Football: It's just not fair play: After one year of the Premier League, the fans speak out. Derek Hodgson reports

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The Independent Online
WE HAVE heard from the administrators, chairmen, managers, players and pundits on what happened in the first season of the FA Premier League. But what about the supporters?

One branch of the Football Supporters' Association, that of Manchester and Lancashire which represents four Premier and eight Football League clubs, sounded out the reactions of its 300-plus members, a fair sampling of national response. Their chairman, Mark Glynn, wrote a report after consulting members through the season.

Were they happy? No.

There are, the report says, two Premier Leagues: the one proposed in the FA's Blueprint for Football of 18 clubs with top- class facilities and the space to give full support to the national team; and the other one, 'where the top clubs keep all the money, leaving nothing for the rest'.

This Premier League, it says, 'is not about reducing fixtures, or improving the lot of the ordinary fan, or about stopping the flow of our best players to Italy, or improving the performance of the national team. This League is about money.'

The FSA is especially worried about what will happen to the smaller clubs once the Premier League's subsidy of pounds 3m per year ends in four years' time. 'Many clubs will go to the wall without that money. Teams such as Wigan, Bury and Rochdale are already struggling to survive with it.'

Two other concerns rouse the fans: the rise in admission prices due to all- seater stadiums and the cost of replica kits. 'Many of the people forced out of their grounds because of increased prices will never return. The Premier League clubs do not appear to care.'

There is a plea for the minorities: 'At many clubs juniors can only get reductions in the Family Stand if accompanied by an adult, junior away fans receive no reduction at all.'

On team shirts, the fans report that 17 of the 22 Premier League clubs began the season with new or re-styled shirts. This was followed by the creation of a new England shirt. Most clubs, say the fans, change their shirts every two years - home shirt one year, away the next - ensuring that a new shirt, costing up to pounds 40, goes on sale every season. Manchester United take special criticism: 'A more worrying trend is the recent growth of so-called 'third kits', which are starting to flood the market. At the launch of the new (third) shirt by Manchester United (yellow/green), their commercial manager stated: 'We would refute any suggestion of ripping off the public.' At no time was there any mention of why there was a need for a third kit.'

Television's coverage of the Premier League occupies two pages of the report, which concludes with the question: How can a youngster, the future player / supporter, watch Premier League football if he or she cannot afford inflated admission prices or does not live in a home with either a video- recorder or a satellite dish?

The report fiercely criticises BSkyB's transmissions: 'They have continually hyped and over-exposed the game. The obvious conclusion is that they are trying to sell satellite dishes and not football. The over-exposure was summed up when they screened six live games in four days.'

The BBC is mentioned more kindly: 'The return of Match of the Day has generally been welcomed and their live transmission of FA Cup ties has been acceptable as it has lacked the hype of BSkyB's coverage.' However, the late hour of screening Match of the Day comes under continual criticism as younger fans are unable to see it. Why, the report asks, can it not be repeated on Sunday morning?

Channel 4's importing of Italian football is hailed as a success, although most fans feel the preview programme would be improved without Paul Gascoigne. It adds: 'The commentary for the live games would appear to be done from a studio in this country and does not have the realism of being done on the spot.'

On television, the report concludes: 'Football cannot be benefitting, except financially, from its involvement with BSkyB. The considerably reduced television audience for the 'live' game at top level can only lead to either reduced interest in the domestic game or more interest in the more accessible Italian game. BSkyB's largest audience for a live game has been approximately one million compared with approximately three million who watch Channel 4's coverage.'

The timing of BSkyB's live matches angers fans: 'The Sunday game should continue but the time should be brought foward to 2pm. Can anyone explain why they kick off at 4pm? Perhaps they do not have to travel from one end of the country to the other on a Sunday, with work the next morning. The Monday night game should be scrapped or should be played between clubs no more than 50 miles apart.'

WHAT THE FANS WANT

1. Football is based on a pyramid structure and the trickle down of wealth from the richer to the poorer clubs must be sustained to save the small clubs.

2. The FA and the Premier League should exert pressure on the Government to re-think the regulations concerning all-seater stadiums. Fans want safe, affordable terracing as an option.

3. The FA's proposal for a transfer levy must be adopted, the money to be used for upgrading stadiums.

4. All clubs should have suitable, adequate reductions for juniors, pensioners, students and the unemployed.

5. Television should be used for the long-term benefit of football, not as a source of short-term income. The FA must lay down stipulations, safeguarding the interests of supporters, when signing contracts.

6. The FA must insist that a club be allowed to change a team shirt, home or away, only every three years.

7. The FA should resurrect the recommendation of the Taylor Report that a National Supporters' Association should be supported with funds, guaranteeing that the views of supporters would be heard.

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