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Friday 21st June 2019

Fixtures Q&A with Iain Blair

We asked SPFL Company Secretary & Director of Operations Iain Blair to give us an insight into the challenges involved in compiling the fixture list...

Are you happy with the 2019/20 fixture list?
I have been doing this job for over 20 years now and have learned that, unfortunately, there is no such thing as the perfect fixture list! Clubs and fans focus on their own schedule, which is understandable, but our aim is to produce the best and most balanced set of fixtures, for 42 clubs across four divisions, that we can. Moving even one match in an attempt to solve a particular issue can impact on many other games so it’s very much a balancing act. There are many fixture versions for each division before we decide on a final set for publication. 

Who produces the fixtures? 
This is our fourth season of producing the fixtures in conjunction with GotSoccer, who work with a number of other major leagues, including France, Poland, Australia and MLS. They are a US-based company, who use optimisation software to produce a set of fixtures based on the information (fixture recipe) provided by the SPFL.  This is a very interactive process during which we produce many iterations over several days.

What goes into the recipe? 
There are the obvious things like avoiding Celtic/Rangers, Heart of Midlothian/Hibernian and Dundee/Dundee United being at home on the same matchday. We have also achieved this for Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Ross County, although it was more of a challenge with the Highland clubs being in different divisions. All 42 clubs will play three of their first six games at home and teams in the Ladbrokes Championship, League 1 and 2 will have two games at home and two away over their final four matches. We try to limit excessive travelling in midweeks and around the festive period but it is not always possible without negatively impacting on the overall schedule. 

Do you take club requests into account?
Yes, and from others.  We liaise with the clubs and Police Scotland and accommodate request dates where we can. For example, we have avoided Heart of Midlothian being at home on August 24 because of the Summer Test between Scotland and France at Murrayfield and St Johnstone have been given an away game on September 14 as their car park is being used for the Solheim Cup at Gleneagles. Ayr United will not be at home on the same weekend as the Scottish Grand National and there are several dates when Queen’s Park cannot use Hampden Park because of internationals and major cup semi-finals and finals.  There are many other examples.

Can you give us a bit more detail about the preparation of the Ladbrokes Premiership fixture list?
This is certainly the most challenging of the four divisions because of the split and the large number of midweek fixture rounds.  We also have to avoid FIFA international and UEFA club competitions dates.  Clubs who had 16 home games before the split last season will have 17 at home in the coming season and vice versa. We have also flipped all of the pairings – for example Aberdeen travelled to St Johnstone in the first phase of the season in 2018/19 so for 2019/20 the first meeting of the teams will be at Pittodrie. To complete this, promoted Ross County inherit the flip side of relegated Dundee’s schedule.  The timing of the European dates in the early part of the season creates an issue and means that Celtic (Champions League qualifiers) cannot play Aberdeen, Kilmarnock or Rangers (Europa League qualifiers) in fixture rounds one, two or three.

How do you deal with the midweek matches?
Not counting the Boxing Day card, there are six midweek fixture rounds in the Premiership before the split and clubs will have between two and four at home and away, with half having a three/three balance. In addition, we have ensured that clubs have one home and one away match in the back-to-back midweeks in February 2020. There are also two midweek rounds in the Championship – all clubs will have one home game and one away on those dates. There are no midweek fixtures in League 1 and League 2. We are often asked why midweek matches cannot be played earlier in the season but the crowded nature of the calendar means this is not possible. We cannot schedule against European dates – other than for postponed matches. There is therefore only one free midweek before Christmas and that is December 17/18; this highlights how little room there is for manoeuvre.

Why are clubs not simply at home one week and away the next?
We are often asked this question but it’s actually not mathematically possible even without all the issues above for one thing. Every constraint that is then added also has an impact on the schedule but limiting instances of H-H or A-A is something we work hard on with GotSoccer when compiling the fixtures. The number of ‘doubles’ is broadly similar to last year across the four divisions. 

When are the derby matches in 2019/20?
The traditional derbies have been scheduled for Sunday December 29 in the Ladbrokes Premiership, with the exception of the Edinburgh derby on Boxing Day, and Saturday December 28 in the other divisions. Rangers will face Celtic for the first time in Season 19/20 at Ibrox on the weekend of August 31 and the opening Edinburgh derby is set for the weekend of September 21. The first meeting of Dundee and Dundee United in the second tier since 1995/96 goes ahead at the end of August.

Why is the winter break confined to the Ladbrokes Premiership?
Clubs outside the top flight have reconfirmed their preference to continue playing through that period. The dates with no Ladbrokes Premiership matches in 2020 are January 4 and 11 – the clubs will return for the fourth round of the Scottish Cup on January 18. The short summer shutdown – Scotland played Belgium on June 11 and the Champions League and Europa League qualifiers begin between July 9&11 – means there is more need than ever for some sort of winter break for the players. The English Premier League have also introduced a form of winter break after continued requests from their managers and players for 2019/20. 

Why does the Premiership season end after the Scottish Cup final?
That is because Hampden is a host venue for the 2020 UEFA European Championship – it will stage matches on June 15, 19, 23 and 30. The Scottish Cup final will have to take place on Saturday May 9.  After that the Ladbrokes Premiership fixtures for round 37 on May 12/13 and round 38 on May 16/17 will be played. This is not a new situation; the Scottish Cup final was played on May 4 in 2002 ahead of Hampden hosting the Champions League final between Real Madrid and Bayer Leverkusen.

Are there home starts again for last season’s champions? 
That’s correct. We always try to build this into the recipe.  Celtic, Ross County, Arbroath, Peterhead and SPFL newcomers Cove Rangers will all start at home to allow them to unfurl their title flags ahead of the Season opener. 

When will the live TV games be announced? 
On the first weekend Kilmarnock will host Rangers on Sunday August 4 at 1.30 pm; the match will be broadcast live by Sky Sports. We are already liaising with Sky Sports and BT Sport about further live matches from fixture round two onwards and our aim is always to give clubs and supporters as much notice as possible of these selections.  We are also in discussion with BBC Scotland about live televised matches from the Ladbrokes Championship.

Can you remind us of the dates for post-split Ladbrokes Premiership games?
Fixture rounds 34-38 will be played on the weekends of April 18/19, April 25/26 and May 2/3, the midweek of May 12/13 and the weekend of May 16/17.

Anything else to add?
We are very much looking forward to the seventh season of the SPFL, which kicks off with the group stage of the Betfred Cup on Friday July 12, when Heart of Midlothian host Dundee United at Tynecastle Park live on BT Sport. Interest in the SPFL remains high – attendances were up again in 2018/19, when more than 4.9m fans watched games across all competitions. I would like to wish the best of luck to all 42 clubs for the season ahead and thank the supporters for their continued backing of Scottish football.