James Shield’s Sheffield United Column: How the Championship fixture calendar is handicapping Chris Wilder’s team in the race for promotion

Sheffield United must overcome an unexpected hurdle in order to challenge for promotion
Sheffield United must overcome an unexpected hurdle in order to challenge for promotion

Please bear with me if this gets complicated.

Statistics, especially those encompassing an entire division, are never easy to explain colloquially at the best of times.

But, after an exhaustive analysis of the Championship's fixture schedule, I do feel this is an issue worth highlighting. Not least because, from a Sheffield United perspective, it highlights an inbuilt handicap Chris Wilder's squad must beat and overcome if they are to challenge for promotion this season.

It will not have escaped people's notice, particularly if they follow United home and away, that the 2017/18 fixture schedule contains a number of Wednesday night games. The first of which, helpfully for the purposes of this column, is looming large on the horizon when Birmingham City visit South Yorkshire next week.

But less than 72 hours after that fixture, United are set to face Preston North End. Alex Neil's team, who face Leeds on Tuesday, will have spent an extra 24 resting, fine-tuning their tactics and treating any niggling injuries. 

You would expect, given the planning that supposedly goes into devising the English Football League calendar, that United can look forward to experiencing a similar benefit later in the season. Except, and this is the problem, they won't.

Blades boss Chris Wilder

Blades boss Chris Wilder

Calculating the space between games, noting when their opponents are playing both before and afterwards, there are no occasions left when Wilder's squad are scheduled to enjoy the same benefit. Which, as most neutral observers would argue, seems pretty damn unfair. Derby County and Wigan Athletic are the other two other clubs with similar cause for complaint.

Applying the same rule of thumb across the competition as a whole, an uneven picture emerges.

Take Middlesbrough for example. There are four dates when they have been granted more preparation time and one when they can expect less. That equates to a net advantage of three, if you get my drift. Reading return the same figure while five other sides - Brentford, Hull City, Leeds, Stoke and Swansea - are also in credit. Like United, County and Athletic, West Bromwich Albion and Millwall are at the bottom of the pile on minus two. But unlike United, County and Athletic, there are two dates when they find themselves in a favourable position. 

Only nine teams, including Sheffield Wednesday, are at zero. Which is how it should be.
Admittedly, television could yet render my mathematics redundant. But even if it does, it should not overshadow the fact the original schedule is so imbalanced.

The EFL must address this matter with urgency because, although footballers like to believe things even themselves out over the course of a campaign, it is clear they don't.