Most soccer fans coming to England for a game, and especially Americans coming over, find the whole thing to be a bit confusing. Questions like how to get tickets, when and where the games are, even what competition we’re talking about – these things are simple back home. Not so in the UK.
And occasionally all of these confusing factors come together into one gloriously mixed up situation. This season’s version is what I am now calling the Madness of March 21.
March 21 looks, on the schedule, like any other English soccer weekend. And it’s a popular time with Americans particularly, because many schools are out for Spring Break. You’ve got all the leagues playing, including the whole Premier League. And their games are all scheduled for Saturday the 21st at 3 p.m. Nice and simple, right?
Far from it.
The Schedule is Not the Schedule
First there is the television situation, the eternal reminder of who actually runs the league in the upper echelons (and it ain’t the supporters). All those Premier League games set for Saturday at 3? Well, about half of them won’t be played then. And you’ll have to wait until around (but not necessarily on) January 24, 2020 to find out who’s playing on Friday or Monday night, who’s on Sunday, and who’s at another time on Saturday.
But that’s not all! There is also the FA Cup, which will be happening that weekend – somewhere – but is not currently reflected on the schedule at all. And it means that several of the league games scheduled for March 21 will actually happen in April.
And when do you find that out? Well, maybe January 6. Maybe January 27. Maybe March 6!
And then there’s Europe. But we’ll get to that.
In a word: Madness.
The Real March 21 Complicator: The FA Cup
Here’s the deal: The FA Cup has neither a bracket, nor seedings, nor a very fixed schedule. In each round up through early January, a new batch of teams goes into the hat, to be drawn at random against winners from the previous round. The first weekend of January is when teams from the Championship and Premier League – the ones that virtually all foreigners want to see – go in. Then there will be another round three weeks later, followed by another in early March.
So let’s say you want to see Manchester United play Sheffield United on the weekend of March 21. Or Liverpool play Crystal Palace. Or Spurs play West Ham. Right now those games all say Saturday at 3. Here is what you’re up against.
First you have to wait until January 24 – ish – to see what TV does to the schedule. By then you will also have seen one round of the FA Cup, so if both teams you want to see got knocked out, lucky you. Your game is now set. If not, then you watch the Cup games that weekend and, perhaps, hope your remaining team(s) go out. This is where you have odd things like a lifelong Man U fan hoping they lose in the Cup so he can definitely take his kid to Old Trafford over Spring Break. I just heard from that guy this week!
Next, assuming one of your teams is still in the Cup, you have to wait for the next round to be played on March 4. Oh, and you have to hope that none of these go to a replay. That’s right – a replay. See, in the Cup, if the game is a draw, they replay it at the other ground! So that January 25 weekend, when you’re desperate to make plans for March? Better hope there isn’t a draw, because then you have to pace around for another couple of weeks while it gets sorted out. Again, good times!
Finally then, on March 4 there will be the Round of 16 in the Cup. And maybe some replays after that. Then they will announce the draw for the weekend of March 21, including who is home and who is away. Of course, the team you were hoping to see at home in the league could, after all this, have a Cup game at home! That’s a 50-50 shot if they’re still in it. If they (say Spurs) are out and their opponents (say West Ham) are in, then your team (in this case Tottenham) doesn’t play anywhere that weekend!
And then, of course, you have to wait a couple more days for TV to decide who’s playing Friday night, Monday night, and so on.
The European Situation
But wait, there could be more! There’s also Europe to contend with.
March 17 through 19, Tuesday through Thursday, are “European nights,” meaning that any English clubs still playing in either the Champions League or Europa League might have a home game one of those nights. And when does this get decided? Fairly early, December 16, I’m happy to say. So in this case, Europe isn’t such a hassle because the TV networks will already account for it in their January 24 changes. Just including it here as a reminder of how many things there are to track – like if you want to see a big Premier League club in February or March, then you might have another game to look at, a game which isn’t even on the schedule as I write this in November. Good times!
Finally, with all that settled, you will know – maybe as late as two weeks before the game – whether the damn game you want to see is even happening that weekend. If your travel dates are flexible, good for you. But if a March 21 game gets moved for the Cup, it will be to April. Not many of us are that flexible!
The Timeline of the Schedule
Let’s recap, just for kicks. You’re going to England in March and want to see Liverpool. You see the Palace game at 3 on March 21. You want to go. Well, here’s your new series of questions to answer:
- December 16: Does Liverpool also have a European home game that week?
- January 6: Is at least one team still in the FA Cup? (possible replay added to this). If not, then ignore the Cup. Your game is on March 21 … for now.
- January 24: What did TV do to the March 21 schedule?
- January 27: Is at least one team still in the FA Cup? (possible replay added to this). If not, ignore the Cup.
- March 6: Is at least one team still in the FA Cup? (possible replay added to this) If not, ignore the Cup. If so, check to see if your preferred team is at home.
- March 8 or so: Find out from TV exactly when the FA Cup games are happening.
How is all this supposed to factor into your decisions about booking hotels or buying airplane tickets and game tickets? Great question! A lot of folks are locked into their travel dates, so they just have to hope for the best and/or wait a while to see which game(s) they are going to.
For everybody else – people who want to see a particular club, or a Premier League game in general, and have a fairly flexible schedule – I give them some simple advice: