It is now customary for us all to settle down on a Sunday in May and watch the final fixtures of the Premier League play out before us. Thanks to Sky, we may even have a choice of which match to watch live, or just watch the summary which brings you every goal scored. The Championship too, has its own final day on a Sunday. So, those below the age of 22-23 may be forgiven for believing that it was ever thus.
In fact, the first fixture to be played on a Sunday in the First Division (now Premier League) was on 27th January 1974 when Stoke City beat Chelsea, 1-0 at their old ground, the Victoria Ground when Geoff Hurst’s penalty won the game. It would not be until 1983 when we would see the next fixture played out on a Sunday in England’s top division.
6th February 1983 Swansea played Watford at The Vetch Field. Watford won 3-1 with 2 goals from Luther Blissett and one from John Barnes. This was the first fixture played in Wales on a Sunday.
1983 was when things started to break through when it came to football on a Sunday. The FA Cup had already included a few Sunday ties, as Wigan Athletic (then a Third Division/League One side) were knocked out of the cup by non-league Telford United. The Sunday match ended 0-0 at Wigan’s old ground, Springfield Park, but Telford finally won in the second replay. Then in the Fourth Round, both Liverpool and Everton were drawn at home. Everton chose to move their fixture to the Sunday and on 30th January 1983 they beat Second Division Shrewsbury Town, 2-1 in the first ever football match to be played at Goodison Park on a Sunday.
Amazingly the Fifth Round saw both clubs drawn at home again. Everton were again going to move their tie to the Sunday but their opponents Tottenham, refused. So for the first time ever Anfield hosted a football match on a Sunday. Brighton, bottom of the First Division, visited Anfield and one of Liverpool’s old boys, Jimmy Case scored in a famous 2-1 win for the Seagulls.
The first recorded League match taking place on a Sunday was in 20th January 1974. Just a few weeks before four FA Cup Third Round ties were played on a Sunday. The reason behind this was to do with the industrial strife Britain was under at the time. In late 1973 there was an energy crisis caused by the Arab members of OPEC refusing to send oil to western nations who had supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War in 1973. The situation was exacerbated when the miners seized their opportunity to bring the country to its knees and went on strike at the beginning of 1974. As supplies were low, many clubs looked to try and alter the kick-off times so as not to have to use floodlights. The idea was then suggested that matches be played on a Sunday as the earlier kick-off times for other days had not been popular.
6th January 1974 and the first ever football match played on a Sunday was at Abbey Stadium where two Third Division sides met, Cambridge United and Oldham Athletic. The game kicked-off at 11.30am and ended in a 2-2 draw. Almost 8,500 people turned up for the game, easily the best crowd of the season for Cambridge. Three other cup ties were also played that day but the reactions were mixed, despite the increase in attendances at those games. On 20th January 1974 we had the first instance of League matches being played on a Sunday.
Millwall met Fulham at The Den in a lunchtime kick-off. Millwall won 1-0. This was a Second Division match and one of three held that day
Back then Britain was under the rules of the Sunday Observance Act 1780. The Act prohibited admission to a building on a Sunday for payment. In fact, the Act states that any house, room or other place opened for public entertainment or amusement, or for public debating on any subject whatsoever, on a Sunday, and to which persons shall be admitted by payment of money or by tickets sold for money, shall be deemed a disorderly house or place. The fine for breaking the law would be two hundred pounds. When you consider this was written in 1780, this fine would clearly be a far greater sum in 1974. This meant that clubs could not charge spectators on the gate for entry. However, they worked out that if they charged spectators for a programme and made their purchase compulsory on entrance, then they could get round the Act. The fly in the ointment was that some clubs charged differing amounts for programmes dependent on where you wanted to enter the ground. What also hadn’t been thought through was what happened if the club had not printed enough programmes for the amount of people attending. One of the other Cup ties played on 6th January was at Burnden Park where Bolton beat Stoke City, 3-2. Almost 40,000 people turned up, more than 20,000 above the average attendance for a Bolton match then. No one knows whether everyone paid to get in to see the game that day.
The initial experiment of Sunday football produced a mixed response. Arsenal’s General Manager, Bob Wall declared “Playing football and making profits on a Sunday is wrong. We will not disturb the peace and quiet of the neighbourhood of Highbury on that day”. Ted Croker, FA Secretary said “Football is the national game and we should be concerned to give the public what they want when they want it. A lot of people do want to watch football on Sundays.” However, Alan Hardaker, the Football League secretary. was less enthusiastic; “We must not have our heads too high in the clouds. Bolton, for example, played the only game in Lancashire and it was a novelty. I would want to see a lot more Sunday football in other parts of the country before I become too convinced.”
Hardaker was a continual thorn in television’s side when it came to the desire for live football anyway. He later wrote in his book that ‘regular live football would undermine the game’s health.” I will leave the reader to make their own conclusion as to whether it has or not.
For the rest of the 1973-74 season many games were played on a Sunday, particularly in the lower divisions. Interestingly, Darlington played at home to Torquay United on 27th January, having already played at home to Stockport County the previous day.
Sunday matches in the First Division were still a rarity going into the 1983-84 season. On 2nd October 1983 the nation settled down to watch the first ever televised League game on a Sunday when Tottenham met Nottingham Forest at White Hart Lane. Spurs ensured no expense was spent by bringing on Chas & Dave for the pre-match entertainment, although the party atmosphere was soon spoiled by Colin Walsh giving the visitors an early lead. Gary Stevens and Mark Falco scored late in the game to give the home side their first home win of the season. ITV broadcast that match, and back then the two main broadcasting companies agreed to split their coverage of fixtures with BBC taking a Friday night match.
A brave new world had been entered into and soon we would become accustomed to football filling our screens when previously black & white westerns or programmes about monks wearing socks and sandals, had once purveyed. Moving into the 1990’s and Paul Gascoigne’s move to Lazio convinced Channel 4 to buy the broadcasting rights to screen a live Serie A match every Sunday. Millions of us, well maybe not millions, but those of us who believed we had discovered a cult show most of our mates were too arrogant to go near (actually the tv audience was approximately 3m), settled down to see Lazio play Sampdoria. Unfortunately, Gazza was still injured but the game was entertaining enough to end 3-3. Back then, we believed Italian football was played out using binary as most of the games were 0-0 or 1-0 or even 1-1 if you were lucky. Gradually throughout the decade you could see the muddy, honest, physical challenge of an English game on tv and then turn over for the romance, the subtlety and sheer opera that was Italian football.
1992, of course, was the year football exploded onto our tv screens as the Premier League was born and sky had a live game every Sunday. That meant the fare on offer for those without a Skytv subscription was, what is now known as, the Football League. 16th August 1992 at the City Ground saw Nottingham Forest beat Liverpool, 1-0 thanks to a Teddy Sheringham goal and it was the first live football match broadcast by Sky. Sundays would never be the same again.