There’s a grim irony about the £77 match ticket provoking Liverpool supporters to say “enough is enough” and walk out. At Anfield, ’77 stands for the incredible night in Rome when Bob Paisley’s men defeated Borussia Mönchengladbach to claim the first of the club’s five European Cups. “From Paisley’s glory night in Rome to the money factory that’s now Shankly’s home,” my colleague Brian Reade reflected yesterday.
But wherever you look in top-flight football there are questions about clubs’ awareness of fans. The Manchester United Supporters’ Trust (MUST) has fought to get ticket prices capped during several years of positive dialogue, but is privately warning the club that Saturday’s Anfield walk-out could open the way to protest at Old Trafford, too. United’s hated Automatic Cup Scheme (ACS), which compels season-ticket holders to pay for home cup ties, is still in place and won’t be dropped.
The club are also being asked to examine the disincentives attached to buying a youth season ticket, when they profess to want to nurture a new generation of stadium-going fans.
Youth season tickets are only available for Old Trafford’s family stand – where the one adult and one child limitation is useless to those with more than one child – or North Tier 3. Why not spread the youth season ticket allocation across the stadium? Why not make it free for young fans to sit in the top tier of the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand for the forthcoming Europa League tie with Midtjylland, rather than close it for lack of demand – as the club intend to do?
Even Liverpool are providing 1,000 free seats to local schools for home games. The average age of a United season-ticket holder is over 50.
United are actually more enlightened than most, because Premier League clubs can look like cold, closed places at times. But even the most mindless of them can’t fail to see how pitiful it looks when the division’s clubs cannot agree to ease the gross financial burden of away travel, when they’re about to reap the rewards of a £5.1bn TV deal.
It became clear last week that a two-thirds majority needed to agree a £30 cap on away tickets was not achievable – an issue which has been deferred to an April meeting, rather than entirely dismissed.
The reason for the breakdown in discussions is that bigger clubs would be hit harder financially than the smaller.
For some, no away enclosure tickets cost more than £30, so there would be negligible cost, if any. But such a subsidy would cost United around £17 a ticket and Arsenal even more. You think Arsenal should relent because they will reflect that they are richer? Think again. Football doesn’t work that way.
The solution is to abandon any idea of a price cap and ask every Premier League club to commit the same sum of money to subsidise away tickets for their own fans. If the £200,000 which each club must currently set aside to make away travel more attractive were quadrupled – and all of the money be put towards subsidising away ticket prices – there would be a radical reduction in outlay for fans.
With a pot of £800,000 United, who have been subsidising away tickets by £5 for several years, could knock £15 off the price of a ticket for every one of their fans who attends an away game.
The vast size of that new TV deal means that the cost each club was committing would represent a minuscule percentage of their increased broadcast revenues for next season.
Stipulating that each club must use the away fund money to subsidise tickets for its own fans is important. To date, some have used the away travel pot to spruce up their away ends: work they might have carried out anyway. Rules governing how the money is spent are very vague.
It’s even been used to produce guides to a club’s local area. The traditional reticence of Swansea City, who have not wanted to sign up to a scheme which could see their own fans paying more than visitors, must also be resisted.
On their travels, the club’s own fans will gain too and failing to see that point is short-sighted. A little intelligence and flexibility in how the subsidies work could also make all the difference.
A club might put a higher percentage of the £800,000 pot towards subsidising expensive Arsenal tickets than helping with a cheaper away trip.
The furore over the £30 cap idea – which clubs will never agree on – has also obscured two other iniquitous aspects of the away fan experience.
Price categorisation, by which small clubs hike up their prices substantially when a United or Arsenal are in town.
And the unacceptable practice by some clubs, Newcastle and Sunderland amongst them, to shift away fans up to the highest point of stands.
It’s anyone’s guess what the legendary Liverpool manager of ’77 would have thought of supporters heading for the Anfield exit with a game three-quarters played.
“If clubs are going to be paying their top players higher and higher wages, the money has to come from somewhere,” Paisley once said.
“But it should not be squeezed from the supporter. The game belongs to the ordinary man in the street and if it were to price itself out of his reach it would perish.” Football lost touch with that sentiment long ago.
Arsenal’s £64 question: away fans’ ticket prices
The most expensive away trip for Premier League fans is to watch Arsenal – with visiting supporters having to shell out £64 to take a seat at the Emirates. Bayern Munich supporters boycotted the opening minutes of a Champions League match there last October in protest.
West Ham (£60), Chelsea (£59), Manchester City (£58), Manchester United (£55) and Tottenham (£54) are the next most expensive, while the cheapest top-flight seats for adult away fans at top-category matches are at Bournemouth (£33), Watford (£36) and Newcastle, Sunderland and West Brom (all £39).