The Agenda: What can be done about football's lost supporters?

Tuesday's empty seats at the Stadium of Light were an early contender for one of 2014’s most embarrassing sight. What can be done, asks Stuart Rayner

Michael Regan/Getty Images Empty seats during the Capital One Cup Semi-Final between Sunderland and Manchester United
Empty seats during the Capital One Cup Semi-Final between Sunderland and Manchester United

"They’re here, they’re there, they’re every f***ing where – empty seats, empty seats!”

It is a taunt much beloved of Newcastle United’s away supporters. On Tuesday a few were singing it at their television screens.

If the League Cup semi-final first leg was embarrassing for the embattled David Moyes, it left the winners red-faced too.

The sight of so many faded pink seats at the Stadium of Light – can they not at least paint them back to bright red? – ought to have depressed not only fans of Sunderland, but anyone who loves English football.

Nearly 18,000 were unoccupied for the club’s first semi-final since 2004, their first on Wearside in 29 years, despite prices reduced to £20 for adults, and £5 for children.

It was not the only cringe-worthy attendance this year – and bear in mind 2014 was only a week old.

On Saturday there were 21,000 empty seats at St James’ Park. The presence of nearly 6,000 Carlisle United fans did not stop more than 27,000 being left empty at the Stadium of Light the next day. Both were FA Cup third round ties, not semi-finals, but the clubs slashed their prices accordingly.

Those two clubs were the worst, but not the only ones. Southampton’s attendance was down 16,194 on the previous home game, West Bromwich 13,730, Aston Villa 12,990 and Nottingham Forest 12,457. That was the reality behind Cup attendances being up 25% on the previous year’s third round (figures skewed by home draws for Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal played to near-full houses).

The main reason the North East were the poor relations is obvious. We are, nationally, the poor relations.

That is a problem for Government. The bigger picture in footballing terms is for its authorities to address, There are many things they need to look at as a matter of urgency. Many require courage.

Cup football is not the draw it once was. The influx of managers and players from countries where cups are a minor distraction (ie just about any beyond these shores) has shaped that mindset, but the Football Association and others have stood by. It is perhaps too late to reverse, but the tide could be turned. Often the FA make it worse.

Take Sunday, for example. Back when the FA Cup was a big deal, so was the draw. Not any more.

A few years ago it moved to its old Monday lunchtime slot, broadcast live on television and radio. It made it an event. Sunday’s was an inconvenience. It was held around 2pm (even the timing was vague), following Nottingham Forest’s win over West Ham United, before Derby’s County’s game against Chelsea and during Sunderland v Carlisle. As the balls were drawn, there were five matches to be completed that day. There were more “ors” than the Boat Race.

It was nonsensical, avoidable and dictated by television. The Forest game was on ITV, Derby’s the start of BT Sport’s double-header. The competition’s broadcasters wanted the draw at a time which suited them.

It was the latest step in the systematic undermining of the FA Cup. Weakened sides are partly to blame, but clubs have been encouraged to do it. Once they would be fined for under-strength sides. Now, the difficulty of defining a strongest XI makes that impossible.

In meekly surrendering in its power struggle with the Premier League, the FA have encouraged that prioritisation. No wonder clubs throw all their eggs in the league basket when the incentive for winning the cup is a place in the Europa League, where only pocket money which Newcastle among others have decided does not compensate for the damage done domestically is on offer. Instead of rewarding teams for finishing fourth – since when was that worth a prize? – the last Champions League place could go to the FA Cup winners. Instantly the number of weakened sides would reduce. It will not happen.

Television is right to think it should be able to call the shots with all the money it pours in. Join me on a journey to cloud cuckoo land if you would, but it would be nice if clubs were prepared to take a little less to safeguard the game.

Northern Premier League side Prescot Cables recently put up posters with the slogan “Don’t let your kids grow up thinking football is a TV programme”. There ought to be framed copies in the offices of everyone at the Premier League and Football Association.

America’s National Football League does not allow games to be shown on local television unless sold out 72 hours in advance. It would not be desirable to copy the rule, which does not always work as planned – some teams have arrangements with local TV stations or businesses to purchase unsold tickets. But including a more lenient version (with a lower threshold for sales) when the contract for the League Cup is next up for negotiation could be interesting.

Match-going fans are constantly inconvenienced by changing kick-off times, usually but not always to suit TV. Good on Newcastle and Sunderland for standing up to Northumbria Police for moving next month’s derby. Are early kick-offs, coinciding with prime time in the lucrative Far East television market, justifiable in an era of 24-hour drinking? Hopefully the day will come when a club demands broadcasters be more sympathetic in which TV slots they allocate to which away teams.

A blackout rule would provide more incentive to reduce ticket prices – but that is not easy.

With clubs sharing cup revenue, prices are meant to be agreed by both parties, so sometimes a club which wants to offer deals cannot. Macclesfield Town complained this week Sheffield Wednesday cut FA Cup prices without consulting them. That rule needs looking at. It would be nice if clubs could lump the odd cup game into their season ticket as a goodwill gesture to its most loyal fans.

As things stand, FA Cup third round and League Cup semi-final tickets need to be reduced.

They come hot on the heels of the most expensive time of the year. It was always going to be a tall order to ask Sunderland fans to follow a Boxing Day game at Everton, a match in Cardiff (why?) on the Saturday, and a New Year’s Day home game with Aston Villa, by forking out for Carlisle at home three days later and Manchester United two days after. There is only so much money to go around and the last of those games was... live on television.

Putting distance between the cup games – even the sacred FA Cup third round – and Christmas by moving them to a time when teams are fresher and pockets fuller would help those competitions a lot.

It is within the grasp of a ruling body with the interests of match-going fans at heart. Does English football have one?

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer