Clubs such as Plymouth need new fans to grow, but regulars don't always welcome them. Josh Widdicombe reports on the divisions a Cup tie caused

Like any fan of a club that has no chance of winning the FA Cup would be, I was delighted when Plymouth Argyle were drawn away to Arsenal in the third round this season. While no one more than me enjoys saying they have little time for the Big Four and their smug world of Super Sunday’s and big European nights, I was soon getting excited about visiting the Emirates, with all its leg room and upper-circle views. It felt like being asked out on a date by someone unspeakably annoying but unbelievably attractive; you know it is wrong but you just can’t help but be delighted.

However, on the main Argyle internet forum, pasoti.co.uk, it was clear for a few fans it wasn’t quite so simple; the initial joy and excitement was soon replaced with worries of how many tickets would be available at the Emirates and, more importantly, whether these would fall into the hands of the dreaded “plastic” fans.

Within ten minutes of the draw one poster mused: “Hopefully the club will only allow ST [season-ticket] holders and regulars to get tickets, rather than some ­premiershite fan trying to get a ticket.” He wasn’t alone. “The sad thing is that we will probably take more fans to Arsenal for a glory match than the amount who turned up for Argyle v Blackpool yesterday,” said another; a third added: “All of a sudden the whole of Plymouth become Argyle fans and we take more to an away game than we get for a home game. Does my head in.”

It was a minority that weren’t celebrating, but all the same, what had created such an attitude? There is little doubt that Plymouth are a club with a problem attracting fans beyond the hardcore week in, week out. On the weekend when Argyle were drawn with Arsenal, they hosted Blackpool in a match that could have pushed them into the Championship play-off places, yet a pitiful 9,969 visited Home Park. For a club based in a city of 250,000 and with the whole of Cornwall to add to that as a catchment area, it is unimpressive to say the least.

Argyle took 35,000 to Wembley for the Division Three play-off final in 1996; that is a large chunk of people who are happy to enjoy the good times but more reluctant to attend football regularly. But is it right that these fans are derided as “plastics” who don’t deserve to watch their team against one of the best sides in the country?

For a regular fan it is easy to slip into the belief that the club are exclusively yours, sounding off like a fan of a newly popular band bemoaning the people that weren’t there when they played the Manchester Hop and Grape to eight people. What’s more, in a time when more and more people are consuming their football via television and club loyalties are based less and less on geographic identity, it is difficult to blame people who loyally watch their local teams for feeling a bit resentful. Particularly when they fear losing tickets to their club’s biggest game in a good few years to fans who would never consider watching Plymouth play in the Championship.

But, as with many lower-league clubs who rightly refuse to spend beyond their means and are run without a wealthy benefactor, the number of fans through the gate on matchday is crucial to Plymouth’s solvency and success. A day out at the Emirates could have been enough to win over hundreds of new fans who would return to watch Argyle. If the hardcore fans who have attended for years ever want to see Plymouth in the Premier League, then the price they will surely have to pay is seeing their exclusive club invaded by part-timers.

In the end there was little to worry about for Home Park regulars. Season-ticket holders were assured the chance to pick up a ticket, while members were allocated the rest. Occasional fans missed out or had to find a friend with a season ticket at the Emirates who didn’t want to watch his side’s reserves running out. Either way, those fans who posted their worries on the internet got their wish of enjoying Plymouth’s big day out – even if it ended in a 3-1 defeat – without having to sit next to someone who would spend most of the match wondering which team was in green and which was in red. And, with league form patchy, they can be confident their club will remain free of ­plastics for at least another year.

From WSC 264 February 2009

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