League's young fan scheme threatens elite clubs

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The Independent Football

The "Kids Go Free" initiative is being masterminded by Lord Mawhinney, the chairman of the League, who is keen that clubs re-connect with their communities. Forty clubs have taken it up so far, with 34 of those applying it to all home games.

"I want to see hundreds of thousands of young supporters watching Football League games for free," he said. "We are looking at building for the future by encouraging young supporters to take an interest in their club early and we are taking steps to make that possible with this initiative. We think we are putting in place the next generation of Football League supporters."

Crowds for half the Premiership sides are falling while the Football League last season recorded its best total attendance figure, 16.4 million, since 1960.

Barry Fry, the chairman and owner of League Two Peterborough, is a proponent and is convinced that moves such as this are vital to the future of his and many other clubs. The Cambridgeshire club is situated in an expanding city, but Fry admitted: "All the people moving in are Arsenal, Spurs, Manchester United and Chelsea fans. It's impossible for kids to try and pay and see those clubs and the ordinary parent cannot afford to take his kids. But the kids are our future. They can keep us in existence and we have to attract people to the ground."

As an example of the difficulties of attracting local support, Fry revealed that three of his six children supported Manchester United or Arsenal. He added: "The game is struggling and it is our job and responsibility to get to kids and create a good impression. This is a good, positive idea to get fans for the future."

Mawhinney has already seen encouraging sides from pilot schemes at Preston and Hull and has had good feedback. "We have reason to be enthusiastic about this because of the success of Preston in their scheme," he said.

"We are encouraged by the positive response of the clubs and by the positive response from the communities who say this is likely to go down well. This initiative is a demonstration of the commitment the Football League has to its fans. We like to think we are giving a lead."

In this respect, the Football League are already way ahead of their Premiership counterparts, who set up a working party this week to examine ticket prices.

Mawhinney would not be drawn on comparing the two leagues' ticket policies, but Millwall's acting chairman Theo Paphitis accused yesterday Premiership clubs of caring too little about their supporters. Speaking at the opening of Millwall's indoor training pitch where schoolchildren will be allowed to practise during the week, Paphitis accused Premiership players of being inaccessible to those who idolise them.

"The young fans will never get anywhere near the top players," he said. "Whereas at Millwall, kids from local schools will be able to train here during the week and bump into the players they see on the pitch at the weekend."

Mawhinney said he expected crowds to increase further, but added: "We are not looking at last year's or next year's figures. We're looking at figures 20 years hence."

FIVE CLUBS WHO HAVE TAKEN THE LEAD

Preston North End August 2004, the club allowed free admission to all under-eights if you registered. Number of registered supporters went up from 86 to 948

Scunthorpe: All under-14s get in free

Nottm Forest: Free shirts given away to seven-year-olds

Bradford City: Under-11s get in free

Leicester City: 1,000 seats available free for under eights

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