by Stuart Moriarty-Patten

6 January 1974: Sunday football makes its debut

For any football fan under the age of 40, and who has been bought up on a steady diet of Sky Super Sunday, the idea of no professional football being played on a Sunday probably seems hard to take in, but until 1974 this was indeed the case.  Sunday soccer was launched in England on 6 January 1974 with four FA Cup ties, the first being Cambridge v Oldham at 11.15am, followed by Bolton v Stoke, Bradford City v. Alvechurch, and Nottingham Forest v. Bristol Rovers at 2 p.m.

The idea of playing on a Sunday came about as, at the time, the UK was in a state of some crisis.  Industrial unrest and the suspension of oil deliveries by the Arab members of OPEC to Israel supporting western nations during the Yom Kippur War meant that a state of emergency had been declared.  Restrictions on energy use, rolling power cuts, and a three-day working week were all imposed to save fuel.  As part of the restrictions football clubs were banned from turning on their floodlights, so all games had to be played in daylight.  Saturday kick off times was bought forward to 2 p.m., and scheduled evening weekday games were played in the afternoon.  However electricity was still needed for the general running of stadia, and in December 1973 the F.A. asked the Home Office for permission to play games on a Sunday as it felt that a supply of power was more likely to be guaranteed on that day.

Permission was granted although not everyone felt it was a good idea.  For example, Arsenal’s general manager, Bob Wall, said, “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.”  The fans though seemed to take to the idea of Sunday football; Cambridge’s attendance was 8,479 people, easily the club’s best crowd of the season where the average gate was 4,600.  They watched Cambridge coming from two goals down to get a draw with two goals in the last eight minutes, but the quality of football on display left commentator Gerald Sinstadt to remark in the Times that the game consisted of the type of football you could normally watch for nothing on a Sunday at the local park.

Later in the day, nearly 40,000 people watched Bolton beat Stoke, some 20,000 above Bolton’s normal attendance.  The 23,000 who watched Forest beat Bristol Rovers was double Forest’s usual attendance, and their biggest since Boxing Day 1971, while at Bradford City, where the amateurs of Alvechurch put up a brave fight before losing 4-2, the gate of 15,000 was Bradford’s largest crowd for many years.

Despite the apparent success of Sunday football, the Football League secretary Alan Hardaker still needed some convincing that it was a good idea, saying, “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 convinced.”  However, the experiment was extended over the next few weeks, with league games also being played on a Sunday and proved to be more than a novelty.  Attendances continued to be larger than may have been expected leading F.A. secretary Ted Croker to state, “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.”

The one major drawback the clubs faced with playing on a Sunday was the law, namely the Sunday Observance Act of 1780, which prevented teams from charging admission for football games played on a Sunday.  To get round the stipulations of the Act, admission to a ground was granted by the production of a matchday programme only, the programme costing the price of a match ticket.  This meant that a programme would vary in price according to which part of the ground you wanted to sit in.  Of course, the clubs would also need to have some idea of how many programmes to print, and their were rumours, that were never confirmed or denied by Bolton, that a large proportion of the 20,000 extra fans who turned up to their fixture against Stoke had to be let in free after the club ran out of programmes having not expected so many to attend.

For the record neither Oldham, who beat Cambridge in their replay, Bolton or Bradford played on a Sunday in the next round, and all failed to progress.  Forest, however obviously found Sundays to their liking as the Second Division team again hosted their tie on a Sunday in the next round and soundly beat First Division Manchester City 4-1, with Duncan McKenzie starring. In the Fifth Round they again played on a Sunday and beat Portsmouth, then in the same division, 1-0. These two games were played in front of a combined total of over 80,000 fans.  Forest’s Sunday games and cup run came to an end in the quarter-finals in highly controversial circumstances.  They were drawn away to Newcastle in a tie that was played on a Saturday but had to be replayed on the neutral ground of Everton’s Goodison Park after a pitch invasion by Newcastle fans disrupted the game when Forest were winning.

This early experiment of Sunday football was a success despite the warnings about breaching the Sabbath on the various placards held by the few protestors outside those grounds where football was being played.  The conservative nature of the football administrators of the day however saw football quickly resort back to its traditional Saturday afternoon 3 p.m. kick-offs as soon as the energy crisis was over, and it was to be another decade before Sunday football was attempted again.