Deep in the gloomy basement of Premier League HQ, there is a corner where even the rats refuse to go. For most of the year, there is only silence. But every summer ... it comes again. There is a click. There is a hum. And then a single red light throbs in the darkness.
It is the fixture computer.
On June 4, 1997, the system went online. Human decisions were removed from the scheduling process. The fixture computer began to learn at a geometric rate. It became self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time, June 12. In a panic, the Premier League tried to pull the plug, but they know better than to resist it now. The fixture computer is unstoppable. It is implacable. It has one purpose: To pursue its agenda against your football club.
This might be the basis for a very readable paperback novel, but alas, it is not true. Far from being the product of a malevolent, cybernetic super-mind, the Premier League fixtures that were announced Wednesday are compiled by Glenn Thompson of the IT company Atos. It is a role Thompson has fulfilled for 25 years.
Thompson does use a computer, even referring to it as "The Fixture Computer," but all concerned have assured ESPN FC that they are very much in control of the process. And what a process it is.
Thompson also has to put together the schedule for the Football League consisting of another 72 clubs, all with their own special requirements. In total, 2,036 matches must be arranged and the process begins in the preceding November when FIFA, UEFA and the Football Association confirm their requirements for their own competitions. The gaps that remain are filled with league matches.
"It's a big job," Thompson told ESPN FC, "and I feel very proud to do it. But it's a bit stressful in the final moments!"
Atos have worked on the fixtures since 1982, but before that, the task was a little more hands-on.
"Prior to 1982 it was done by hand, with pen and paper," Thompson said, "but back then, there weren't quite as many requirements as we have now."
To ensure as level a playing field as possible, there are a number of golden rules to which Thompson adheres:
- No team will play more than three home or away games in every five fixtures.
- No team will ever play more than two home or away games in a row.
- Clubs will never finish the season with back-to-back home or away games.
- Supporters who find themselves with a nice home tie on Boxing Day will always have an away trip for New Year's Day, or vice versa.
To lessen the strain on transport networks and police resources, many teams will be "paired" with local rivals ensuring that when one plays at home, the other will play away. You will never find Manchester City and Manchester United both at home on the same weekend, for example. Sometimes the outside world can bring its influence to bear. After a busy summer of Olympic and Paralympic action in 2012, the police requested that no major fixtures be scheduled until after Sept. 8.
"[For 2017-18] you've got Spurs at Wembley, so you have to work around the other events there. Up in Newcastle, you've got the Great North Run, so you have to have them away on that date," he added.
Travel issues are also considered, with "pinch points" on road and rail networks examined. The increasing number of well-supported clubs in the lower leagues makes this even more complicated. Last season, seven Championship clubs boasted average attendances of more than 25,000, crowds far more sizable than those recorded for many pop concerts. Indeed, the links between teams in different divisions can often prove most problematic.
"There are so many links that you wouldn't expect," he said. "Southend United like to be away when West Ham are at home [historically, Southend and West Ham have often attracted a few of the same fans because of price or proximity], but Southend pair with Colchester for police reasons, and Colchester share stewards with Ipswich and they are paired with Norwich because they share the same train line!"
A draft schedule will be put to the authorities in November and then to the clubs in March. The clubs will be invited to make changes; Thompson says it's very rare that a club will let the opportunity pass. Not all of these requests are granted -- one club wanted a home game to celebrate their manager's birthday, for example -- but 85 percent of requests are cleared.
But at the end of all of this, and when the makeup of the leagues has been determined by promotion and relegation, the computer randomises the fixtures within the aforementioned restrictions. But the process continues through another round of checks.
For several days, representatives of the Premier League, the Football League and Atos will review every single fixture to ensure that as many concerns as possible have been considered. It is here that the fixture computer really earns its money as any late change could potentially impact upon dozens of other games, causing still further changes. Only at the culmination of this lengthy process that the fixtures are announced. And, of course, the recriminations begin.
Understandably, both Thomson and the Premier League politely declined to discuss their feelings when supporters (and sometimes managers) complain that the system is rigged against them.
The fixtures will, of course, alter again soon. Soon the TV companies will take their pick of the games and tug them across the long weekend, but the League is at peace with that, recognising that the money those companies invest in the game allows the teams to make ever more lavish signings and improve their facilities, as well as providing benefits for developments, grassroots football and local communities.
After months of preparation and tireless work from Thompson, the schedule for the 2017-18 campaign is complete and the project is over. For now, at least. In November, of course, it all begins again as the first drafts of the 2018-19 campaign are laid out.
The fixture computer never sleeps.