Supporters hit back at `rip-off' soccer clubs

IT WAS a throwaway line from a top premier club official. It was "off the record", so neither he, nor the club, can be named. Asked why soccer's bosses objected to fans having greater involvement with their clubs, he explained it would be "an interference in their commercial freedom".

The Football Task Force report, due to be published next month, gives striking examples of this "freedom". A season ticket at Arsenal now costs pounds 868 a year and at Chelsea pounds 1,120, more than a season ticket for the Royal Opera House. The report is scathing of clubs, most notoriously Manchester United, for continuously "ripping off" fans with frequent changes of strip.

Yesterday a small group of fans delivered a wreath to Downing Street (Tony Blair is a Newcastle fan) to mark the death of football as a game. Now, say the fans, it is big business.

Monica Hartland, Stoke City supporter: "Football isn't just about the Premiership - we're not just interested in the top. We feel there's a hidden agenda ... that they want to compress the Premiership. It looks like three or four clubs could fall out of the league, and that seems a bit convenient for them; it suits them to get rid of the smaller clubs."

Marc Longden, committee member on the Independent Manchester United Supporters' Association and the press officer for the Coalition of Football Supporters: "Let's face it, the FA, in the fans' eyes, aren't fit to be in control of the game. And the Premier League chairmen are much more interested in money than fans. The only way forward would be to have an independent body that would oversee all the current football issues and make its own recommendations."

Tom Watt (pictured), actor-turned-journalist and fierce Arsenal supporter: "Both organisations are making so much money that they have forgotten about the supporters' needs. I would like to see more done for disabled fans and more measures introduced to clamp down on racism in the stands."

But not all clubs are bad. A few make enormous efforts to involve fans.

Leicester City: believes all fans count. The club even canvassed their opinions on the design of new shirts. It works hard with the Asian community, which traditionally takes little interest in professional football. Fans persuaded Martin O'Neill to remain manager when bigger clubs wanted him.

Watford: mainly as a result of Graham Taylor's insistence, the club has built exceptionally good relations with local residents. Fans buying season tickets before knowing about promotion were given hefty discounts. Cheap season tickets for children are popular. Players work hard in the community. All fans' letters get replies.

Charlton Athletic: fan-power played an enormous part in ensuring the club's rescue from the brink of closure. They ensured the success of returning to the Valley, which required not only financial support but a lot of volunteer physical labour. Last season, when the club was fighting against relegation, the directors paid train fares and put on 27 coaches for fans to travel to Everton. The club has also teamed up with Greenwich Council to work with football-mad children.

Leyton Orient: being within a Tube ride of London's big Premiership clubs means that Orient has to work hard on making the locals feel not only wanted but influential. Its Football in the Community scheme employs 40 people, who work in some of the city's most deprived areas. The scheme is largely funded by the chairman, Barry Hearn, whose listening attitude towards the fans has closed a traditional gap.

Brentford: offers free coaching for local schools. Participating youngsters receive vouchers to help families pay for match tickets. Several times they have offered 1,000 free tickets to children.

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