Howard Pattison looks ahead to Manchester United's trip to the other St James Park

On the day of Exeter City’s FA Cup replay against Manchester United, a football liaison officer from Devon’s police force warned of strict punishment for anyone caught touting tickets outside the ground. “It is an offence to tout tickets for designated matches where it may lead to away supporters being in the home sections and cause trouble,” he remarked. Leaving aside the apparent admission that there are some games where it’s perfectly fine to sell tickets at inflated prices, this also leaves you wondering who on earth he thought was going to fill the home terraces at St James Park.

A big cup tie is always going to attract a lot of casual interest, but Manchester United are a law unto themselves (that’s just a figure of speech, by the way). Not only is it the one football club that everyone’s heard of but it has the facility of a fan base in every town and village in the country, so the home terraces were littered with people taking advantage of the rarest opportunity to go to see their favourite team in their locality.

This might have been an issue in other circumstances but, with more than enough tickets to keep everyone happy, didn’t prove to be so. But it is an important consideration when weighing up Exeter City’s ability to retain the fans that have just floated through their ticket office. The greater the number of opportunistic United fans, the less long-term meaning it has for the club.

Exeter certainly anticipated this. While much was made of their hon­ourable refusal to raise ticket prices for the home replay, you have to recall that this was a replay they never expected getting in the first place. Far better to look at their sales strategy for the first tie, when they did look to make some extra money. Here, once the proven die-hards had re­ceived their allocation, the remainder only went on open sale with the provision that they were bundled in with tickets for the next home game, against Scarborough. The unfortunate side-effect of this otherwise sound business tactic was that some regulars didn’t attend against Scar­borough because they didn’t fancy spending hours queuing for tickets to an away game they didn’t want to see.

To add insult, while the Scarborough game must have been close to a sell-out, the terraces remained half-empty because the ticket- holders simply weren’t interested in using them. This pattern was also evident at the next game, where a good crowd of over 4,000 was announced over the public-address system. The crowd did what they usually do and ap­plauded themselves for turning up, and only a handful of us wondered where the other few thousand were.

To protest about fickleness is pointless and over-simplifies the matter. It’s understandable that consumers of entertainment should only be concerned with the event they’ve bought tickets for. However, now that the Cup games have proved so successful, will these consumers be encouraged to stick around for the main event – even if the main event happens to be far less attractive than the warm-up act?

Exeter would be very unlucky not to pick up some new fans as a result of this brief turn in the spotlight, but it’s hard to see any meaningful ongoing return. That’s why it’s the instant financial windfall that made all the news. With renegotiated debts in the region of £500,000 and an estimated bonanza of around £800,000, they’re seemingly in a good position to send most of their creditors packing (although there are some punitive contracts that will persist a while longer). Some suggest that they’re even in the unthinkable position of not having to pay off all the debts just yet if they don’t want to. There is talk of putting some of it away in a nice savings account. Exeter City putting their sixpences in a jar for a treat – who’d have thought it?

The sudden turnaround in events has a dreamlike quality about it. For such a desperate situation to be all but resolved on the turn of a card (so to speak) is the kind of happy event to be found only in old Frank Capra movies. It’s almost corny. Some, of course, speak only of luck. Others, rather more poetically, prefer to call it fate. There’s much talk of how this is a reward for the patience and commitment of Exeter City’s real fans. It isn’t anything of the kind: the persistence and courage of football supporters isn’t deserving of this kind of luck. If Exeter City can afford to put some of this cash aside, they may as well hand it over to Wrexham and say: “Here, you need it more than we do.”

A recent newspaper article spoke of the love affair that the Exeter fans have been enjoying with their club. Yet it looked more as though the locals suddenly realised how much they like their city – not City especially – and only then because everyone was suddenly willing them to succeed. It’s hard for hearts not to swell with pride when so many people are wishing you well. Maybe they also realised that the football club is a key part of the community to which they belong; if so, they had seemingly forgotten again by the time of that other cup replay, against Billericay a few days later.

Culture changes take years, not weeks, and Exeter will just have to be content with wiping the slate clean and securing their future as a football club. Their claims that the replay was all about the fans, not the money, shouldn’t fool anyone. It was about the money. Indeed, so much so that you have to wonder how such a priceless opportunity might be made available to others. If the draw for the third round of the FA Cup isn’t already fixed, it sure as hell ought to be.

From WSC 217 March 2005. What was happening this month

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