When we talk of “market forces” in football, it is usually in terms of the inalienable right to spend as much money as they like and generally behave with complete impunity. Of course, when some sort of crash happens, those self same clubs are suddenly no longer “just” businesses. When they don’t have two pennies to rub together, the owners suddenly remember that their club is a critical pillar of its community and that it must not be allowed to go the same way as any other business that had behaved as recklessly might do. It doesn’t, however, always have to be so bad. The end of this month saw the quietest transfer window that most people can remember, with less money than anyone expected being thrown around in the pursuit of panic purchases, and in the case of Blue Square Premier club Mansfield Town it means a statement of thanks and small test of trust in the local public.
Last summer, FC United of Manchester launched a scheme whereby their supporters would pay – subject to a minimum amount – whatever they could for their season tickets, and the scheme was a dramatic success. With the need for a new ground of their absolutely paramount in the minds of their supporters, they gave generously to their club – well over the £125,000 target that the club had set. Now Mansfield Town have decided to follow their lead and, in recognition of the support that the fans have given the club since their 2008 take-over at Field Mill and in the hope of increasing their attendance, the Blue Square Premier club have told supporters that they can pay what they like for this weekend’s match against struggling Gateshead. They have set themselves the arduous task of filling their 10,000 capacity ground and the offer also applied to visiting supporters.
The obvious reaction to such news is to make the assumption that the club is effectively giving away a “freebie” and it is likely that there will be (at the very least) a few that will take full advantage of the offer, but the club’s calculated offer could be seen as a small test of the strength of feeling towards the club from its local community. How many of the people that wouldn’t normally attend will pay anything like the full admission fee? How many of the regulars will take the opportunity to put a little extra money into a club that has struggled financially after years of mismanagement prior to its current ownership taking over? They are, after all, still said to be owed over £1m in “loans” that they made to former chairman Keith Haslam. This match could turn out to be a hit that the new owners of Mansfield Town have to take, or it might be a show of faith in the club from the community that it represents.
Quite asides from the issue of what this offers the people of the town and the district, the benefits to Mansfield Town could be massive. They are having a decent season (in spite of a 2-1 reversal aat Wrexham in the league this evening), and currently sit on fourth place in the Blue Square Premier, but their home crowds have stalled at just over 3,000. Extra support would obviously be welcome – those who go on Saturday that might not otherwise might just end up staying if the team puts in a strong performance against a team near the bottom of the table. The club might even find that the long term benefit of extra support outweighs any financial hit that they may take on Saturday. They are well placed for a position in the play-offs come the end of this season and, while it would be an extremely tall order to challenge for the title itself, with first and second placed Stevenage Borough and Oxford United starting to streak off into the distance (Oxford, in second place, are nine points ahead of the Stags and with three games in hand), while there is still a chance – even if only an outside one – the club should grasp it with both hands.
What this comes down to is that the coming together of the community and the football club can only be beneficial to both. In spite of what some might say, these remain financially straitened times and a successful football team can offer something to a community that has been somewhat hard to come by over the last couple of years or so – a smile upon its face. It is to be hoped that Mansfield Town’s experiment will be a success and that other brave and inventive initiatives from football clubs to re-engage with their communities will follow. Their is also a degree of responsibility with supporters when these offers are made to them, however. The community of Mansfield must surely be aware of the difficulties that their club has had over the years and that success doesn’t come at no cost. If, say, 9,000 people paid £10 each to get into Field Mill on Saturday, they would raise £90,000 for their club in gate receipts and – if we assume for the purposes of simplicity that they would have been paying adult prices – they would still be paying less than two-thirds of the cost of a normal ticket. These figures may well be over-optimistic, but they give an example of what can be achieved if a community falls in behind its club. It’s now down to the people of Mansfield to repay this act of faith from their local club.