Saturday at 3pm is football as it should be

An homage to the glorious antidote to the humdrum of life; Saturday football at 3 pm

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Football, on a Saturday, at 3pm, offers a glorious antidote to the humdrum of life. A medication prescribed by the very fabric of one’s existence, to be taken once a week. The side effects are wide-ranging.

Saturday, 3pm, is both traditional and sacrosanct in equal measure. Symbolic of football as the people’s game. It is ferociously protected by football purists; a staple of English football culture.

The bracing cold, the cry of “get your programmes”, the smell of fried onions from the burger vans wafting through the air, the streets teeming with coloured shirts from a variety of eras, and the click-click-click of the turnstiles reverberates all around. 

This obsession, because it is one, is shared by generations of hooked individuals who religiously stand on the sidelines. These loyal souls never stood a chance. Football is just too powerful.

That said, football is in a never-ending state of evolution. It is the hamster in the wheel of global commercialisation. It runs, or it falls off!

Of course, there have been changes. There has had to be! And it is a shame that the money that has poured into the game now dictates the distribution of trophies.

The real opiate of the masses

That awe and excitement generated in the stands supports a continued unbroken narrative; and fans from the nineteenth century, would for the most part, have felt exactly the same way we do about it. We still pitch up at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon; always have done, and always will do!

Overpaid players. Monday Night Football. Absurd ticket prices. Neon boots. While many of these changes are needed, or enforced, or unstoppable, for many, something about a game of football is lost if it doesn’t kick-off at 3pm on a Saturday. A collective fondness towards Saturday afternoons remains widespread.

It is the staple of any fledgling fan’s indoctrination. It’s as if it’s woven into football’s rich tapestry; stitched into the sport’s collar.

Football’s menu of ills is long. And while many have described it as the ‘final and perhaps decisive’ reduction in English football’s 3pm tradition, others believe it to be football’s final journey, or a tradition which, if lost, would signal the television broadcasters’ full control of the game.

Football Factory

The root of this tradition goes back to the nineteenth century when the Factory Act 1850 was introduced, and with it a restriction and reduction of Saturday working hours. Put simply, all work would end on Saturday at 2pm. The recreational weekend was born. And football’s growth began.

More free time led to workers frequenting local drinking establishments, which in turn led to Churches forming football, athletic and sporting clubs, in a bid to encourage and cajole these footloose individuals into healthier activity.

Saturday at 3pm enabled ample time for workers to transit to their nearest club, or match of the day, while also, and most crucially, ensuring the matches would be completed during daylight.

From the end of the Second World War until 1983, the year when league matches began to be televised live, there were generally 11 top-flight matches played each Saturday at 3pm (in a 22-team division). 

State of play

32% – or 121 – of last season’s 380 matches, kicked off at 3pm on a Saturday, down from 38% in 2019-20 and 42% in 2018-19. That means that the traditional slot for “football as it should be” has seen a 16% reduction in its number of fixtures.

And while many will find solace in the fact that last season saw just 40 less Saturday at 3pm matches than in the Premier League’s debut season, some thirty years ago, they are conveniently forgetting the 82 additional fixtures played back then.

It might also surprise you to find that the peak number of Saturday, 3pms, according to our detailed analysis of 11,432 fixtures, up until the end of the 2020-2021 season, was in 2000-2001, when 170 matches kicked off in the traditional slot (45% in all).

The average across the past 29 years sits at 36%, with 4,099 Premier League matches having kicked off on Saturday, 3pm.

In Keeping with tradition

Now seems like a sensible time to mention that, ever since its inception, the Premier League has forbidden the televising of fixtures scheduled for Saturday, 3pm kick-offs. No Premier League, Football League, or FA Cup fixture can be broadcast live in the UK between 2:45pm and 5:15pm.

This follows a rule set in place by Burnley Chairman Bob Lord, who successfully convinced Football League Chairmen that televised matches on Saturday afternoons would negatively impact the attendances at lower league games.

The theory goes that if Manchester United are playing Liverpool in a televised fixture on a Saturday afternoon, then attendances elsewhere might be adversely affected as fans’ stay home to watch.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s second coming at Manchester United last month wasn’t televised, and neither was the first 15 minutes of his Juventus debut in 2018, both because of UEFA’s sanctioning of a broadcast blackout.

There are six clubs who have been ever-present in the English Premier League, and of those Everton has had the highest percentage of fixtures scheduled for Saturday at 3pm. In fact, the Merseyside club has enjoyed 24.39% more of them than Manchester United, who with just 31.03% falling on that day of the week, and at that time, have had the worst allocation in the league’s thirty year history.

And what might have been; the Red Devils had the highest win percentage at the traditional kick-off time – 77.71%.

Chelsea has had 37.78%, Tottenham 37.16%, Arsenal 34.34%, and Liverpool 32.98%, despite all having played between 1125 and 1130 Premier League fixtures. In terms of win percentages in the Saturday, 3pm slot; Arsenal are at 70.80%, Chelsea 64.47%, Liverpool 63.34%, Tottenham 56.70%, Everton 55.28%.

Of the current top-flight teams, Southampton has enjoyed the highest percentage of Saturday, 3pm kick-offs – 55.56%. The Saints have played 864 top-flight matches.

Leicester (52.22%/306 games), Norwich (52.03%/192 games), West Ham (48.66% 968 games) and Crystal Palace (48.54%/233 games) make up the top five.

Back to those who have played in each of the 30 seasons and the percentage decreases between the 1992-1993 and 2020-2021 seasons make for interesting reading. Tottenham has endured the biggest drop with 37.73% less than they had in the Premier League’s debut season, while Arsenal (-26.55%) and Chelsea (-26.32%) can consider themselves unfortunate too, especially given their solid win percentages. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the current EPL teams with the lowest win percentage on a Saturday afternoon are Norwich 40.63%, Wolves 41.82% and Crystal Palace 44.21%.

Unpick the figures and what they do show is a tectonic contest, a dictionary-definition, head-versus-heart battle. Moreover, the data does highlight the existence of a fine, or imaginary, line that even English football’s most powerful, and revolutionary forces are reluctant to cross. 

And writing this very same article, another thirty years from now, I’m sure we’ll all feel the same way about football, and its traditional Saturday at 3pm kick-off, then. It is, should, and will likely always emain, symbolic of football as the people’s game.

Saturday 3pm by the numbers:

SeasonSat 3pm KOsTotal Matches%
Grand Total4,09911,43236%
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