By Aaran Dehal
“The loyalty that keeps traditional fans true to their clubs is irrational given what they generally get back, yet the tribal spirit endures. It is too often taken for granted…” – Leo Spall, columnist for The Daily Mail.
It is a sad statement to make but one that remains quite true. Fans were once considered the soul of a football club and everything was done for the benefit of those fans.
Yet that emphasis seems to have shifted over the last ten to twenty years.
“Fans are the lifeblood of any club”, “It’s all for the fans” and “It’s their club”, are all statements we have heard from players, managers, board members and club owners in the past.
Yet how true are these statements? Do these people really mean it? Or are they doing it to help put more bums on seats, in which case they are simply patronising fans in return for their hard earned money.
In the end it comes down to a simple question; are the fans really treated as important members of their football clubs, after all they are the life blood of clubs, no fans, no game, no money?
Well in this country, for most football fans, the answer is a big fat no.
We are no longer seen as the lifeblood of our football clubs. That right is now reserved for the money that lines board members pockets. Fans are no longer seen as the soul of the club but as mere pound signs that clubs now cheerfully exploit.
We may be told we are an important part of our club but we sure as hell aren’t treated as though we are.
It began with the small things; like increasing the prices of the match day programmes. Before long it was the price of replica shirts, moving onto paying to get our favourite players name and number of the back of the shirt and now it has come down to the increase in the amount it costs us to watch our beloved teams.
According to a survey conducted by Virgin Money’s Football Fans’ Inflation Index, it will cost a football fan on average, you might want to take a seat here, a hefty £97.50 to go and watch your football team play live. That is an extraordinary amount of money for an average fan.
The Virgin Money’s Football Fans’ survey of real match day costs; include a pint of lager, a match ticket, a replica shirt, a gallon of petrol, train fair, a match programme, pay-per-view costs and the price of food.
Now even if we were to take out the average price of a replica shirt, which would cost somewhere between £40 and £50, the average match day cost for an individual would still come somewhere between £47.50 and £57.50.
We should thank our lucky stars that our clubs hold us in such high regard and don’t take advantage of us; otherwise we really could be in trouble.
Now to the majority of football fans that counts as a lot of money, especially if they are taking other family members (children, grandparents, brothers, etc.). Imagine the cost of a match then, doesn’t bear thinking about does it?
I know some clubs do family offers, like Wolverhampton Wanderers who run a ‘Wolves4 Family Football’ scheme where 2 adults and 2 juniors (U17’s) can go for just £40, but they are only done for certain games, which tend to be against lower level opposition.
I’m not taking anything away from the clubs who run these schemes but I do wonder why they can’t be replicated for the bigger games? Surely these fans have just as much of a right to watch a high profile game within this sort of scheme?
However, the businessmen know what they are doing. High profile games will mean more interest which means more people will want to go which in turn allows the club to charge ridiculously high prices as they know tickets will be bought. Yet against the lower level teams, maybe clubs struggle to sell their full allocation so use this type of scheme to give the impression of a fuller looking stadium.
Yet many fans will merely shrug their shoulders, mention the unfairness of it all to their peers but in the end they will just get on with it and support their team, it’s in their blood. I know I do.
Why is that?
Because they know there will be no change unless there is significant backing from fans, no change in attitude from the chief executives and board members of clubs. Fans in this country are now sadly used to these shocking prices, they cannot really be blamed for not bothering.
So shockingly enough the clubs get away with it, and from time to time even have the gall to increase ticket prices and the price of merchandise.
Fans are hardly rewarded for their unflinching support, like being refunded after watching your side put in a pitiful performance away from home, after they’ve stumped up a fair amount of money to watch these ‘stars’. There are of course exceptions to the rule. Like when Wigan Athletic players involved in the 9-1 defeat to Tottenham personally refunded the 300 Wigan fans that travelled down to the game or when Aston Villa laid on a free meal for supporters who travelled to a European game where they saw their side eliminated.
But how often is that likely to happen?
Malcolm Clarke, chairman of the Football Supporters Federation (FSF), believes it is highly unlikely and that Premier League clubs need to be very careful about how far it pushes its’ fan base.
“The Premier League has money coming out its ear with all the television and overseas deals they have, yet these benefits are not passed onto the fans. It all goes to line the pockets of agents and players, who are grossly overpaid as it is.
“There are of course some exceptions to the rule; I know Stoke City have frozen their prices for the last four seasons or so and the likes of Blackburn and Bolton tend to have quite a fan friendly price scheme.
“But the London clubs; Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham, the prices are ridiculous for the average fan. The rise in their ticket prices is higher than the rate of inflation; which in this day and age is absurd.”
Mr Clarke believes this is one of the key reasons that are causing fans to become disillusioned with their football clubs and its footballers.
“With the economic climate as it is, the gulf between fans and players is shocking and widening. Top players are earning huge sums of money and the behaviour of these players is just something the average fan cannot identify with.
“For example, the amount Wayne Rooney is now earning after he handed in a transfer request early this season and his behaviour surrounding that incident. I know a Manchester United fan that got rid of his season ticket following the whole Wayne Rooney transfer request saga. He was that disgusted. Imagine paying that much money for a season ticket and then just giving it up and this guy was a full on die hard Manchester United supporter. It shows how close to the edge fans are becoming.
“Fans, especially the older generation cannot identify with them. To them, the money they pay for tickets and merchandise is the money that is going directly to the players’ wages, which in a way it is. They are effectively paying for these players to act this way and it is something they don’t appreciate. They feel alienated.”
With the issue of money in football always a hot topic, Clarke believes clubs, especially Premier League clubs, must act now before it is too late and the fans are lost for good.
“There is no doubt that right now the biggest issue of concern for fans are the price of match tickets. People are loyal to their clubs, they’re not suddenly going to change and start supporting another team; but it seems as though the clubs are exploiting this loyalty.
“For example, if something is expensive at Tesco, the customer and the management know they could just as easily go to Sainsbury’s or ASDA to see if they can get it cheaper, therefore they reward their customers with incentives and match pricing on goods. It doesn’t work like that with football clubs and the men in charge know this and take full advantage of the fans passion for their club.
“But there is evidence to suggest that football fans, especially those lower income fans, are starting to lose patience. The number of away fans seems to be decreasing, if you look at the Stoke v West Bromwich Albion game that was on TV a month or so ago.
“Now Stoke isn’t that far from West Bromwich and even though it was shown on TV, West Bromwich Albion only took a few hundred fans. It shows a lot of fans are getting tired of the high prices and inconvenient kick off times. I know some “experts” will try and tell you that the average attendances are fine but when you see things like the Stoke City-West Bromwich Albion game, you can see it with your own eyes.
“Football is one of the most arrogant and complacent industries in the world, with the Premier League its most saleable asset. Yet the Premier League cannot afford to be complacent. They already seem to be losing the next generation of fans, who are now used to watching a game in the pub. They can drink, eat and stand up and create a real atmosphere in some places, all for a fraction of the price they would spend going to a live game.”
When discussing the scheme currently going on in the German Bundesliga, whereby clubs charge £10-£13 for a match day ticket, which then doubles as a free railcard, Clarke believes it is a great idea but isn’t sure if we are ready to implement it over here.
“It is a great idea. It makes it easier for the fans, which is the most important thing but we are a long way from achieving that over here.
“But it wouldn’t work with every ground as not all grounds are near a train station, but there is no doubt it could be implemented at a few grounds where there is a train station nearby.”
But can we really believe our clubs would do this for us, the fans? If they did, I believe something similar would have been done already or at very least tested out.
Sadly the days of our clubs making life easier for its fans, the “lifeblood” of our clubs, seems numbered unless there is a drastic change in the mentality from the men and women who run our clubs.
It is no strange coincidence that I, like many other fans, feel closer to discovering the Holy Grail than living to see fans treated as the priority again.