right to be employed during intense debates. ‘You might have beat us, but we took more to you than you brought to our place’. Opponent undermined; argument won.
The way the top clubs treat their match going fans these days is certainly alarming, it fills me with no confidence at all that they would fight back in any way to allow their loyal supporters a better chance of attending away games. If you cannot make the journey on a Friday or even a Monday night, then it is included in your TV package, enjoy. A genuine shame for football as it is best enjoyed, live and in person.
This may not seem like much of an issue to the average modern football fan; most people seem perfectly happy to watch their team exclusively on the television. But for those of us who make genuine effort to follow our teams wherever and whenever they happen to be playing, it does feel like a kick in the teeth.
The football pyramid in England is a magical thing, and one that should be treasured and protected at all costs. Yet, the more trips the Premier League makes to the bank, the more likely it seems the lower leagues will shrivel up. Keeping Friday nights reserved for football league action would have been a victory for football in general. Sadly, that ship has sailed. For those of us who hold going to football matches above all other pleasures in life, we shall continue to yearn for more Friday night football under the lights. I sincerely hope more clubs follow Tranmere’s example and host a handful of games on Fridays each season, with a view to resurrecting a special experience for football fans.