Tonight's away visit to Preston will be a strange trip; not least because, for the first time since 1997, Watford find themselves playing on a Thursday night. But the game in April 1997 came about as a result of an extended FA Cup run, with Chesterfield needing to fulfil fixtures at every given opportunity. There was no re-creation of the wheel for this fixture, as since time began, replays and postponements force fixtures to be changed.
However, scheduling the visit of mid-table Watford to mid-table Preston for the purpose of a limited number of television viewers is incredulous. There are no two ways about it, the schedulers at ITV Sport are slowly chipping away at the will to live of the most loyal group of fans in football, the Nationwide League away fans.
There is no glamour in going to Preston at the best of times - my three visits have seen Watford gain a mere point. But the continued move away from 3pm Saturday matches is seriously affecting the supporters. But there is no apology from the clubs (who signed up for the financial carrot, meaning that ITV can do what they want to the fixture list) to the fans who ensured that, before the TV money, the clubs survived. There is no compensation by means of providing acceptable transport to the travelling fans, meaning that for those unwilling to face the prospect of twelve hours on a coach, a five hundred mile drive or an overnight stay up north are the only options. After all, it is not as though there is not enough money in the game to provide a train, for example. Would that be too much to ask?
Instead, while some fans going tonight will take up to two days off work just to support their team, the clubs continue to line their pockets with enough money to ensure that someone, somewhere, tops up his off-shore bank account with more money ultimately siphoned off from the fans' sweat.
Then again, maybe an abandonment of the footballing traditions that I grew up with is not just limited to fixture scheduling. The very idea of clubs regularly paying Division One players ten thousand pounds per week is fairly worrying; but when that increases to fifteen, twenty or even thirty-five thousand pounds per week, it becomes abhorrent. One wonders whether the absence of anything like an atmosphere at Vicarage Road this season is merely disappointment at some of the performances, or actually more of a silent reaction to the level of concern at the result of the spending spree. I would contend that the muted atmosphere is actually due to the absence of any relationship whatsoever between the newer players and the fans. Where are the Mooney / Page cries at the Rookery to "Sing Up"? As fans we felt we owed them our support, but where is the evidence that some of the players even realise that there are up to fifteen thousand fans watching them?
Hopefully tonight at Preston the TV cameras will be able to pick up on the fact that a handful of away fans cannot possibly create the "fever pitch" type atmosphere that the commodity of football is sold on. Maybe it will make the television authorities think twice before they alter the fixtures; but more importantly, maybe the clubs will realise that the continued moves to put a bridge between the game and the fans will ultimately end with a large proportion just giving up. An entertainment industry without spectators? Now how would that work?