Now, I know it’s getting close to Christmas and everything, and perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me, but the statistic that stood out most over the weekend was the paltry crowd of 16,799 at Ewood Park for the match between Blackburn Rovers and Fulham. Blackburn have, it’s fair to say, struggled with their home crowds in recent years. The late Jack Walker, who bankrolled the club to their eventual 1995 Premiership win, also invested a considerable amount of money in Ewood Park, turning it into an attractive, modern, football stadium, but the slump in their crowds must be alarming some at the Lancashire club. In 2002-2003, the average crowd at Blackburn was 26,226. A respectable figure, I think you’ll all agree. Since then, though, crowds have declined steadily with each passing season, and they’re now at the level where it could be considered to be something of a crisis. Last season’s average attendance at Ewood Park was just 21,015, a full five thousand down on three seasons previous to that. Many more crowds like the one that they got on Saturday, and their average crowd will have dipped well below 20,000.
There are mitigating circumstances, both generally and specifically for Saturday’s poor turn-out. Firstly, I think that there is a degree of culpability resting with Fulham, here. For one thing, they’re not exactly the biggest pulls in the Premiership. Last season, six clubs had their lowest crowd of the season for their visit – more than any other single club. They also seem to have trouble in mobilising their fans to travel, too. Whilst they average 21,723 at home, only 150 (yes, that’s right – 150) of their supporters made the journey north. That is a very feeble number, by any standards. The average Conference side takes that many to away matches.
Having said that though, Fulham’s poor turn-out at Ewood Park doesn’t fully explain why crowds are slumping there much more than anywhere else. There is a plausible argument for saying that we should be surprised that Blackburn can attract crowds as high as 20,000. Blackburn is one of the smaller towns in Britain to stage any sort of League football, let alone Premiership football. It has a population of just 105,000, so even a meagre looking crowd of 16,000 is something like one in seven of the population of the entire town. This is not their only problem. They’re also in the highest concentration area in Britain for football clubs. Not only are the behemoths of Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City and Everton within easy driving distance of Ewood Park, but the sheer concentration of clubs means that Blackburn can’t rely on people from nearby towns for extra support. Also, what other towns are near Blackburn? Preston, Burnley, Accrington and Wigan – and they all have Football League clubs of their own to worry about. Throw in the other Lancashire clubs – Bolton, Bury and Blackpool – and a plethora of semi-professional clubs, and the size of their problem becomes apparent. The outlying areas for residual, more casual support, aren’t there.
All of this disregards the fact that Rovers’ crowds have declined. Their performances on the pitch this season have been lacklustre, but last season they were good enough to get a UEFA Cup place, and their crowds were still 5,000 down on three years prior to that. I’ve had a look around on a few Blackburn messageboards, and their silence on the subject is surprising. Jack Walker died in 2000 – has the apathy kicked in since then, with the slow realisation that the glory days of 1995 will, in all likelihood, never return? Whatever the reason (or mixture of reasons), with Blackburn being one of the seven or eight clubs that could be pulled into a relegation dog-fight, those empty seats might turn out to be just what the Blackburn players don’t need to see come April, when every point, as well as every possible psychological advantage, could be crucial in the battle to stay up.