Football: All the fans want is value for money

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The Independent Online
YOUR team lost in the last few minutes of an uninspiring match. Your view from an over-priced seat gave an insight into why managers in dug-outs always claim to be 'unsighted' and come to such obscure conclusions. And you again marvelled at the inability of modern grandstand designers to realise that rain does not often come straight down. You again wondered why you paid good money to be so disenchanted. Then you turned on the television and saw Lazio against Milan and Rangers play Leeds United. Enthusiasm surged back.

For that simple reason football has survived for so long as a mass- entertainment and continues to persuade clubs that they can charge extortionate prices. This is on the basis that fans will put up with anything provided there is a chance that every now and again they will all go home singing and believing that the next game will be just as good.

It was said last week, and is always trotted out after excellent matches, that if football could regularly produce such entertainment as we saw from Milan and Glasgow attendances and interest would soar. Increase, perhaps, but not soar - not while clubs isolate themselves from reality and expect fans to pay unrealistic prices for the large majority of matches that fail to come near the value of those two enthralling games.

Take last Tuesday. Paul Gascoigne came back to play for Lazio in the second leg of a pretend cup tie against his former colleagues at Tottenham. In spite of the foul night, it was a game with the potential to pull in more than the 11,000 or so who attended. Lazio's performance the previous Sunday alone should have boosted interest but a little early reconnaissance in the local Cat & Fiddle (the name has been changed because it gets too crowded as it is) revealed that the night before, the lads had met and Big George (the Chief Whip and Deputy Speaker) had inspired a rebellion against a minimum of pounds 8 and up to pounds 19 for Gascoigne's second 'farewell' match in six days, the talented buffoon having played at Wembley the previous Wednesday.

There may not be many miners in London N17 but this was a time when unemployment was rising in tens of thousands and the lads felt they were being conned. They would protest by being absent.

Only very slowly are some clubs beginning to realise that people can no longer afford to be never-miss-a-match supporters and that misguided plans to make it even more expensive for the average fan to attend have won them no friends outside the hospitality suites. West Ham, whose attendances have fallen from an average of 22,774 last season to 12,500, have won back a little goodwill by reducing admission charges by 25 per cent. There was obviously an element of responding to the disaffected who so dislike the bond scheme, but the managing director, Peter Storrie, says other people in football are also going to have to face the fact that there is a recession and admission prices must come down.

Liverpool, who used to think that they were immune from the problems of the real world outside Anfield, have said they will cut seat prices to pounds 10 for their return- leg Cup-Winners' Cup tie against Spartak Moscow tie, not because they start 4-2 down but in recognition of local hardship. Big of them, really, since they have become the first club to be guaranteed pounds 1m from the FA Premier League/BSkyB deal. So why not pounds 3 a seat and raise a full house (OAPs, children and the unemployed free)? Come on Liverpool, the game's been good to you]

Liverpool will not be the first club to raise a bigger than usual crowd by reducing prices or even letting people in for nothing. East German clubs competing in European cup competitions used to invite thousands of servicemen to help fill their grounds and create an intimidating atmosphere for visiting clubs.

Other countries also have no reservations about moving international matches away from their national stadiums and playing the most difficult ones at grounds with the most daunting atmosphere. So when the Football Association's new commercial director, Trevor Phillips, gets his teeth into the job, he may be able to come up with a way to release England from their restrictive contract with Wembley. There would then be some hope that within the foreseeable future England might break away from that permanently neutral ground and play where they feel at home, and the fans may not have to pay prices that before long will compete with the opera.

Wembley gives England virtually no advantage, which is not to say that the old place has nothing to offer football. There is no doubt that it remains a magical stadium for club teams who play there on special occasions. The trouble with Wembley is that even England are intimidated. Thousands of would-be England supporters also now resent the cost of attending Wembley, having a rotten view from the 'cheaper' seats and finding such a poor atmosphere when the ground is half empty. What chance Wembley, supported by the FA, also dropping their prices when England desperately need vociferous backing, starting with the match against Turkey on 18 November?

The question is closely related to that old conundrum about whether if BR reduced their fares by half, twice as many people would use the trains. Economists say demand cannot be directly related to price (they point out that most people who use trains have no choice and those who travel infrequently are unlikely to make many more journeys simply because the prices are reduced) but when it comes to football, people short of cash simply go less often. Saturation coverage on television adds to the problem and attendances this season are expected to drop for the first time in seven years. A lot of people who cannot afford silly prices would be prepared to pay sensible ones and live in the eternal hope of seeing a match as skilful as that in Milan and as vigorously compelling as the one in Glasgow.

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