It’s not often that something that happens on the terraces ever gets discussed on “Match Of The Day” these days, unless it’s a fat Geordie without his replica shirt on. These days, fans are little more than consumers – paying extras who turn up, buy merchandise, occasionally sing, and leave five minutes before time in order to avoid the worst of the traffic. However, the eerily quiet atmosphere at The Reebok Stadium did provoke comment from Gary Lineker et al on Saturday evening. The reason for this lack of atmosphere was obvious – Manchester City supporters boycotted the match in protest at being asked to fork out £36 for tickets for their match against Bolton Wanderers.
Although their recent performances on the pitch have been encouraging, there has been an atmosphere of torpor surrounding The City Of Manchester Stadium this year. Crowds have frequently been 10,000 or more below capacity, and disquiet has been rising as the season has gone on. When City played Bolton at Eastlands in December, Bolton’s travelling support were charged £27 for tickets, but for the return match, the ticket prices were hiked up again and City fans decided to make a stand against this cost. It was a timely reminder to the Premiership’s clubs that they cannot take the regular attendance of people to their expensively constructed temples for granted and that, if they do so, they do so at their peril.
I commented earlier this season on the paltry number of Fulham supporters that made the long trip north to Blackburn at the start of December, and it’s easy to see why they didn’t bother with the trip. It takes a full day out of your week (at least three hours travel each way), and with tickets now starting to reach nosebleed-inducing levels, is it really worth the effort? The City fans that didn’t bother travelling across Manchester didn’t exactly miss much. The game itself was a dismal goal-less draw. At some point, something has to give.
Everybody has their own personal horror story to tell. Last season, the last time I went to a Premiership match, I went to see Spurs play West Ham United at White Hart Lane. Someone had dropped out from a group of people that I know, and I didn’t have to pay for my ticket, in the giddying upper tier of the West Stand. The price that Spurs wanted for this seat a quarter of a mile up in the sky? A jaw-dropping £70. I made a resolution at that point to not bother with the upper end of English football any more. It’s not necessarily that I can’t afford it – more that I simply can’t justify that sort of expenditure for a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon any more.
This isn’t merely a problem in the Premiership. With the TV money no longer filtering down through the divisions in the same way as it did in the 1970s and 1980s, clubs outside the Premiership have a stark decision to make if they want to have any chance of staying in touch with the bigger clubs. They can either dig themselves into massive mounds of debt, or they can ratchet up the prices and hope that the die-hards will continue to turn up. When Ken Bates pitched up at Leeds United, the first thing that he did was shove the cheapest ticket prices at Elland Road up to £25. This would be all very well if Leeds were playing well, but their finances are still the subject of considerable intrigue (as demonstrated by the change in ownership of Elland Road to a holding company in the British Virgin Islands – nothing suspicious going on there whatsoever), and their team is dreadful. Crowds there have plummeted to well under 20,000. The good people of Leeds won’t waste their hard-earned cash on such dross.
In the rush to earn dollars today, the clubs are potentially storing up problems for themselves in the future. Go to any match, particularly in the Premiership, and you’ll see that the crowd has aged. Those between sixteen and twenty-five, in particular, simply can’t afford to go any more. When the forty and fifty-somethings that make up the lion’s share of the crowds today aren’t there any more, the game could have found that it has lost an entire generation of supporters. If you’re, say, a nineteen year old earning, say £250 per week, can you seriously afford to splash out £50 every other week for a couple of hours’ worth of football on a Saturday afternoon? It kind of strikes me that there are now three “classes” of football supporter: the upper class are the ones that can afford the season ticket, the Sky Sports subscription and the replica shirts. The middle class will go to a handful of matches per season, as a treat, and would like to go more but can’t afford to. The lower class have simply been priced out of the market altogether. They can afford the replica shirt because that’s a once a year investment of £40, but they are never going to be able to find the money for a Premiership match ticket. They’re also considerably more likely to be younger than the other two groups – and if they fall out of the habit of the ritual of football, then the game is potentially heading for a massive fall in a few years or so.
Football supporters are all too often berated for being “disloyal” when they don’t turn up, but the game has changed over the last fifteen years or so. There used to be very little excuse for not turning up, when the entrance fee was a couple of pounds and there were plenty of places to stand, but the post-Italia 90 surge in interest in the game, coupled with the The Taylor Report, limited the number of tickets available, and introduction of all-seater stadia allowed the ticket prices to be pushed through the roof. I no longer believe that not turning up is an act of disloyalty. It’s an act of resistance – a conscious decision to not allow your loyalty to be taken for granted. It’s a point that Manchester City supporters made very simply and very eloquently last weekend, and those that run our football clubs ignore it at their peril.