Pieces of Hate: Fixture scheduling that fails to consider the fans

If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that taking the train is the absolute worst way to get anywhere.

Compiling the myriad frustrations would take the best part of a weekend, but a non-exhaustive list begins at the ridiculous prices, includes the frequent delays, and ends somewhere around the heaters being on full blast in summer and broken in the freezing depths of winter. And we haven’t even started on the smell emanating from the toilets.

Given the routine hopelessness of train travel, it wasn’t surprising to see this week’s announcement that there are no late services north after next Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final between Everton and Manchester United at Wembley, owing to planned engineering work on the line. It’s a disruption that leaves some 60,000 football supporters praying the match is settled within 90 minutes and facing a mad dash across London to get home.

Although the news was as predictable as a bunch of pissheads crashing your table in the Quiet Zone, it was shocking to learn that, despite their resources and football duties throughout the country, the FA neither own a telephone nor have they experienced train travel’s Murphy’s Law: the toilet door is going to miraculously slide open just after you’ve unzipped, seat reservations have not downloaded on this service, and essential maintenance work has been scheduled at the very worst time.

If the FA had experienced the joys of rail, or were versed in communication, then they would have known to expect an issue and thought to contact Network Rail before arranging Everton and United’s semi-final for 5.15pm on a Saturday. Surely the very last thing they would do is pocket the TV money, shrug at the obvious ball-ache of a tea-time kick-off, and stick two fingers up at fans facing the thankless task of finding affordable accommodation on London Marathon weekend, added to an already considerable expense of making the trip to Wembley in the first place.

Just as arriving at Euston to find a throng of tired and emotional faces staring blankly at the flashing delays is depressingly typical, so is the manner in which the FA have handled another scheduling stitch-up. “I just don’t believe the concerns of match-going fans are adequately listened to,” said Sean Bones of the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust with courtesy not befitting the circumstances. “It’s crazy. The football authorities have to do more to take the feelings of fans on board.”

This isn’t the first time such pleas have been made or the first time they have fallen on deaf ears. Barney Chilton, editor of United fanzine Red News, summed up the consensus cutting through the game’s tribal nature when he said: “The reality is less notice, attention and affection is shown to those who keep the whole cycle of the modern game going. It’s got to the point where fans are not apathetic about their treatment but resigned to it. We’ll be fed lines like, ‘It will be looked into’ but nothing ever changes.” Right on cue, the Telegraph quoted the FA’s horse-already-bolted response that they are “working hard with relevant partners to ensure there are various options for fans travelling back after the game”.

Thankfully for United fans the club have taken advantage of the PR open goal and laid on free coach travel. It is hoped that Everton will do the same. But this gesture has little to do with the FA, nor would it be necessary had due care and consideration been taken during the planning stages for the semi-final fixtures. The prospect of a tie between Everton and United had been looming for over a month, and nobody thought to put that call in to Network Rail, or host Watford v Crystal Palace in the awkward Saturday 5.15pm slot with the two Northern teams meeting at 4pm on Sunday – an earlier time on a day services are running later.

As Barney Chilton said, nothing ever changes. In fact, by making the same decisions year after year with complete disregard for those affected, the FA’s contempt for fans only becomes more galling. When Manchester City and Wigan supporters railed against a Saturday 5.15pm kick-off ahead of the 2013 FA Cup final, then FA general secretary Alex Horne countered: “We’re now used to consuming our football in those time slots. It really works.”

We’re now used to consuming our football in those time slots. Just look at those words sitting together in perfect shit-munching syntax. They are indicative of the attitude towards match-going fans, with the FA valuing them beneath passive viewers who might “stick the footy on” before settling down to watch Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway.

The FA Cup semi-final should be a great occasion for Everton and United supporters, but instead they have been screwed over without even a hint of remorse. The excitement of watching your team play at Wembley should never be tempered by torturous travel plans, not that Everton and United fans will allow due grievances to prevent them from enjoying the day. Let’s just hope it’s all over by the 90th minute, and that Virgin don’t misjudge the mood by trying some top, top social media engagement.

Pieces of Hate: Fixture scheduling that fails to consider the fans
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