Trends within British football supporter culture are not new. Every season sees new behaviours, attire or attitudes; all influenced by a myriad of social and cultural developments and fashions. One trend that I hope passes in to the annals of time as quickly as it arrived however, is the penchant of many supporters to judge a club based primarily on the amount of supporters which that club attracts.
This sort of behaviour isn’t actually new, of course. Supporters up and down the land have for decades sung such witty reposts as, “is that all you bring away?!” and, “you couldn’t sell all your tickets!” as part of the standard banter that is typically exchanged between fans during a match. However, whereas in the past this usually formed nothing more than harmless mickey-taking, a new school of thought seems to have recently developed; one that actively seeks to judge and assign levels of deservedness to a club based on nothing more than its supporter base. Clearly, this is ridiculous, but such has been the level of nonsensical, pontificating bile that I’ve seen surrounding this subject in the past couple of seasons, that I felt the need to join the debate.
As the current season nears its climax, fans and pundits alike will begin to predict those teams who will be relegated and those who will survive; along with those who will promoted from the league below. The basis for these predictions is largely based on things such as form, fixtures and general opinions surrounding a side’s mental fortitude in the face of their end-of-season run in. However, some fans also add ‘size of club’ and ‘supporter numbers’ to this equation.
Fulham, a club steeped in history, but perpetually involved in recent relegation scraps and historically drawing small away followings have born the brunt of much of the criticism this season. The primary accusation appears to be that because Fulham cannot regularly draw high away attendances, this should be used as a stick with which to beat them (down to The Championship) with.
“They’re a disgrace!” , the naysayers shout, “they only brought 300 fans to Everton! I hope they go down this year.”
This is nonsense. It simply does not equate that because a team does not draw 2000 raucous supporters for each away match, that they are not deserving of success and that the fans who do attend should be continually mocked. Wigan were similarly dogged by criticism of their attendances, both home and away, during their time in the Premier League, with some even going as far as to label Wigan as not being a “proper club”. That’s the same Wigan who were founded in 1932.
Other fans have pointed to clubs such as Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest; all sides who draw large and vocal away followings, as sides who they would like to see replace the teams (your Wigans, Fullhams, Boltons, etc) who are deemed not worthy enough of gracing the upper echelons of the football ladder. This is also ridiculous. Although it often does add something to the atmosphere of a match when both sets of supporters are in good voice; to say that a club deserves success at the expense of another, purely because of the level of their support, goes against every “small team done good” tale throughout football history. Why should those fans who do attend their sides’ matches be denied the opportunity to experience football at the highest level, simply because they aren’t many in number?
The judgment of clubs based on attendance also ignores a range of historical and current social and economic factors that play a massive role in the way in which individuals choose to watch football; if indeed they choose to watch it at all.
Taking Wigan as example: they are a long-established club, but one who have risen through the local leagues of the North West, in to the Football League and then the Premier League. This has been achieved in an area of the country where the saturation of the football landscape in terms of sheer number of clubs is one of the highest in the country; along with being in a town that historically favours rugby league as its sporting outlet of choice. When faced with these set of circumstances, is it any wonder that their average attendances are lower than that of say, Everton; a big club from a major, football-obsessed city? Surely fans should be encouraging others to attend their smaller, local sides (and praising the ones who do) as opposed to looking down from their ivory towers and baulking at the fact that they had to send some tickets back to the home club ahead of their forthcoming away fixture?
The economic factors in this issue also cannot be ignored. If you’re not aware of the recent debate and increasing furore over ever exorbitant ticket prices (something not restricted to the Premier League) then you must either have been living under a rock, or be so wrapped up in the ‘brand’ that subscription television pushes that you simply don’t care. In ultra-simplistic terms; many, many fans are being priced out of attending live football. Now, I am not for one second suggesting that because someone supports Manchester City their income mirrors that of their club, but it is simply not coincidence that less successful clubs, particularly in those areas of the country hit hardest by recent and historical economic downturns are finding it difficult to maintain high attendance numbers. True, clubs could be doing more to make football accessible to those with lower incomes, but it is also extremely galling to see fellow supporters act like snobs towards sides who possess fans who simply cannot attend due to financial restrictions.
In another troubling observation of those holding such unpleasant opinions on other clubs’ support, it often appears to be those who do not regularly attend live matches who are the ones doing the mocking. A quick glance at Twitter during any given Saturday will reveal hundreds of moronic posts regarding supporter numbers. These are usually from the accounts of the type of banter loving cretin who believes “Tubes” from Soccer AM to be the height of comedy and who are pandered to so often by the aforementioned television companies. Now, I accept that many of these idiots may be similarly priced out of attending their side’s games, but if this is the case; actually especially if this is the case, why the hell are they so quick to put down fans of clubs with low attendances? You’re not at your team’s match yourself mate; so what gives you the right to mock a group of fans who have forked out a significant portion of their wages and made a 300 mile round trip in order to watch the team they support lose 3-0? I’m not glamorising the latter fans, but a little solidarity wouldn’t go amiss.
I suppose this latest trend of passing judgement can be put down to lazy tribalism towards other clubs, but in my opinion it reveals a distasteful side to many supporters. A major way in which prices in football are going to diminish and allow more fans to attend is for all fans to support one another; campaigns from the likes of the Football Supporters Federation and Spirit of Shankly have already highlighted this. I’m not suggesting an end to the ingrained, often jovial chants mentioned earlier in this piece, but this snide judgemental aspect needs to stop, because it is not only ludicrous; it could also prove harmful and divisive at a time when we need more cooperative thinking and action.