Super Sunday is well ingrained into the fabric of televised football in this country. But it wasn’t always the case. In fact, there was a time when football was illegal on a Sunday.
SkyTV and the Premier League has revolutionised football on television, especially its final day format where all clubs kick-off at the same time and you can follow the progress on several channels. This is so successful the English Football League has adopted a similar format for other divisions.
The first fixture played on a Sunday in the First Division (now Premier League) was on 27th January 1974. Stoke City beat Chelsea 1-0 at their old home, the Victoria Ground. A Geoff Hurst penalty won the game. But this was not the start of the revolution as it would be another nine years before there was another Sunday game.
6th February 1983, Swansea City met Watford at the Vetch Field. Watford won 3-1 with Luther Blissett (2) and John Barnes scoring. This was the first fixture in Wales played on a Sunday.
1983 was the year things started to happen with regards Sunday play. The FA Cup had already included a few Sunday ties. Wigan Athletic (then a Third Division/League One side) were knocked out by non-league Telford United. The Sunday match was a 0-0 draw, with Telford winning in the second replay.
Then in the Fourth Round draw, Liverpool and Everton both came out of the hat at home. Consequently, Everton moved their fixture to the Sunday. On 30th January 1983, they beat Shrewsbury Town 2-1 in the first-ever football match to be played on a Sunday at Goodison Park.
As luck would have it, the Fifth Round draw saw them both drawn at home again. Everton were once more prepared to move their tie, but their opponents, Tottenham Hotspur, refused.
So, for the first time ever, Anfield hosted a match on a Sunday. Liverpool took on Brighton, who were languishing at the foot of the First Division at the time. Brighton won 2-1 with former Anfield favourite, Jimmy Case, on target for the Seagulls.
January 1974 saw some FA Cup ties played on a Sunday, and later that month was the first recorded League match taking place on a Sunday. Britain was under industrial strife at the time. In late 1973 there was an energy crisis caused by Arab members of OPEC. They were refusing to send oil to western nations who had supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War that year.
The situation was exacerbated when 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 alter their kick-off times so they didn’t need to use floodlights. The idea of playing on Sundays was then suggested as earlier kick-off times for other days had not been popular.
6th January 1974 saw the first-ever professional football match played on a Sunday when Cambridge United met Oldham Athletic at the Abbey Stadium in the FA Cup. 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 played that day, but the reactions were mixed. It’s interesting to note attendances were up in the other games, too.
20th January 1974 saw the first-ever league match on a Sunday. Millwall and Fulham met at The Den in a Second Division match. The game kicked off at lunchtime and ended with a 1-0 win for Millwall.
There were two other Second Division fixtures played that day, with three in Division Three and six in Division Four. The most goals came at Workington where the home side beat Darlington, 5-2.
Back in those days, Britain was under the laws of the Sunday Observance Act 1780. The Act prohibited admission to a building on a Sunday for payment. In fact, the Act stated:
‘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, 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 was £200. When you consider the Act was passed in 1780, this amount would have been far higher in 1974.
Therefore clubs were not allowed to charge spectators for entry on the gate. This doesn’t mean fans got in for free. Clubs worked out if they made the purchase of a programme compulsory they could get around the Act. The fly in the ointment was some clubs charged differing amounts for programmes dependent on where you entered the ground. What also hadn’t been thought through was what happened if there weren’t enough programmes to go round?
One cup tie on 6th January 1974 was at Burnden Park where Bolton Wanderers took on Stoke City. Almost 40,000 turned up. More than 20,000 above the average attendance for a Bolton match. Bolton won 3-2 but no one knows whether everyone who was there actually paid to see the game.
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:
‘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 match on a Sunday. Tottenham Hotspur took on Nottingham Forest at White Hart Lane. Spurs ensured no expense was spent by bringing on Chas & Dave for the pre-match entertainment. The party atmosphere was soon ruined when Colin Walsh put the visitors in front. Gary Stevens and Mark Falco saved the home side’s blushes for their first win of the season. ITV broadcast the match. They split the matches with the BBC, who took Friday nights.
A brave new world had been entered. Soon we would become accustomed to football filling our screens when previously black and white westerns or programmes about monks wearing socks and sandals had once purveyed. Moving into the 1990s and Paul Gascoigne’s move to Lazio convinced Channel 4 to buy the broadcasting rights to screen a live Serie A match every Sunday. About three million of us crowded around our tv screens to watch Lazio play Sampdoria. Unfortunately, Gazza was still injured but the game was entertaining enough to finish 3-3. Not bad, seeing as the word about Italian football was you were lucky to see a goal.
These were the days when the pub shut after lunchtime on a Sunday, so you would go to someone’s house, watch the muddy, honest physical challenge of an English game then switch channels for the romance, the subtlety and sheer opera that was Italian football.
1992, of course, was the year football in this country changed forever. It exploded onto our screens as the Premier League was born. SkyTV has had a live game virtually every Sunday ever since. 16th August 1992 was the first Premier League match broadcast. Nottingham Forest entertained Liverpool at the City Ground, with Teddy Sheringham scoring the only goal of the game to give Forest the win.
Sundays were never the same again.