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The curse of the early kick off?

14 March 2011

The Manchester derby last season produced 7 goals, despite being played at lunchtime (Flickr: Ifotbol)

Football fans and pundits alike often bemoan the lack of Saturday 3 o’clock kick offs in the Premier League. At typical Saturday will now rarely see more than five or six matches kicking off at the traditional time, and it usually becomes even worse in weeks that feature Thursday night Europa League action.

Whilst the late Saturday match is a relatively recent innovation, Sky have tinkered with the lunchtime kick off for a number of years, and appear to have settled on 12.45pm. On Sundays, the norm is now a 1.30pm game followed by a 4pm kick off. Sometimes, particularly on big derby days, we’ll see three consecutive matches from 12pm.

One of the biggest accusations of early kick offs is the lack of excitement they are seen to produce. Phrases such as “the players look lethargic” and “it’s a little too early for the fans” have become synonymous with these games.

Whilst it’s fair to say early kick offs are now an accepted part of Premier League football, I was still keen to address the issue of perceived sluggishness featured in these games.

The best measure for excitement in a football match is goals; whilst there can be memorable 0-0 draws, by and large supporters enjoy matches more when the net is bulging on a regular basis. Perhaps the best evidence to support this is from this piece from the Guardian, in the wake of the Saturday 5th February goal bonanza earlier this season:

With 41 Premier League goals – the most on a Saturday for nearly 18 years – [Match of the Day] understandably enjoyed bumper ratings, pulling in 5.355 million viewers and a 32% audience share. This was nearly double Match of the Day’s average share in the slot over the past three months.

I’ve decided to look at the early kick offs from the last completed season, 2009/10, and see if the results vary in any way from the other kick off times. An early kick off has been defined as any match that begun before 2pm; in total there were 52 games that kicked off before this time in the league last season.

The table below shows the goal averages at various kick off times. ‘Other kick off’ gives the goal average from every other match apart from the early kick off time specified.

Goals per game

Frequency Early kick off Other kick off

All early kick offs

52 2.65 2.79

12:00 kick offs

6 1.17 2.80
12:45 kick offs 22 2.82

2.77

13:00 kick offs

4 2.50

2.82

13:30 kick offs

20 2.95

2.76

Whilst this is a very basic analysis, there’s nothing to suggest early kick offs have on average less goals than one would expect. Indeed if anything, the two main early kick off times – 12:45 and 13:30 – produce more goals on average than other games in the season.

Whilst English football purists may not enjoy the early kick offs, they certainly can’t accuse them of exhibiting lethargy. Fans of Man City will point to their 4-3 loss at Old Trafford, as well as their 4-2 win over Chelsea, as examples of high-intensity games at lunchtime kick offs.

Perhaps more than in the early Premier League years, players are now tuned in to the importance of being mentally and physically prepared for matches at any time of the day. With the increased role of science in football, it’s safe to assume clubs know how to ensure players perform at their peak at any given kick off time. No club will prepare its players the same for a Champions League kick off at 7.45pm as a Premier League kick off at 12.45pm, and consequently we are entertained regardless of the kick off time.

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