Fans are now seen as cash cows to be milked

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The Independent Online

Football Correspondent

There were nearly 80,000 spectators roaring on their team during Sunday's FA Cup semi-finals, but the 10,000-plus empty seats spoke louder than any of the filled ones.

"Enough is enough" was their cry. "Our loyalty has been exploited for too long." Now, perhaps, the game will recognise that in its grasping rush towards millionaire players and multi-million-pound television deals the most important people have been left behind. It had better, or the boom will turn to dust.

Supporters have long been treated like children, to be seen but not heard - except when creating the "atmosphere" so beloved by television. In the bad old days they were regarded as terrace fodder, expected to turn up every fortnight despite archaic, often dangerous, facilities. Even after years of decline and tragedy it took government legislation to change that.

Now they are seen as cash cows, to be milked at the gate, at the club megastore, and by superfluous membership schemes. While Manchester United fans complain about admission prices, those of Middlesbrough and Sunderland protest at season-ticket only entry. The clubs point to better stadiums, fans retort by noting that the Football Trust has paid for many of the improvements and television was supposed to subsidise the rest - compensation, in part, for the constant switching of fixtures to inconvenient Sunday afternoons and Monday evenings.

The Football Association, freed from even a cursory nod at preserving fan-club relations, is even greedier. Ninety per cent of semi-final tickets were priced at pounds 30-pounds 38. Bland programmes were pounds 3. The wonder is not that 10,000 stayed away, it is that so many turned up.

It is no surprise to find the guilty men are the same group that expect fans to pay up to pounds 45 to watch England play friendlies. Crawl forward the Match and Grounds Committee, a 14-man covey who watch much of their professional football from the comfort of a directors' box, with a half- time buffet, a post-match drink and all for free. They include just five members of the professional game.

Meanwhile, players' earnings move beyond comprehension and a disturbing number of directors and chairman are becoming rich through changing club structures, selling shares, or paying themselves vast salaries as managing directors.

They sit, in their panelled board rooms and bray "plenty more where you came from" at complaining fans. Not for ever, there won't be, not if prices continue to rise. And, when the stands are empty, will Bergkamp, Gullit and Sky still be interested?