What are your thoughts on the 2021/22 fixture lists?
I have been very involved in the process for several seasons but this was my first year at the helm following the retiral of Iain Blair in January, after 23 years with the SPL and SPFL. As Iain often said, there is no such thing as a perfect set of fixtures and every fixture list is a compromise! Improving something inevitably throws up something elsewhere that might actually be even less acceptable. Clubs and supporters understandably focus only on their own schedule, but our aim is to produce the best and most balanced set of fixtures overall and I am satisfied we have achieved that.
The main pressure, as always, is on the cinch Premiership fixture list. If you take into account European, international and domestic dates, there are only two spare slots before the turn of the year. Those are the midweeks of December 15 and 22. They will likely be required for rearranged fixtures for clubs who reach the Premier Sports Cup final. There is less pressure on the cinch Championship, cinch League 1 and cinch League 2 fixture lists, given the absence of restrictions from international or European dates. For example, there are only two midweek cards in the cinch Championship and none at all in cinch League 1 and cinch League 2, compared to six in the cinch Premiership before the split.
Cross-divisional constraints always make things that bit more difficult when producing the fixtures. This season we have Queen’s Park ground-sharing with Partick Thistle at Firhill as renovation work at Lesser Hampden is not yet complete. Also, Ross County and Inverness Caledonian Thistle are usually scheduled to be at home on different weekends. In each of these cases we have been able to limit the home clashes to two fixture rounds.
Who produces the fixtures?
This is our sixth season working with GotSoccer, who are based in the United States. They have experience of producing fixtures for several other major football leagues including Ligue 1 in France, Ekstraklasa in Poland, the Australian A-League and Major League Soccer. They also work with MLB (baseball) and NBA (basketball). GotSoccer use optimisation software to come up with a set of fixtures based on the information and restrictions (‘fixture recipe’) we provide. This is a very interactive and iterative process during which we produce many versions before a final decision is made.
What goes into the fixture recipes?
There are several things. All clubs will have three home and three away games in their first six fixtures. The ‘big city’ clubs generally don’t play at home on the same day, although there are two clashes in Edinburgh in 2021/22. This is because both Hibernian and Heart of Midlothian are due to play 17 home fixtures before the split.
All the pairings in the cinch Premiership have been flipped – for example, the first meeting of St Johnstone and Dundee United will be at McDiarmid Park because it was at Tannadice last season. Clubs who are at home on Boxing Day will be away on January 2 and vice versa. We try to minimise travel around the Christmas and New Year period, but this is not always possible.
The timing of the European dates means that Rangers and Celtic (Champions League qualifiers) cannot play Hibernian, Aberdeen or St Johnstone (Europa League and Europa Conference League qualifiers) in the early weeks of the season.
There are also non-football events to consider. For example, Ayr United won’t be at home on the same day as big meetings at Ayr racecourse; and Hearts will be away from home when there are major rugby matches at Murrayfield. We also avoid clashes with events like the stock car racing at Cowdenbeath and the Links Market in Kirkcaldy.
Why are clubs not at home one week and away the next?
That is a common and fair question, but it is not mathematically possible, even without all the other fixture constraints. Indeed, there has never been a professional Scottish football fixture list which had each club playing home then away or vice-versa throughout the Season - and fixture lists have been prepared since 1890! Limiting instances of H-H or A-A sequences is something we work hard on with GotSoccer when compiling the fixtures.
When are the derby matches in 2021/22?
The traditional derbies have been scheduled for Sunday January 2, when the fixtures include Celtic v Rangers, Dundee v Dundee United, Hibernian v Heart of Midlothian and Kilmarnock v Ayr United. The first Old Firm derby takes place at the end of August, with the opening Edinburgh derby on September 11 and the first Dundee derby a week later. Season 2021/22 will be the first time since 2004/05 that we have had the Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee derbies in the cinch Premiership. The first Ayrshire derby in the league since 1992/93 will be played on the opening weekend of the cinch Championship season and that is certainly one to look forward to!
Are there home starts again for last season’s champions?
That is something we typically build into the fixture recipes. Rangers will begin the defence of their cinch Premiership trophy at home to Livingston; and Heart of Midlothian mark their return to the top flight with a match against Celtic at Tynecastle. cinch League 1 champions Partick Thistle kick off their Championship campaign versus Queen of the South at Firhill but cinch League 2 champions Queen’s Park will be away from home in matchday one as they are ground-sharing at Firhill with Partick Thistle. Queen’s Park will receive their league flag “at home” at Firhill the following weekend. We welcome Kelty Hearts to the SPFL following their play-off win over Brechin City last month and they will start their cinch League 2 campaign at home to local rivals Cowdenbeath.
Is the winter break back for 2021/22?
The cinch Premiership clubs voted firmly in favour of a winter break so the top flight will stop after the derby matches on January 2. cinch Premiership clubs will return to action in round four of the Scottish Cup on January 22, with the cinch Premiership resuming on January 26. Clubs in the cinch Championship, cinch League 1 and cinch League 2 were canvassed about a similar break, but their overwhelming preference was to continue playing throughout January.
Will the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26) impact on the fixtures?
Possibly. COP26, to be held in Glasgow, will run from November 1-12 but Heads of State and many other delegates will begin arriving in Scotland at the end of the previous week. This is huge event – one of the biggest ever held in the UK – and we are therefore in regular dialogue with Police Scotland on this. That dialogue will continue in the build-up to COP26 as we seek to avoid or mitigate any disruption to the cinch SPFL fixture list.
How many live TV games will be shown this coming season?
2021/22 is season two of our five-year agreement with Sky Sports, which allows our broadcast partner to show up to 48 cinch Premiership matches exclusively live each season. BBC Scotland has the rights to up to 20 live cinch Championship matches and these are normally scheduled for Friday evenings. The end-of-season play-offs will be covered by Sky Sports, BBC Scotland and BBC ALBA. We have announced the selections for the first weekend in the cinch Premiership and further picks for later in August will be confirmed as soon as possible, along with cinch Championship picks. Clubs will again be able to live-stream their home matches this season, which we know was so important last year, both in allowing supporters to watch their teams live, and in providing much-needed revenue to clubs during the constraints resulting from the pandemic.
Why are most of Edinburgh City’s home fixtures on Friday nights?
With one of Hearts or Hibernian at home each weekend, Edinburgh City – who are planning to return to Meadowbank Stadium from Ainslie Park during the season – were keen to try something different to hopefully attract more fans along. They had the broad support of other cinch League 2 clubs and their request for regular Friday night football this season was subsequently approved by the SPFL Board.
What are the dates for the post-split Premiership games?
Fixture rounds 34-38 will be played on the weekends of April 23/24, April 30/May 1 and May 7/8, the midweek of May 10/11, and the weekend of May 14/15.
Are you already planning for 2022/23?
Work is already well under way on the schedule for next season, which, of course, includes the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. It runs from November 21 – December 18, with players requiring to be released by their clubs a week before the tournament begins. Although nothing has been confirmed at this stage, it is likely there will be a slightly later finish to the 2022/23 season – with the winter break essentially taking place during the World Cup.
Anything else to add?
Just that we are very much looking forward to the new season. There is no doubt that 2020/21 was extremely challenging for everyone and it is a huge credit to the hard work done by the clubs that we were able to complete the season.
The absence of supporters – aside from a few matches with small numbers of spectators – was keenly felt and we can’t wait to see fans back in stadiums regularly. Of course, Covid-19 is still with us but, hopefully we are in a much better place than 12 months ago.
It’s also fantastic to see the excitement surrounding Scotland’s return to a major tournament and we very much hope EURO 2020 is a successful tournament for Steve Clarke’s side despite the setback yesterday. The start of the domestic season isn’t far away either - the Premier Sports Cup begins on July 9, the league season kicks off at the end of July and the SPFL Trust Trophy begins in August so there is plenty to keep us busy!