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Where's the Game?

Where's the Game?

Olly Wicken looks back at a time when you just didn't know where you were playing.


The kick-off time of this week’s Watford game against Leeds was changed with four weeks’ notice. Annoying for some fans, no doubt.

Things have been worse in the past, though. Once, Watford fans couldn’t find out WHERE the team’s away fixture was until THE MORNING OF THE GAME.

It sounds like an anxiety dream. Or, perhaps, the set-up for a reality show or YouTube video designed to test fans’ loyalty. But it actually happened on February 29th 1936.

Until that morning, Watford fans knew the away game would be at either Clapton Orient, L*t*n, Reading, Gillingham, Notts County or Northampton. But not which one.

The situation was similar for away fans of all Football League teams. The previous week, League clubs had decided to rearrange the season’s remaining fixtures, keep them secret, and announce them at very short notice.

You might wonder why.

The clubs had collectively agreed that “football pool betting is a menace to the game of Association football”. They decided to alter the fixtures and announce them too late for the completion of pools coupons.

 There was, perhaps, a tiny bit of consideration for away fans. Fixtures involving long-distance travel were announced on Thursday 27th. The rest were kept suppressed until Friday 28th.

 Watford were playing in a regional division (Division Three South) so their announcement came on the Friday — too late for the Watford Observer to print. Watford fans would have had to check a national newspaper.

 And what they would have found out was that they needed to get themselves up the road to the Kennel. The local derby against L*t*n had suddenly been brought forward by two weeks.

 You can imagine the fans’ outrage. It was the stand-out away fixture of the season and it was revealed at only a few hours’ notice.

 The Football League’s actions created public uproar all over Britain. George Orwell mentioned it in his book ‘The Road To Wigan Pier’. He wrote: “I happened to be in Yorkshire when Hitler re-occupied the Rhineland…The threat of war aroused hardly a flicker of interest locally, but the decision of the FA to stop publishing fixtures in advance flung all Yorkshire into a storm of fury.”

 In the event, in the Bedfordshire Badlands, Watford lost to the filthy Hatters, 1-2.  So perhaps Watford fans didn’t mind that they hadn’t witnessed yet another derby defeat. But the “secret fixture list” remained in place into March.

 Things weren’t quite so bad the next Saturday because Watford fans weren’t due to travel. On the Friday, Watford’s visitors were revealed as Bournemouth. Pleasingly, the Cherries were picked off, 4-1.

 And then things went back to normal. On the Monday, League clubs voted to restore the original fixture list and not keep it secret. The public had rallied behind the Pools companies, not the football authorities. It had been a bad idea in every possible way.

 The next weekend, Watford had already played L*t*n, so they played Clapton Orient instead. But at least fans had a few days’ notice to plan the trip. And they saw a nice 2-0 victory.

 So whenever you’re feeling messed around as a fan (which may be right now if you already had other plans for Friday night) remember that, for a short while, supporters had it even worse in 1936.

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