It’s the final frontier... for the broadcasters. Saturday, 3pm kick-off, live Premier League football on the likes of Sky, BT Sport, Amazon and BBC.
It has never happened; well, not legally anyway.
But your final opportunity to moan ‘is nothing sacred?’ is coming down the tracks.
Expect the ‘never on a Saturday (mid-afternoon)’ rule, which has been enforcible since 1987, to quietly disappear during negotiations for the Premier League’s next gargantuan TV rights deal.
A gentle hint that it’s no longer sacrosanct came during the Easter weekend, with the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Man City going out at 3.30pm, despite clashing with three top flight games that Saturday.
With most of England’s professional football programme having taken place on Good Friday, there was no objection to the Beeb screening, for the first time, a live ‘mid-season’ game between 2.45pm and 5.15pm.
That’s the hallowed period of time supposedly out of bounds to broadcasters, who consequently schedule their live matches with either a 12.30pm or 5.30pm kick-off.
Clearly, the assumption was that Man United fans heading to Old Trafford for the Norwich match, for instance, were hardly likely to be distracted by their two bitter enemies proving how superior they are to the Red Devils.
Incidentally, the last time the FA semi-finals were played with such proximity to Easter (West Brom 1 Blackburn 0 and Barnsley 1 Swindon 0; both replays), the Titanic had just steamed into Southampton from Belfast and was gearing up for its eagerly-awaited maiden voyage.
Seven years ago, an Offcom study suggested that 42% of supporters believed a live TV game would have a ‘high impact’ on whether they went along to a match of their choice, with 68% claiming that 3pm on a Saturday remains their favourite kick-off time.
I suspect the same survey, if carried out today, would provide significantly different figures.
None of Easter Saturday’s Premier League games reported a marked downturn in ‘gates’ as a result of the FA Cup semi-final — which fans at grounds could watch on their mobile phones anyway if they were so inclined.
The Irish League and others certainly won’t welcome any potential change, but the dogs in the street know that illegal feeds of supposedly ‘geofenced’ 3pm kick-offs have been shown in pubs and elsewhere for years.
Moreover, any Northern Ireland-based fan nursing a guilt-trip about indulging in that clandestine practice only have to nip across the border – i.e. outside the UK – to catch a Saturday afternoon game live on the box.
We’ve come a long way since 1985, when uncompromising, inflexible Football League club chairmen such as Ken Bates, Irving Scholar and the late Robert Maxwell prompted a four-month — yes, you read that right: four months — blackout of TV coverage.
Concerned about the potential impact on gate receipts — the main source of income back then — the League rejected a joint BBC-ITV bid (£19m over four years) to screen 19 live matches a season.
With negotiations still deadlocked as the 1985-86 season kicked off, TV cameras were missing in English grounds for the first time since the pre-Match of the Day era.
It was particularly ironic because, with hooliganism on the rise, the Heysel and Bradford fire disasters still fresh in the memory and attendances down, a blackout was probably the last thing struggling clubs needed in the mid 1980s.
Rather galling, too, for United fans like me, who subsequently missed one of the greatest spells in the club’s history — the thrilling ten-in-a-row winning start to that campaign.
Our own Norman Whiteside, hero of the 1985 FA Cup final triumph, got the ball rolling by scoring United’s opening goal of that 42-game season in a 4-0 win over Villa on August 17.
And with Mark ‘Sparky’ Hughes in the form of his life, the Red Devils embarked on a run of 15 unbeaten games which stretched into November, with them 10 points clear of Liverpool and 17 ahead of defending champions Everton.
At one stage, a banner headline in the Sunday Mirror proclaimed United as ‘The Invincibles’, although ‘Invisibles’ would have been more apt.
By the time cameras were finally allowed back, in January 1986, Ron Atkinson’s side were still top of the table but in the throes of a dramatic, sensational slump in form.
Having won 13 of those first 15 games, they’d take all three points in just nine (losing 10) of the final 27 to finish fourth, 12 points behind Double-winning Liverpool.
But we’ll not dwell on that, if you don’t mind...
What that blackout did do, however, was sow the seeds of the Premier League and, six years later, Sky blew the terrestrial channels out of the water with their £190m-per-season mega-deal.
And today, even with wall-to-wall football, average attendances in the top flight are nearly double the 19,000ish they were in 1986.
Rather than scare fans away, live telly has actually been football’s best recruitment vehicle.
Mind you, the mooted end of the Saturday afternoon ring-fencing is rather ironic in itself, because the stats have shown that tea-time is by far the optimum start time for a live Premier League game.
So why do the broadcasters want the status quo to change.
It’s simple: you don’t dare tell rich, self-entitled folk that there’s something money can’t buy.
It just makes them even more determined to get their grubby paws on it.