This article originally appeared in the current issue of The Mudhutter fanzine. Issue 36 of The Mudhutter is out next week and you can buy it online www.mudhutsmedia.co.uk
by Martin Tarbuck
And so as one a nation of football fans turned yet again to attack little old Wigan Athletic on Monday 16th January 2012, led by their clown prince and heir to the kingdom of Whoppers Joey Barton and his Cockney Uncle Rodney Marsh, who has had his pants around his ankles more times than I care to remember when it comes to making derogatory predictions about the demise of Wigan Athletic. It’s OK for us as Wigan Athletic fans to discuss it – it’s our problem, our football club and let’s face it, it is a problem: 9,000 empty seats is less than two thirds full and when you consider that 4,500 Manchester City fans were also present and probably a few hundred dotted around the home ends, then you are looking at a home support of no more than 11,000. That is home supporters occupying just 44% of the stadium capacity. Ouch! Whichever way you look at it, that is a damning statistic but whereas at this point a million and one internet f***wits nationwide will jump on their keyboards to lambast us, I would like to invite you in on the discussion and consider in a little more thought: why is this? Is it so bad? What could we have done differently? Can we change it in the future?
This is hardly ground breaking stuff and I have written at length on the subject in the past for the Mudhutter, This Northern Soul, Sabotage Times and new print football mag Late Tackle. Yes I know I’m a media whore. However, I also write about it because I care and I want to find a solution. I’ve also been in with people at the club and taken a 30 page report with over hundred ideas to boost the crowds. I wasn’t the first person to do this either. However, the problem is getting worse due to a downturn in form and the ever increasing growth of the internet and satellite ruling. Is it time for a change of tack?
Let’s look at the City game in isolation first of all. We’ve won one game at home all season. It was a Monday night. It was a school night. It was on Sky. I know the excuses but let’s peel them away and consider if it was a Saturday, if we were in mid-table and it wasn’t on telly, how many would we get? Eighteen maybe nineteen thousand at a push. With my devil’s advocate hat on, that isn’t a crowd to be scoffed at, better than the likes of QPR manage in this league or say Blackpool mustered last year. It still would leave thousands of empty seats though.
The clear difference in the case of the other two clubs mentioned is that their ground capacity is restricted, and they probably would have got more on if they could. They play their games with more or less a full house and we’re quickly getting to the crux of the matter: it’s not how many people you have in your ground that invites the ridicule, it’s the number of empty seats you have; and guess what we have more than anyone and therefore are suffering from a massive public image problem as a consequence.
How do we fix this? Well sorry if this is stating the bloody obvious but there are in simple terms only two ways of fixing it: fill the stadium or reduce the capacity of the stadium.
Let’s look at Option A first. As I have said, I have been in with the club to directly discuss with them some of my ideas about increasing crowds in my usual batty way. This doesn’t make me a ‘club puppet’, it was done out of frustration and a desire to help on my part and I do have plenty of professional experience of business if not football. Ultimately, my view is that there are an unlimited number of methods that you can use to generate support if the club are prepared to accept no restrictions on the manner in which it can be achieved. Those of you who read my first seasonal editorial back in August, will see that I put forward an idea, similar to the model Hartlepool have used, advocating pricing season tickets at £80 but only if enough people bought them i.e. upwards of 15,000 people. I proved in this piece that it would be a cost effective idea and also had the potential to generate even more revenue for the club but certainly not cause them to lose any. Their view was that is was not viable, although I have yet to go through it in detail with them as to why.
At some point though we have to stop beating the club up about it and start looking around at our fellow fans for the answers. One of the questions asked quite regularly is “Where have the 27,000 gone who attended the Carling Cup Final a few years ago?” I have asked this outright to club officials, along with a juicy follow up “Haven’t you got all their details on the database? Why aren’t you ringing them all up every week getting them to attend on a more regular basis?” It was met with a laugh – Ed Jones himself, Latics Head of Media, took twenty people, friends and family. Personally, when I think about it, I had a load of relatives from the missus’ side of the family who went. They live in Dorset, are originally from Liverpool who resided briefly in Wigan in the Eighties. Are you starting to get the picture? That’s before we even consider the fact that a few United fans may have got hold of some of that 27,000 allocation.
However, we did manage to fill our ground in that first season in the Premier League on several occasions. Yet, we have to again take that in context for what it was: a series of cup finals like the above, the likes of which we thought we’d never see again as we thought that we’d probably go straight back down to the lower leagues where we belonged.
There’s two schools of thought upon what happened next but a lot of the blame arguably lands at the feet of Dave Whelan for having the audacity to put the prices up, and then eventually apologising to Man City fans for charging them £35. However, there was definitely an element of the novelty wearing off with a drop in season tickets, which had been reasonably pegged and form a first season average of 20.5k with half a dozen sellouts, the average dropped to the 18k mark. This is Wiganers we are talking about who in general will always demand more for less and what we got that second season was less for more but nevertheless we held our attendance reasonably static for a number of years. The drop in away support fell noticeably in this period as watching aways in the pub started to take off. This soon started translating to home games and people infamously decided to pick and choose their games.
The rot had definitely set in by the time Martinez arrived after the likes of Palacios, Cattermole, Valencia and Heskey had been sold from a team that looked like it had top half potential just six months earlier. Let’s not get into the blame game here: some people think Steve Bruce was wonderful and he was for a spell and blame Martinez for all the club’s woes. This is all fair enough. But to stop going altogether because you don’t like the way the manager plays? I’ve seen quotes online stating that ‘thousands of fans are staying away because of Roberto Martinez’s tactics’. Well as this article is about trying to fill the ground, then if the answer to that problem is simply sacking the manager then I’ll state here and now – do it. No man is bigger than the club, if that’s all it takes to get us back averaging over 20k for home games, then do it, bring it on. But just promise me this, you thousands of stay away fans, if the next fella is even worse, and we carry on losing but play a different style of football, you don’t come up with the same excuse again? I think we all know you will. We know our manager has yet again dug himself into a bit of a hole at the bottom of the table but to stop going because the going has got tough and dress it up as some kind of protest vote. Pull the other one please. You claim to be a lifelong fan, that’s a fan for all your life in case you need clarity. Not for a couple of years in non league when your dad took you only to re-surface again when we got to the Premier League and then buggering off when we start losing regularly again.
In 1993-94 we averaged just 1,841 including away fans and had just 600 season ticket holders. The season before we got into the league (according to Vaughanie’s book) we were averaging no more than 1,000. Sorry fellas (and it is mostly blokes spouting off at the games and on the internet) “bin going since non league” something doesn’t stack up does it? Just make your excuses and go if that’s the way you feel and spare us your ‘look at me I’m leaving’ style tantrums.
Now after that I wind my neck in and look at the evidence. Last year we won a measly five home games all season and if you recall an earlier article, certain people commented that this represented £50 a win and I set out to prove that it was a highly subjective measure and we were actually proving good value given Arsenal charge £1,300 for a season ticket (which works out at over £100 a win). The trouble is this season we’ve won one home game all season. Who in their right mind is going to pay to see that apart from the real diehards? Again, at the risk of slipping into cliché mode, Roberto Martinez has to take his share of the blame for that one. We can’t expect to win every game in the Premier League but your home fans are your bread and butter support and they are being served up horse shit at times unfortunately. It won’t stop me going and it probably won’t stop you, the reader of this piece going. If you read this fanzine you’ll know where we stand on such matters and probably understand the wider context around which following a football club entails. But the bottom line is that if we want to increase crowds, even stop them decreasing, then the football club needs to start winning games, playing entertaining football and showing some never say die attitude so that if they do lose, the Wigan crowd is in no doubt whatsoever that they have put up one hell of a fight on the way. We don’t see that at the minute.
So in summary, for the short term people are stuck with what we’ve got and will continue to vote with their feet until they see a permanent upturn in form and as long as they have got that alternative option of watching in the pub or online they exercise it. But in the same vein, whatever Wigan Athletic do will probably be never good enough for some people to return because maybe they were only around for a short time in the first place or have grown disillusioned with modern football. I think we’ve exhausted Option A then.
The other option is to look at ways to reduce the capacity of the ground and whereas this may involve a bit of swallowing of pride in the short term, if it’s good enough for Juventus then surely it could be a consideration for Wigan Athletic. With hindsight Whelan’s assertion that a 25,000 seater would be required to cater for the needs of the Wigan sporting public of either code (football and rugby union as it was) is highly ambitious. Nevertheless, it never bothered us at the time and the hugely sage Les Bagg has been saying for a while the conclusion what a lot of others including myself have now come to: 20,000 would have been more than adequate, maybe even 18k. We can only look at new grounds such as Swansea’s or even the likes of St Helens’ new ground and look on with envy as their tight enclosed arenas, whereas still miles more sterile than their previous abode, manage to maintain an element of atmosphere instead of having ten banks of empty seats free all around the front perimeter of the ground.
Again, we never realised this on the way up – I remember again, early scribbling of mine following a bit of pub debate where me and my mates were talking in the League 2 days: imagine if one day we could average 15,000, we could maybe manage it if we were in the Premier Leauge couldn’t we? It felt like a pipe dream and I remember as we rose through the leagues, when we played Burnley in League two and the Carling Cup games against West Brom, City and Blackburn then Leeds and Ipswich in the Championship. Five figure crowds, fifteen to sixteen thousands, in many cases less than what we get now and the DW was rocking. We never mentioned the empty seats then – just how full it was! The atmosphere is always better on the way up than when you’re on the way down though isn’t it?
What is more pertinent is that, if you’re already into the habit of staying up a little bit later on Saturday night in readiness for next season (sorry!) you’ll notice that empty seats are two a penny in the Championship – like Zulus, there’s thousands of them at nearly every ground and no-one makes a big deal of it. If you stay up right till the end you’ll notice that old familiar sight of a few dozen Torquay fans bouncing around the away end at Macclesfield celebrating a winner. When I see that, I don’t see an object of ridicule, I see diehard fans getting some reward for the commitment they put in. Yet when it’s in the Premier League and it’s little Wigan Athletic with a few hundred fans rattling around a stand it translates to a s*** support. What’s the difference? Are we all supposed to replicate like amoeba because we’re in this greed orientated league which we keep getting told is so wonderful?
We already know that we have in theory a few thousand fans out there who are staying away or ‘pick and choose’ and maybe the problem is that they can pick and choose, they know full well that they can turn up when they like for any given game. The whole supply and demand issue comes into play here, what if we were still at say a redeveloped Springfield Park (if I recall Bill Kenyon’s drawing, it looked a lot like QPR’s Loftus Road) and could only hold 14-15,000? I’m not sure people would be falling over themselves to get in but at least they’d know that if they chose to opt out, they’d find it harder to get back in again should results take a turn for the better, if say there were only a thousand or so tickets available on the day.
Consider the match day experience as well. Whereas there are certain people amongst our support you certainly wouldn’t want to sit next to (Insert name of choice here) the fact that fans would sit together, be closer to the pitch would create a much better atmosphere which maybe just maybe would relay itself back on to the pitch with a roar not a whimper. That utter bell end Barton shot himself in the foot on Twitter by criticising Wigan’s support despite us getting a better average than QPR, who then went in to pull in just over 10,000 for an FA Cup replay a couple of days later. You know what Joey – it’s a popular mistake to make by thickos country wide despite your constant cries to be taken seriously as an intellectual. The truth is – if we had a smaller ground with a lower capacity we wouldn’t get stick about our crowds. Nobody is looking at our crowds – which are excellent for a town of our size – everyone is looking at our empty seats which speak volumes. Take away the empty seats – take away the ridicule.
Can we do this? Can the club do it? It requires effort and money and commercially why would the club take on a proposal to carry out a capital programme which will cost them money and ultimately mean that they have less to sell at the end of it? Well to answer in reverse, they aren’t selling the excess anyway, what we are talking about is a couple of million quid – i.e. a players’ wage to maybe make some structural changes: take out some seats at the front or back and maybe try and extend the cover over the corners, put a gangway halfway up to make it two tier or at the very least hire a couple of extra stewards to put some netting up and section off a few bits. Hell, you could even put coloured netting up and use it to advertise your grandson’s new chippy. Nothing needs to be permanent – a few rows taken out half way up, at the back would make it look a bit more like the Reebok (sorry) or a few seats taken out at the very front where people generally get pissed on anyway. And I suppose we’ve got to take the rugby into account: (what did you say? No we don’t f*** ‘em) OK – the trouble is that it means nothing to the rugby as they get larg crowds for the sport they are in, even though they are less than ours. And most people in the media or online whoppers are more likely to tune in when they’ve got a near full house v Saints not when there’s twelve thousand rattling around for most other league games. So do they need 25k, do they b*****ks? Although their average is circa 16k, when you take out the Saints derby which will attract 24k, bolstered by 7,000 Saints fans and a larger than usual army of out of town day-trippers and maybe two others which will attract 20k – maybe Warrington with a big away support and that other stupid Big One game which they spend a fortune trying to advertise just to try and get close to the average of their more successful football club co-tenants. Well take those three gates out and their average is probably closer to 14k, so it would work fine for them and they would derive a lot of the benefits I have already highlighted above for the football club.
So there you have it: this is something we can change and influence and there is a solution available for all which will improve the club’s public image and enhance all our match day experiences! I’ve done it again haven’t I? Played out a massive game of Championship Manager in print just like those whoppers I love to ridicule? Oh well..it was worth a try and again it is something that I have approached the club about believe it or not. Their view is that there is a long term strategy, the crowds are growing and the emphasis on getting young kids supporting Wigan Athletic will reap dividends in the future. Short-term I guess we all keep having to take the endless stick on the chin or maybe join the rest of the sheep in Wigan and take the easy option and support Liverpool or United instead from our armchairs. 3,000 words and I’ve not even mentioned those f***ing idiots. I’ll leave it with you anyway, you know where I am if you fancy setting up a petition or arranging a pitchfork waving mob….