Our survey said…

  Roger Titford analyses your replies to our annual readers' survey from WSC No 126

With the help of the Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research we have analyzed the first 800 odd questionnaires to come back. So, without further ado, here’s what a hundred focus groups-worth of you had to say.

One theme of the questionnaire was “enjoyment”. Most people (64%) found football just as enjoyable as ever, but a greater number (22%) found it less enjoyable now than found it more enjoyable (14%). There was some difference according to when readers began to follow football. Those who started after 1985 are more likely to find it more enjoyable now than those who started watching before 1973 – but the differences are not great.

40% felt being a supporter nowadays was more tense versus 11% who found it more relaxing. Supporters who are longer in the tooth are more relaxed than the young bloods who have not seen it all before. So overall, there is more tension and a little less fun in football grounds. Supporting a team, which increasingly takes up more time and now comes with a replica kit uniform, gets more and more like work.

There are changes which the majority appreciate. For instance, 67% felt the general standard of football has improved a little or a lot, again more so among post-1985 supporters. However, the cost of tickets remains a concern with a third of readers saying they are way too high and almost a quarter saying they missed games they could not afford tickets for last season. About the same proportion class as one of their fears simply “not being able to get in to watch my team”.

Only 3% had no particular fears for the game. 57% feared “the survival of the game as I know it” and 34% feared for the survival of their own club, the thing that is their main stake in the game, after all. No wonder the tension is rising.

One in three readers were non-plussed by football’s new found popularity and one in ten felt ‘footballed out’, agreeing they were tired and bored with the amount of football now available. But two thirds were delighted with the game’s revival, with Premier League club supporters happiest of all and Division One fans the most curmudgeonly.

As it had been in the news, as ever, we asked a lot of questions about re-structuring professional football in England and Wales. The blunt answer is that 67% do not feel any re-structuring is necessary. Interestingly, Premier League supporters, who are least likely to be affected by the proposals on the table, were more in favour of changes than fans of Football League clubs. This either shows a welcome interest in the affairs of the game as a whole or a passion to meddle with matters that do not concern them!

Of the re-structuring packages available the most favoured was the Deloitte proposal of regionalizing Division Three and the Vauxhall Conference together. The Phoenix League, ie jettisoning all but the biggest 36 clubs from full-time football, attracted a derisory 1% support. (So it will probably happen in the next three years…)

Overall, it was interesting to see that the great majority of readers continue to support the existence of as many, and as diverse, professional clubs as possible:

78% for maintaining as many full-time clubs as possible;

78% feeling 92 clubs (or more!) is the right number;

78% against using League teams as nursery clubs.

Fans do not want to see a culture where clubs are driven out of (independent) existence. Asked about institutions that you regard as ‘enemies’ only 10% nominated the Football League and only 1% ‘small clubs’. The top enemy at 75% was, predictably, ‘chairmen of big clubs’, but interestingly ‘major kit manufacturers’ were as unpopular as UEFA, the FA and the Stock Market, all around 40%.

We asked about casual match attendance, that is paying to watch matches not involving your own team. Only 37% had been to three or more such matches last season (compared with 47% who played fantasy football!). Casual attendance is in decline over the last five years but not by much, with lack of time given as the principal reason. 10% said that getting tickets or even information about tickets was a barrier to casual attendance. There is much talk, probably rightly, about traditional supporters being priced out of grounds. But it is also very likely that over the last ten years the casual fan, the ones who were the difference between a 40,000 crowd and a 58,000 crowd at Highbury, have been squeezed out too.

And now for an explanation of this most curious league table alongside. All we asked was for readers to indicate whether they had a soft spot or a dislike for each of this selection of teams. In the ‘For’ column is the % having a soft spot, in the ‘Against’ the % dislikes. The third column shows the difference between the first two and the fourth column is a measure of indifference, that is the % not having an opinion either way.

What does it tell us? Either our readership has some perverse football tastes or some of the received wisdom about the popularity of various clubs is badly flawed. Though it has changed lately, Wimbledon have had as bad a press as anyone yet their story touches more soft spots in the football public.

By contrast the big battalions of Manchester United and Rangers appear far more unpopular than popular. Are the TV commentators aware that when these teams play in Europe there is likely to be a sizeable portion of their audience wanting to revel in their defeat?

The top half of the table is dominated by underdogs and romantic, footballing, anti-establishment outsiders (Newcastle, Barcelona, Celtic). Broadsheet media darlings like Fulham and Cowdenbeath do well.

At least 20% of readers have an opinion about each of these teams, Partick and Hull City attracting the most indifference and Manchester United the least (17%). On this basis there is as much interest in the doings of Chesterfield as Real Madrid.

Big spenders like Middlesbrough and Blackburn have not created much affection while Tottenham have nearly caught up Arsenal in terms of unpopularity. Either that or Arsenal have become more likeable. Strange times indeed.

From WSC 128 October 1997. What was happening this month