The Perverse Joy of Small Attendances
Perhaps this marks me out as the worst sort of rubber-necker, but there is something that I find strangely enjoyable about looking out for low attendances at football matches. Coming across one can invoke very strange feelings of surprise, concern, and very occasionally a smile dripping with schadenfreude. In modern times, this usually means looking to evening matches in the lower divisions. If you’re a non-league club who ground-shares and has an inconsequential cup match against a team with a small support on a Champions League night, you may well pass across my radar. It’s usually only fleeting, but for a second I’ll stop to consider what might be happening to provoke so few people to turn out for a match somewhere.
Clubs have done what they can to regulate the number of people who turn out for each match. Season tickets are the order of the day, and the days of fluctuating attendances, certainly in professional leagues, feel like a thing of the past. It’s easy to see how this was a problem for clubs. In March 1983, for example, Liverpool’s had a crowd of 30,010 turn out to watch their home match against Swansea City. Their home match against Everton three weeks earlier had been watched by 44,737 people. Almost one and a half times as many. The Swansea City match turned out to be the last game that they won that season, although they lifted the title anyway, and whether this was related to that is unlikely. But, in an era during which match-day gate receipts made up a considerably greater proportion of a top division club’s revenue than they do now, that sort of fluctuation was extremely bad for the balance books.
The middle of the 1980s was the post-war low point for attendances at football matches in England, but even then sixteen million people went through the turnstiles across the four divisions of the Football League during the 1985/86 season. There may have been far fewer people at matches that season than at any previous point in living memory, but there were still thousands turning out every week. Indeed, football might do well to consider that, considering that there are no guarantees of entertainment in a conventional sense at a football match, they are somewhat fortunate to get the crowds that they do. How many times have we stood on a terrace in the pouring rain wondering what the hell we were doing there? It’s a good job for football clubs that supporters don’t act as consumers, really. If they did, professional football would have gone the way of the music hall.
Such thoughts inevitably turn one to thoughts of record low attendances, and the one that often appears at this stage in conversation is that which is often described as the “lowest attendance for a professional match in England” – the infamous thirteen, who were recorded as the attendance for a match between Stockport County and Leicester City in May 1921. This number alone, of course, was not quite the full story. Whilst thirteen people did indeed pay for admission to that match, it was played under somewhat unusual circumstances. Stockport had seen Edgeley Park closed by the FA following crowd disturbances, meaning that this match was played at Old Trafford instead, following a match between Manchester United and Derby County. That match was watched by around 10,000 people and, with one admission being enough to cover both matches, it’s estimated that the actual attendance for the Stockport match that followed was actually somewhere between one and two thousand people.
For the lowest Football League attendance, we have to go back a considerable way in time. Several clubs have been formed to fill already existing stadia. Both Chelsea and Liverpool came into existence this way, but such experiments aren’t always so successful. In 1928, the businessmen who’d built the cavernous West Ham Stadium needed a football team to play there. They formed Thames Association FC, who went into the Southern League, before joining the Football League just two years later. This, however, was about as good as things got for Thames. West Ham United had been in the First Division since 1923, and there were other local rivals as well. On December 6th 1930, Thames Association had a crowd of just 469 people turn out for a Division Three (South) match against Luton Town, a record low attendance for a Football League match that still stands to this day, and a record all the more remarkable for the fact that it took place in the largest stadium ever to regularly host English league football. Thames Association resigned their place in the Football League at the end of the 1931/32 season, by the ways, and were dissolved shortly afterwards.
But even at Thames Association, on a wet but mild December afternoon more than eight and a half decades ago, there were more than four hundred hardy souls prepared to turn out for this match against Luton Town. There were probably matches played in the nineteenth century for which match attendances were lower, but we can’t prove this to be the case. So it is that this particular club holds this particular record, and there may well be a good number of other clubs who are pleased that this is the case. There have been cases, of course, of clubs being forced to play behind closed doors, often as a sanction of some sort. There were a couple of high profile examples of this in the early 1980s, when West Ham United had to play Castilla at an empty Upton Park and Aston Villa had to begin their defence of the European Cup in 1982 against Besiktas at an empty Villa Park after trouble at the previous year’s semi-final against Anderlecht. This, however, is not the same as the crowd that just drifts away. Perhaps, we might wonder, those who just don’t turn up for these matches have seen a fundamental truth that the rest of us are unable to see. It’s a troubling thought, in some ways, but at least it explains why keeping an eye out for those extremely low appearances has such a faintly seamy – and therefore alluring – air to it.