Statistics that look on the bright side of national game

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Clive White on a nationwide survey of FA Premier League fans that reveals some

fascinating facts

While English football finds itself back in the dock after the death of a Crystal Palace fan on Sunday, a nationwide survey of FA Premier League fans, released yesterday, paints a rosy picture of the domestic game, citing improved behaviour of supporters as one of the reasons.

With the fatality at the weekend coming hard on the heels of last week's violence in Zaragoza, where Chelsea played their Cup-Winners' Cup tie, some would argue that facts speak louder than statistics. But Rick Parry, the Premier League's chief executive, took heart from the first results of the survey conducted by the Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research at Leicester University, which will publish its full findings with a club by club analysis at the beginning of next season. "The findings are the best possible answer to those who snipe at the state of our national game," he said. "It is a very significant contribution to our understanding of the wellbeing of English football."

The survey, the largest ever of English fans, certainly comes up with some fascinating insights, such as the composition of crowds: for instance, 37.5 per cent of fans attend mostly as part of a mixed group of males and females and almost a quarter (23.4 per cent) bring children. Five times as many fans (83 per cent) stated they were more likely to take their school-age children to a match these days than less likely while 68.8 per cent saw improvements in the behaviour of supporters at Premiership matches.

It also revealed that more than three-quarters (75.4 per cent) of fans approve of recent changes to top stadiums, including the move to seats; only one fifth (19.5 per cent) still preferred to stand.

It is intended that the research willbe done annually so that trends can be monitored. "The question is whether clubs will act upon them and start responding to what fans are telling them," Parry said. "We can guarantee that at least the views of supporters will be fed into the debate."

As sponsors of the research, along with Carling, the Premier League was no doubt delighted to see that 41.6 per cent of fans believed that the League had been good for the game (compared with the 31.1 per cent who thought it would be at its inception.) Its involvement with Sky also got the thumbs up, 53.1 per cent rating its coverage as excellent compared with only 21.2 per cent for BBC.

There was bad news forTerry Venables. The England manager's task of trying to win the European Championship next year as hosts hardly has the support of the nation; 77.5 per cent of fans said that success for their club was more important than that for the national team. It followed that most did not want to seethe Premiership reduced to anything fewer than 20 clubs.

If a new national stadium is to be built, Birmingham was by far the fans' favourite location, 43.3 per cent voting for the Second City, compared with 23.5 per cent for London and 21.8 per cent for Manchester.

Putting the Premier League's self-interest aside, Parry expressed concern at the widening financial gulf between his own League and the Endsleigh League. "Theissue which we must address is the gap and how to make it bridgeable rather than whether we [the Premier League] should have a Second Division.''