Back-to-back fixtures – the rise and fall of supermen

17/18 December 2019 was unique in the annals of LFC and in the annals of English football. No-one, and no single body, was in control of both fixtures. On the 17th, we were due to play Aston Villa in the fifth round of the Carabao Cup, the date fixed by the English FA. Only one day later we were in Qatar for the Club World Cup semi-final against Monterrey, the date and venue organized by FIFA. Despite protests, both loud and well-argued, neither controlling body was prepared to change the date, and the outcome is well enough known to need further description.

One interesting statistic emerging from the commentaries was that not since 1986 had Liverpool been required to play two matches back-to-back – i.e. in consecutive days (and never, of course, in two countries). In that year, Boxing Day had fallen on a Friday, as it had also in 1975 and 1980, but there were also back-to-back matches during the Christmas holiday period in 1977, 1982 and 1983 – by which time we had the benefit of floodlights and a more liberal approach to periods off work to be able to avoid such timetabling. Before then, back-to-back games, once or twice a year usually at Christmas and Easter, occasionally at New Year, were quite normal, and instances of two games in three days were too common to be worth analyzing. An early Liverpool commentator, ‘Red Shirt’, observed that ‘three matches in four days is sufficient for even the most avaricious of football supporters.’ Before 1981, and especially before the huge influence of TV on Premier League game schedules, Sunday was sacrosanct; Christmas Day was not. ‘Red Shirt’ voiced his opinion: ‘Christmas fare is a misnomer nowadays to all footballers. They have to think of their condition, and in order to keep fit must shun the good things that most of us love. Not that they all do it, and I have no doubt that most of us recollect very poor displays which have been given on Xmas Day directly to be attributed to carnal pleasures. Personally, I think footballers might have a rest on two days, Xmas Day and Good Friday. That I am in the minority, however, I must admit, as witness the turnstile receipts on those days.’ (25 December 1908.)

Walter Wadsworth (fourth from left) and his teammates skipping rope in the 1920s at Anfield
Photo from: J E Marsh, 11 Wilson Road, Wallasey

This pattern of fixtures can easily be traced back in time, using the (seasons/games) data (or websites and books of records for many other clubs), to the earliest games in the top division. In 1896/97, Liverpool played on 25 and 26 December, 1 and 2 January, and 3 and 4 March. Apart from four fallow years, that pattern continued till the First World War, but in one astonishing variation, we had our first back-to-back-to-back games. We played at Anfield against Manchester City on Christmas day 1913 and away at Hyde Road on Boxing Day; and on Saturday the 27th, we were back at Anfield for Blackburn Rovers. Clearly, it was the position of a Saturday in relation to the externally fixed Christmas, New Year and Easter dates which was forcing such congestion. We should not be surprised, therefore if these ‘triples’ recurred, as they did in December 1919 and 1930. The worst of the ‘horrors’ (to modern eyes) came in 1926 when we played four games in five days – Bolton away on 2 April, Birmingham and Bolton again on 3 and 5 April and finally Aston Villa away on 6 April, against whom we lost 3-0. Meanwhile, on 4 April, we celebrated Easter Sunday! The average age of the Liverpool players was thirty and ten of the twelve players we used appeared in all four games!

This congestion of fixtures, which everyone in the game seems to have taken for granted, was due to several factors. Without floodlights, Saturdays and bank holidays were the only days of the week when acceptably large crowds could be expected to attend. The FA scheduled only a handful of games in late August and early May and were even then accused of encroaching into the cricket season. Success on the pitch meant more games in the knockout competitions, as in 2019 – but so did drawn games which needed replays, and bad weather which led to postponements.

The basic fixtures list has been drawn up under the auspices of the FA since the nineteenth century, and much has been written, at least about the modern period, describing the way it is constructed. Many parameters are fed into the computer before it is let loose on the job for a first run-through, including individual requests by the clubs themselves. Of these parameters, the best known is to exclude the possibility of two home games scheduled for the same date in the same city. If we go back to the late nineteenth century, however, it is relatively easy to find, say, Manchester’s City and United (Newton Heath) playing at home on the same day - for example, on 2 January 1899, City played Glossop FC (yes, Glossop!) and United hosted Burton Swift, resulting in 13,000 rival home fans in the city. There had been 22,000 fans on 4 March 1893 when Sheffield United and Sunderland came to Manchester.

Nowadays, we would find the normal conditions in which the game was once played totally unacceptable. The back-to-back games made those conditions worse, and extremely demanding on the players who had to be supermen to survive. The awful pitches which sometimes had to be endured are well known – even top division teams can be seen on old films playing on little short of a quagmire. Back-to-back fixtures made it worse, having no effective time for the surface to recover, and it was not uncommon to find the two games being played in the same stadium. On 26 December 1906, ‘the ground was just as hard to manoeuvre as a skating rink, and none of the players took risks.’ Bolton ‘were better shod than Liverpool or were better skaters’ (Club programme report). Who would volunteer to be a goalkeeper in such conditions? Not even any of the modern-day green sand to hide the bare patches! Even today, managers are still perfectly prepared to criticize the state of a pitch, with the result (for FSG at least) more likely to be improvement rather than sacking!

‘Same for both sides’ is a common argument for not improving conditions – but in back to back games, it did not always apply. We should not assume that all clubs had the same fixture dates, and it is not unusual to find Liverpool playing against a team which had not played the day before or would not have to play a day later. Aston Villa were fresh on 11 April 1903, whereas we had faced Everton on the 10th. The same opponent had the same advantage on 30 March 1907, trouncing us 4-0 at Villa Park. An examination of the fixtures of six other First Division clubs when we had to play four games in five days (2-6 April 1926) shows only one, Aston Villa, who suffered the same fate; and Villa used 15 men to Liverpool’s 12. Sheffield United enjoyed a 4-1 victory at Bramall Lane on 4 April 1931 against a Liverpool side who had had to face Manchester United the day before. We battled against teams who had no match the next day - Liverpool drew at Maine Road on 12 April 1974; the next day we played Ipswich whereas Manchester City had no game.

The old ball, with eighteen strips of brown leather sewn together, was susceptible to water absorption by the case and through the seams, making it more difficult to head. Only from 1982 were the seams made from waterproof material. ‘The crowd simply roared whenever a player fell. It must have been a gruelling business for the players, for to head a ball was asking for semi-consciousness’ (Echo report on Chelsea 20 April 1935). The balls sometimes had to be re-inflated during a match if the pressure fell below an FA authorized figure which depended on the height of the pitch above sea level!

Substitutions during matches in the English Football League were first permitted in the 1965–66 season. In the first two seasons after the law was introduced, each side was permitted only one substitution during a game. Moreover, the substitute could only replace an injured player. From the 1967–68 season, this rule was relaxed to allow substitutions for tactical reasons. In sharp contrast, on 10 April 1909, ‘Liverpool played most of the second half with ten men, with Tom Chorlton and Bobby Robinson going off alternately due to injury, leaving the other on the field as a passenger.’

Dennis Rogers, the son of Fred Rogers who played 75 matches for Liverpool from 1934-1939, writes: ‘Your comments about playing conditions, type of ball, pitches, etc., reminded me of how often Dad seemed to have had head injuries, especially on the eyebrows. One report tells how he needed an existing plaster to be replaced after an aerial duel with the opposition and another when he refused to leave the pitch despite the efforts of the St John's Ambulance men. He earned his pay, that's for sure.’ Rogers was said to have had more cuts than a professional boxer. On New Year’s Day 1938, he had a plaster torn away in a heading duel with Chelsea’s George Mills. Meanwhile, his fellow defender, Matt Busby, also refused to leave the pitch and ended the game limping.

Fred Rogers with an appropriate head wound (second from left) playing pool with his teammates at Liverpool.
From the left: Phil Taylor, Rogers, Alf Hanson (playing), Jim Harley, John Shafto, Ben Dabbs and Harry Eastham

The distances teams were expected to travel in such a short time effectively excluded all but the most fanatical supporters from watching both games. For example, on 18 April 1924, Chelsea played away at Middlesbrough; the following day, they were back at Stamford Bridge playing against the same opponents! This arrangement – back to back against the same club – became quite common after the First World War.

No luxury coaches in those days – players had to make their own way by train. On 30 March 1907, ‘the match [against Burnley] started without Liverpool left-back Tom Chorlton on the field. He had missed his train at Crewe but with Liverpool confident that he would still arrive the match started without him. Referee J. Mason from Burslem was also affected by rail problems and this delayed the start of the match by about fifteen minutes, with an embarrassed Chorlton joining his team-mates soon after the rescheduled start. A year later, there was an early 2.00 p.m. start to the Everton game in order to allow the visitors to travel to the Woolwich Arsenal the next day while we played at Middlesbrough.

The concept of rotation did not exist, and analysis of the men who played in Liverpool’s back-to-back games yields astonishing results. There were 24 back-to-back pairs of games pre-WW1, of which five had the same players in each pair; in 32 back to back pairs between the wars, 12 had the same players on consecutive days; and of 39 post-WW2 pairs, 11 fielded the same team. The ability to field changes in personnel increased significantly after WW2, however, when Liverpool used twenty-five per cent more changes in the starting line-up compared with all pre-WW2 back to back games. There is always a difficulty in distinguishing between tactics and injuries in absence of newspaper reports, but the reason is not linked to squad size which remained very similar – about two dozen first-team players – between the First World War and the start of the present century.

And all this for poor pay - for the 1937-38 season, full back Fred Rogers was paid £4 per week plus £1 appearance money, half the maximum for professional footballers at the time.

The demise of the back-to-back feature of the English game was not due to a single cause. The arrival of Sunday as a day of sport in 1981 has been noted, and another significant factor has been floodlights, allowing evening games at Anfield since 1957. The use of May and August to ease congestion remained negligible until the 1940s, since when we have played up to seven games in August (1969/70) and three in May. December 2019/20, therefore, provided a reminder to veteran fans, and especially to veteran players, of a shorter, hectic schedule which was effectively breached and gradually replaced some forty years ago. That old order demanded the survival of the fittest – the physically fittest, as well as the skillfully fittest – to be able to play two or even three games in three days. Present players don’t know they’re born!

We live or rather survive with the invisible cloud of the Coronavirus almost making a mockery of our thirty-year wait for the Premiership title and forcing governing bodies to think about how to squash too many games into too few slots to complete the 2019/20 season. They wouldn’t, would they? 

Written by Colin Rogers - Copyright - 

Another article by Colin named Attacking the Kop

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