By Dave Bowler
Logic is a wonderful thing isn’t it, but it is a commodity that has a relatively tenuous attachment to the world of top flight football.
Those of you who know your history will recall just how it was that we began this drift towards the rich getting richer in top flight football in England. It came when the big clubs decided that no longer would they split the gate takings 50/50 after a game after expenses had been taken into account but that the home side would keep the lot. A perfect idea for those with huge stadia and massive crowds, not so heartening for those working their way up, from smaller towns or with grounds of lower capacity.
Thus was a wedge driven between the clubs, with the big six as they were then – and very nearly still are – threatening to take their ball home and form a Super League if they didn’t get their way. In hindsight, they should have been allowed to go, but that’s another story.
Since then, the game has rumbled on with clubs required to make space for opposition fans at their games. For the supporters of smaller clubs, this is a further insult to add to their injury for ticket prices at the Etihad, Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and the Emirates are often eye watering in comparison with those they are used to at home. Equally, for the United fans and their ilk, the fact that they are Category A games wherever they go means they’re really at a game where it’s kids for a quid.
Perhaps this week, we reached a tipping point when Newcastle United, among the biggest travelling support of any side, used around half their allocation for the game at Anfield on Monday night. Yes, the fact that it was on television had a bearing, as well as it being on a Monday night. Stir in a £55 ticket price and you have a perfect storm.
We could be reaching a point – especially when Friday night football comes in for the season after next – where away attendance is going to be on the decline and if that’s the case, then the Premier League’s USP, its atmosphere, is in dire trouble.
We spoke last week of the power that supporters wield over he clubs and that, if they want process to come down, all they need do is stay home for a few weeks. In the case of away fans, that’s especially so for it is they who create the atmosphere in most grounds these days. Even at Liverpool, after the stirring “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at kick-off time, the home fans are taunted by chants of “Where’s your famous atmosphere” by the visitors.
It’s the same around the land and for some obvious reasons. The away fans are, first and foremost, the hardcore support. They are also there on a day out, out to enjoy themselves come what may, generally expecting their side to struggle, treating themselves as underdogs. Drink will generally have been taken, in often legendary quantities, following an early arrival and so voices will be well lubricated.
On top of that, the away fans generally stand for 90 minutes, in contravention and utter disregard for the stadium rules while the natives have to sit – generally on their hands it seems – for fear of ejection or even losing their season ticket if they stand for too long.
The fact is that it is standing fans that create the atmosphere and with safe standing still well down the agenda, that merely underlines further the need for away fans at every game, and in good numbers. So why don’t we let them in for free? There’s a lovely logic to it. After all, if their club doesn’t benefit from the gate money in any way at all, why should a Burnley fan be required to contribute to the Chelsea coffers?
The Premier League has already given clubs a subsidy to boost away support. Inevitably some clubs use it wisely – Stoke City give free travel to all away games for example – while other seem to simply hide it away in the books somewhere. So why not go one step further? Make away tickets free of charge, guarantee those sections are rammed and ensure that the atmosphere stays ramped up to 11. Otherwise the football grounds of old England might start to resemble libraries.