Fan culture

wsc335Manchester City have been mocked for low attendances but the criticism is a cheap shot which ignores glaring facts about their supporters, states Matthew James

Back in Manchester City’s darkest days of the late 1990s, as they battled the likes of Macclesfield to escape the third tier, the odd article began appearing in the press mocking attendances at certain home games. They caused outrage among City fans, always sensitive to media bias. They even generated sympathy in neutral readers, who regarded them as unnecessarily mean-spirited and unfair, given the traumas the club had experienced and the fact that crowds had generally been good.

A decade and a half later and the numbers are under scrutiny again, except this time with no lower-league mitigation. Now the issue is that only 37,500 turned out for a Champions League match against Roma, and the reaction was immediate. Rio Ferdinand, inevitably, took to Twitter to treat us to his instant opinion, ridiculing the expansion of the Etihad, while on ITV the increasingly Keane-esque Paul Scholes criticised what he saw as the supporters’ apathy towards the competition.

Fan loyalty is always a sensitive issue, and reaction is naturally defiant when the criticism comes from the enemy, but did they have a point? On the surface, the stadium enlargement might look a folly if you can’t fill it for a Champions League game, but it should be noted there is a waiting list for season tickets. As for the Scholes comments I would say it probably is true that the fans have yet to fall in love with the competition, due to a lack of special nights in their first three campaigns.

If you’re looking for excuses you can point out that it was the third home game in ten days, and then there is the ever-present issue of cost, but in reality it looks like an anomaly, plain and simple. The attendance was back up to 45,000 for the CSKA Moscow debacle, while there has been no pro-rata drop-off in interest in the other competitions. League games are played to full houses, while the two League Cup matches either side of Roma drew a creditable average of 36,500.

Behind all this discussion are the questions of how many supporters City have, how many do people think they have, and how many do those people think they should have. There is an assumption that trophies and star signings would attract them in droves. One of the key indicators used to chart the rise of a newly successful club is the number of replica shirts cropping up in pubs and playgrounds, particularly beyond the usual catchment area, and the light blue has certainly become a more common sight. But while impressionable kids and needy adults in far-off towns may be happy to suddenly claim allegiance, and even spring for a shirt as the price of reflected glory, there is a huge step up in commitment to being willing to board a coach and trek to the stadium. City simply do not have reservist armies of fans ready to step in.

And why should they? City are traditionally a parochial club, drawing their support almost exclusively from Greater Manchester, including some of its poorest areas, and building beyond that to the point where tickets become like gold dust could take a decade or more of success. With City’s recent history prior to the foreign takeovers it’s impressive that they even maintained the foothold they did, given people had an option across town that would actually bring them some happiness. Fans of, say, Newcastle United are rightly lauded for their commitment, but it has to be noted they don’t have to share their city with anyone, let alone the Manchester United empire. A market analyst who was ignorant of the peculiarities of fandom would be amazed City didn’t go the way of Bebo and Betamax long before their current renaissance.

The crowd for the first Champions League home game of the season was undoubtedly underwhelming, and given City’s financial situation it is understandable that people would seize an opportunity to take them down a peg. But I believe the support deserves to be cut some slack, thanks to dues paid over years of disappointments. One thing is for sure, if all that cash were to disappear and the club imploded once again, the same people would be there for Rochdale as they were for Roma.

From WSC 335 January 2015

wsc324Jon Spurling remembers how the FA began trialling regular games on the Sabbath in the 1970s despite protests from religious groups

Football was facing a crisis at the start of 1974. Attendances in all four divisions had been in decline for a while and floodlit matches were banned as part of the “three day week” introduced by Prime Minister Edward Heath to save on electricity consumption. Sunday football was regarded as one way to inject some life back into the flagging domestic game.

wsc316Trains are an important mode of transport for fans but Tom Hocking says that little is done to make them more convenient

“In terms of transportation,” read an official FA statement, following the controversy caused by setting the FA Cup final kick-off time at 5.15pm, “a small percentage of Cup final fans use the method of train travel.” The evening start, rather than the traditional 3pm, meant fans of both north-west-based finalists would have trouble catching the last train home. Wigan supporters had already faced similar problems for the semi-final against Millwall and been widely mocked for not selling out their entire ticket allocation. The situation was made more galling by the FA’s solution: use their official coach partner, National Express, instead.

wsc312Calls for a trial of new safe standing technology in the top two tiers are slowly starting to gather political support, Tom Hocking writes

The Safe Standing Roadshow has spent the last year showing fans and officials around the country how standing could work in the England’s top two divisions. On December 11, 2012 it arrived in Parliament. The event, held in conjunction with the Football Supporters’ Federation (FSF) and sponsored by Roger Godsiff MP, took the case for safe standing to the Attlee Suite of Portcullis House, across the road from Big Ben.

wsc303Alex Lawson on the role of train travel in football

In the 1970s and 80s Football Specials were used to ferry fans to away games by rail in a bid to contain hooliganism. Supporters' organisations and the British Transport Police have been investigating the idea of restoring the services in the wake of frequent arrests of fans travelling on regular trains. At the height of hooliganism, spare carriages and redundant trains were used to transport huge numbers of fans. But the Specials became a focus for problems and were largely scrapped in the early 1990s as privatisation made organising services across the networks more difficult.

wsc303Two intrepid travellers plan to spend over half a century watching games in all of UEFA's ever-changing territories, writes Tristan Browning

My friend and I do one foreign football trip to a different European country every year, with the aim of completing the whole of UEFA by the time we are done. Seeing a game at every club in the English league – "doing the 92" – at least has the advantage of offering a fixed number. "Doing the 53" seems to involve hitting a moving target, dictated just as much by politics as by action on the pitch.

wsc302The best antidote to the money ruining football is a litle retail therapy spent on your fantasy league team, argues Ashley Clark

As Wikipedia no doubt reliably informs me, fantasy football was created in 1990 by an Italian technology writer, Riccardo Albini, as a casually interactive, just-for-fun gaming experience. Albini was clearly onto something. The game has proved wildly popular, lurching through a variety of vaguely unwieldy mail and print iterations (as well as David Baddiel and Frank Skinner's 1990s TV show Fantasy Football League) to blossom into the slick, ubiquitous web-based beast it is today.

wsc301 Matt Ramsay takes comfort from knowing that he is not the only fan who enjoys keeping records

It was when I tweeted that I had just seen my first own goal in 84 matches that I realised I was probably the only person in the world who cared. Statistics have long been presented as a vital accompaniment to sport. But, in the same way that people don't always discuss their fascination with different types of goal nets, fans don't often admit hoarding data that is probably worthless. Perhaps it is time to break that taboo. Surely there are other supporters out there lurking with their spreadsheets.

wsc301 Forget the Euros and Olympics, England's best chance of glory this summer could come on hallowed Subbuteo turf writes Tom Hocking

Among endless aisles of Lego Harry Potter, Ben 10 figures and another new version of Cluedo – this time with added rooms – at the Toy Fair 2012 in London was John Barnes. He turned up to relaunch one of the most iconic toy, and football, brands of the 1970s.

wsc300 Peter Geoghegan looks at St Mirren supporters' bid to buy the club through turning the Buddies into a Community Interest Company

Billed as a "national day of action", November 30 witnessed the largest strike in Britain for a generation. That evening, 70 supporters gathered at St Mirren Park not to protest changes to public sector pensions or Tory cutbacks but in a bid to resuscitate an innovative community-led takeover of the Paisley club.

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