Fans plan protest over TV kick-off times
MANCHESTER United fans are to stage a demonstration in a bid to restore traditional 3pm Saturday kick-offs.
They plan to let their feelings be known in front of the TV cameras - who they blame for the scattering of kick-off times - when their team take on Fulham on March 22, another early start.
Fans have already been backed by United boss Sir Alex Ferguson, who feels Saturday noon starts cut into the rest times of his players after a midweek Champions League game.
Sir Alex lashed out at Greater Manchester Police after United looked jaded in a 1-1 draw at Bolton.
Only 10 of United's 48 games played so far this season have kicked off at 3pm on a Saturday and everyone blames everyone else for the problem.
Fans blame over-officious policing and the Premier League, the police blame hooliganism and the League say the club have the final say, but rarely turn down the £597,000 TV fee.
United tiptoe between all three parties, urging everyone to sit around a table and thrash out a solution. But a club as big as United has few choices when it comes to kick-off times, once they have accepted Sky's gold.
Sky's current contract with the Premier League forbids them to screen games live between 3pm and 5pm on a Saturday, for fear that it might affect gates elsewhere.
But the police will not allow 5pm Saturday kick-offs as they feel it encourages fans to drink in the run up to a game.
United are believed to have had informal talks with the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association (IMUSA) who are at the forefront of the planned protest, which they intend to broaden to include fans of all clubs.
Cardiff City fans will protest at Stockport's Edgeley Park ground on Saturday, after their kick-off time was moved to 1pm at the insistence of police concerned about the Welsh club's history of violence.
The Cardiff supporters aim to remain in their seats until 4.45, the time the match would have finished from a 3pm start.
United say they will look into the matter - but as long as they want to continue picking up Sky's live-match payments, the TV company will continue to choose them for screening, as the biggest box-office draw.
Said a United spokesman: "We understand the frustration at the large number of early kick-offs, and the disruption to routine and transport problems that this creates.
"It is a problem facing the whole of football and it is up to clubs, football authorities, police and broadcasters to work it out.
"But we also have to recognise the positive contribution the broadcasters make to football."
Sir Alex is less equivocal. He says noon kick-offs affect his team's preparation, and hints he will ask the club hierarchy to address the issue in the summer.
Some clubs feel the solution is to scrap the 3pm rule, claiming fans' loyalty is such that attendances at other games would not be seriously affected. But the supporters disagree.
Says Mark Longden, chairman of IMUSA: "The National Federation of Supporters Clubs would fight tooth and nail against it.
"Opposition from smaller clubs is overwhelming - you get people from Wycombe who take their kids to home games wearing United shirts.
"There would be no chance of dragging those kids out of the house if, say, United v Arsenal was on at the same time."
Longden feels the real culprits are the League and the police.
"It should be written into the TV rights contract that every club must play at least 50 per cent of games at 3pm on a Saturday.
"That would benefit fans, and would also spread the television money around a bit."
"But a Premier League spokesman said: "The vast majority of fixtures moved to noon kick-off times are done so on the request of the police, or as a result of the club accepting a live televised appearance.
"The police are refusing later kick-offs which means Sky are forced into midday starts. The message from the police is that it is the drunken troublemakers who are to blame."