Premiership crowds slipped a bit this season but, as John Morgan explains, it's boom time in Divisions One, Two, Three and beyond after yet another year of bumper attendances that put the rest of Europe to shame
The last thing you expect to find at a Dr Martens League Eastern Division game is a crowd. But when King’s Lynn played Histon in a top-of-the-table clash on Easter Monday there definitely was one: 1,617 people gathered together of their own free will in the same place. Empty seats in Lynn’s cavernous old wooden main stand were hard to find. The attendance might not seem much at first sight, but when you consider that the DML Eastern is on the seventh tier of English football, it becomes quite astonishing. It proved to be the highest gate of the season at that level, just one example of the attendance boom currently being experienced in England.
The Football League’s recent announcement that its crowds have reached their highest levels for 40 years (15.9 million people attended matches in 2003-04) followed closely the news that the average attendance for Conference games last season was the highest ever. These figures indicate a remarkable depth of support for smaller clubs, proving that, despite the inclinations of the national media, interest in football does not end with last place in the Premiership. Such support puts England in a unique position in world football, a fact which should surely be more widely acknowledged. The press release provided by the Football League (an organisation now adopting a new, vaguely competent approach) astutely compared crowds in the First, Second and Third Divisions with their counterparts in the other major footballing nations of Europe. The gulf was immense, with the English averages being 50 per cent higher than, double, and even quadruple their Italian, Spanish and German equivalents. Quite simply, this enthusiasm for watching football at all levels is unmatched anywhere else.
If the Football League’s PR people had been in a mischievous mood, they might have offered some comparisons with the Premiership. Crowds in the top division fell slightly last season, down 1.27 per cent. The staggering 21 per cent increase in Third Division gates was driven in part by Hull, who drew 23,495 to their game against Huddersfield. That looks very favourable against, for example, the crowd of 20,722 that saw Blackburn play Aston Villa this season. This is obviously a highly selective comparison. It doesn’t mean that watching internationals such as Brad Friedel and Juan Pablo Angel play Premiership football is suddenly less exciting than watching Andy Booth blunder into Hull’s offside trap. But the fact that a game between two Third Division teams can attract a larger crowd than one between two reasonable Premiership teams is nevertheless significant. It suggests that many people are interested in watching their local team play to a good standard, irrespective of the division or the packaging.
The news on attendances coincided with the news that Chelsea fans are now openly and loudly expressing their disdain for their new chief executive, Peter Kenyon. It was of course Kenyon who proclaimed 18 months ago that the future of English football would consist of just 40 professional clubs in two divisions. In reality, the increasing competitiveness and popularity of lower-league football means that more and more clubs in the Conference are turning professional. No doubt Kenyon now has other things on his mind, but he might do well to consider the reservoir of support that has sustained smaller clubs in the face of acute hardship and that guarantees their future existence. Those clubs have endured a lengthy sequence of financial body-blows stretching back to the early 1980s: the end of shared gate-receipts between home and away teams, the creation of the Premiership with a consequent loss of shared television money and the collapse of ITV Digital (the damage of the last being self-inflicted in part). After a period of turmoil, the 40-year high in crowds represents an important moment of optimism.
There seems now to be a growing awareness that smaller clubs represent something valuable and special. Recent polling undertaken by the Football League (part of its somewhat dubious rebranding exercise) suggested that fans and the general public have a very positive impression of League football, seeing it as community-based, competitive and good value for money. But contrasting the crowds of the smaller clubs against those of their wealthy brethren in the elite division is a false opposition in many ways. Looking at the post-war attendance figures, tracing the steady decline which began in the mid-Seventies before abruptly reversing after 1992, you can only conclude that the advent of the Premiership did something to reignite people’s enthusiasm for going to games in all four professional divisions and beyond.
The trend towards larger attendances is now well established. We have not yet returned to the type of crowds seen immediately after the Second World War, but the present boom makes the knock-on effect of an England success in the European Championship (admittedly an unlikely scenario) an intriguing prospect. It might be premature to foresee a future in which the streets of King’s Lynn will be thronged with touts on matchdays. But that’s probably about the same distance from reality as Peter Kenyon was
From WSC 209 July 2004. What was happening this month