Saturday, 10 December 2016




English attendance figures are absolutely phenomenal. They are by far the second best supported country in the world and while they have little hope of ever becoming number one, their second-placed status seems entrenched in stone.

Why do I say little chance of reaching number one? Well, if the clubs with the twenty largest stadia were to be all in the Premier League at the same time and if they were to fill every single seat at every single match then the average would equate to 42,182. It’s almost a decade since the best in the world – the Bundesliga - has been as “low” as that. What’s more, it’s not going to happen. It’s a sheer statistical unlikelihood. Six of the twenty biggest grounds belong to teams currently in the Championship and two to sides in League One.

The unlikelihood factor lies in getting the twenty teams with the twenty biggest grounds into the Premier League, not filling them if and when they ever got there, for many English grounds cater for well over 95% of capacity each and every week. Unlike the Old Firm if season ticket holders don’t turn up, that’s reflected in the crowd figures. A good example is Aston Villa with a capacity of almost 43,000 but an average in 2015-16 of just over 33,500. There was no attempt to massage the numbers.

33,500 at Villa Park is in many ways a much worse crowd than, say, 20,000 at Swansea. Bournemouth (capacity circa 11,500) aside, no sub-20,000 crowds were recorded in the Premier League last season. Take Aston Villa again. Their “poor” figures with their regular 9,000 empty places still meant that just under 80% of Villa Park’s seats had backsides on them. Villa and Sunderland were the only two of the twenty clubs in 2015-16 to average less than 90% capacity.

At the other end of the scale no fewer than SEVEN clubs averaged over 99%!

West Ham’s move to the Olympic Stadium and expansions at Man City and Liverpool will boost numbers though the three promoted teams in 2016-17 have some 40,000 seats fewer in total than the clubs they replaced - 760,000 over the course of the season. Although their figures have been incredibly high for a long time now, the English Premier League still sees crowds fall – even if by a tiny amount – from time to time, chiefly as a consequence of imbalances in capacity between promoted and relegated clubs.

It could hardly be termed crisis point though.

But there are still ways English crowds can increase further. There are a number of teams that are now playing in grounds far too small to accommodate the numbers wanting to watch. The most obvious of these are Liverpool (despite the recent expansion), Everton and Spurs, all of whom could easily add between 10,000-15,000 more per game. Liverpool have maxed out Anfield and Spurs plans are well advanced. Moving to Wembley in 2017-18 will also produce an increase for them. Chelsea and Man City too might think they could do with more places but even for the two richest clubs this side of the Pyrenees it probably wouldn’t be cost effective to move beyond what they have now. Chelsea, for one, have dithered and swithered for the past few years about moving or modernising.

They’ll probably settle for the tried and tested method of increasing revenue by hiking ticket prices (again) instead. The same applies to Man Utd and Arsenal who have found out, probably as much to their own surprise as anyone else’s, that “sold out” notices have to be posted on a regular basis as Old Trafford and the Emirates welcome 75,000 and 60,000 respectively.

Other than Merseyside and N17 it’s difficult to see where further expansion can come from as the vast majority of top flight and potential top flight teams have grounds rebuilt after the Taylor Report or are completely new builds. Yes, the likes of Southampton, Stoke and Palace are almost full week after week but would the costs involved to accommodate an additional 5,000 or so fans justify the outlay? Especially as there can be no long-term guarantee of top flight survival? It’s doubtful in the extreme.

Then there’s the “warning” from Villa about gates dipping below 80% of capacity. Maybe one or two others are nervously thinking about that. How long can Newcastle United, relegated in 2016, defy gravity by pulling in gates of 50,000 when it’s close to half a century since they last won anything of substance?

It’s not true to suggest it’s easy for them to do so because the North-East of England’s a “hotbed” of football either. This writer lived in that region for long enough to know that at times it can be more of a sickbed. I’ve been in St James’ Park with just 11,000 others. What goes around can come around.

But for now and the foreseeable future at any rate, everything’s coming up English roses - except for the national team where the deleterious effect of so many foreign stars in the Premier League means that barely one in three players is eligible for England.

Yet a generation ago it was all so different. As you’ll see in the chapter on Italy, crowds in England, Germany and France were in a poor state when the Italians were riding high, with the 1980s worst of all. In England there was hooliganism on a massive scale, antiquated grounds, the disasters of Bradford, Heysel and Hillsborough, all leading to supporters vanishing like snow off the proverbial. It was a dismal time for followers of the England national team too, though not the hardcore who continued to support their clubs.

Internationally, England failed to qualify for a major tournament for a decade from 1970-1980. And eventual qualification was followed by failure at Euro 1980, by what the commentariat also perceived as a poor showing at the 1982 World Cup (though in truth supporters of most countries would have been reasonably content with exiting after five unbeaten matches) and another qualification failure, this time for Euro 1984.

This inevitably fed its way into the attitudes of supporters. At club level though, English football couldn’t have been better, with six successive European Cup victories between 1977-1982 and another in 1984. Many of these teams depended on players from elsewhere in the British Isles. In those six winning finals the English teams starting line-ups averaged over three non-English players per match compared to a non-national average of 1.3 for their opponents.

Yet Italy, despite lack of European Cup success for their clubs from 1969-1985, was still the magnet which drew top English players (and other British and Irish stars plying their trade in England too) throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s. Trevor Francis, Mark Hateley (also France), Ray Wilkins, Des Walker, David Platt, Paul Ince and above all Paul Gascoigne all traversed the Appian Way. As did Liam Brady, Joe Jordan, Graeme Souness and Ian Rush. Others simply crossed the Channel – Chris Waddle, Clive Allen, Glenn Hoddle – or to Spain – the late, great and tragic Laurie Cunningham (also France), Steve McManaman. Gary Lineker. Germany lured Kevin Keegan (can anyone imagine a player doing nowadays what Keegan did then? Win the European Cup one day and pack your bags the next?), Mark Hughes (also Spain) Tony Woodcock and Alan McInally, as well as some Scots who made the move directly. There were many more but these were some of the biggest names in English football and they left for other big European countries at or approaching their peak. Travel in the opposite direction was minimal. Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa the most prominent and they arrived directly from Argentina.

When a country’s best players are heading elsewhere and your international team is in the doldrums, all is not well, despite the European silverware on the sideboard. In 1983-84 when the English Division One (Premier League) hit an average of 18,834 – its lowest since the First World War – just two teams – Man Utd and Liverpool - averaged over 30,000 (United 42,534, Liverpool 31,974). Notts County had a sub-10,000 average.

Liverpool, remember, at the end of this season won the European Cup for the fourth time in eight seasons and won a third successive league title, the first time any team had done so since the 1930s and only the third occasion (then) in English football history. Throw in a fourth successive League Cup for measure yet here they were just scrabbling over the 30,000 mark. Eleven of the sixteen teams in Serie A posted 30K+ averages that same season.

Liverpool’s average then would have been only thirteenth best in 2016.

English averages dipped below 20,000 again in both 1985-86 and 1987-88. In both those seasons the Maradona-inspired Napoli and in the latter the emerging power of AC Milan were drawing at least double the crowds of every English club bar Man Utd. In 1987-88, for the first time since the Second World War no English team averaged as high as 40,000 and once again only Man Utd and Liverpool topped 30,000. Clubs were still in the midst of a five-years ban on competing in Europe, a sanction imposed after Heysel.

This then was the woeful state of English attendances on the brink of another European Championship disaster, losing all three games in West Germany, and before the start of a season destined to end in the horror of Hillsborough. By the end of that tragic season the best supported club (Liverpool) drew less than 40,000 for the third consecutive season and their figure of 38,574 was the lowest for the best supported club in the country since the midst of the great depression back in 1931. Nor was this the worst point. Yes, the top flight’s worst was in 1983-84. For the league as a whole it was 1985-86 but as far as the very top clubs were concerned, the low point came at the end of the first Premier League season when Liverpool were again best supported (the last time any club other than Man Utd drew most fans) with an average of just 37,004, the worst since 1930 for the top supported club.

But already the signs of revival were there, before the Sky TV big bucks kicked in. The reason for some low attendances in the early 1990s was due to clubs implementing the Taylor Report and beginning the move to all-seated stadia by 1994-95 for the top two divisions, thus temporarily reducing capacity in the process. When complete, the season ticket culture began to take effect with fans shelling out for season books for grounds which in the main operated with far smaller capacities than in the past. There were exceptions like Old Trafford. But at Liverpool, Everton, Villa Park and elsewhere the numbers capable of being admitted fell drastically. Of the ten post-Taylor grounds in use in the Premier Division in 2016-17 only West Ham play at a larger venue than their old home.

Another factor in the revival was the 1990 World Cup. Just as it’s possible this tournament could have presaged the decline of Italian attendances, it may have had the opposite effect on the other beaten semi-finalists. This was both England’s lucky and unlucky World Cup. A 120th minute free kick away from penalties v Belgium. A humiliating defeat by Cameroon beckoning with just seven minutes of normal time remaining, before being saved – ironically, given their history in shoot-outs - by one penalty in regulation time and another in extra time. Then the luck ran out with a penalty kicks defeat by West Germany in the last four.

Gazza’s tears moved a nation. Manager Bobby Robson moved from the status of root vegetable to avuncular national treasure. It had undoubtedly been England’s best performance in an international competition since the World Cup in Mexico twenty years previously.

This was followed by the return of English clubs to Europe and while in the main it would take some time to re-adjust to a game that had passed them by for five years (the Screen Sports Super Cup wasn’t exactly consolation), Manchester United led the way when Alex Ferguson repeated his Aberdeen success in the Cup-Winners Cup. At the end of that season Ferguson brought in an intriguing signing by name of Andrei Kanchelskis from the then Soviet Union. He was viewed as an exotic purchase. But the real breakthrough for foreign players in modern English football came in February 1992 in the unlikely setting of Boundary Park, Oldham when one Eric Daniel Pierre Cantona strode out to make his debut for Leeds United. The floodgates were slow in opening but once they did, it was a tidal rush that has yet to abate. As early as 1996 Cantona won Player of the Year award with Ruud Gullit runner-up.

And even if Euro 1992 in Sweden brought about England’s traditional failure in that competition they were scarcely alone in that. France finished alongside them in their group. Both the Netherlands and Germany fell to shock defeats by unlikely winners Denmark. Spain and Italy didn’t even have to book hotels. England knew they would book locally next time, having won the rights to stage Euro 1996, the biggest tournament to be staged in the country since the 1966 World Cup. Proof of England’s welcome back and rehabilitation by the UEFA hierarchy.

English players returned from Sweden to a new league, separate from the old Football League and with a contract worth £304M over five years from Sky for sixty live matches per season. It wasn’t part of the kind of all-encompassing football deals we know nowadays. ITV won the rights to Football League matches. Channel 4 showed what was still considered the most important league in European football – Serie A.

The Sky deal was of mutual benefit. As well as bringing the new FA Premier League untold riches (as it seemed at the time) it gave a boost to the satellite company which had struggled to make significant inroads into the consumer market since it started broadcasting in 1983 and was losing money hand over fist.

A new league, a lot of money going into it, much of which would help finance the move to modern stadia, the second most important international football event on its way in a few years, clubs back in Europe. For the first time in decades English football looked to the future with confidence.

Oddly enough in its first season the new league drew fewer supporters than its predecessor and it’s interesting to look at some of the figures from that first Premier League season. Liverpool and Man Utd were the only clubs to record 40,000 at any time during the season. Half of the twenty-two clubs failed to break 30,000 in any home match, among them Arsenal, despite becoming the first ever domestic cup double winners that season (their FA Cup Final starting eleven contained ten Englishmen and the oft-maligned Dane John Jensen), and Chelsea, whose best edged just over 25,000. Only five teams didn’t have a sub-20,000 gate at some point. Arsenal’s lowest was 18,253, Everton’s 14,023, Man City’s 19,524, Chelsea’s a staggeringly small 12,739 and Wimbledon set a new post-war record top division low of 3,039. Man Utd’s average was 35,152, less than half the number they draw now yet second only to Liverpool then. They were 22% down on the previous season. Yes, their capacity had been reduced to 45,000 but if the same mentality existed then as now there would have been 45,000 there at every home game. Chelsea’s average was 18,787 and with a capacity of 37,000 they could have no excuses. Outside the top division only big clubs fallen on hard times like Newcastle (29,018) in the second tier and Stoke (16,579) and West Brom (15,161) in the third had anything to shout about.

Yet the league as a whole was recovering from its low point, the general trend had been upward for some time – even if gates in 1993 stood at about the same level as 1981 when they were considered appalling. Once the reconstructions and new builds were complete there was only one direction crowds could travel in as a 9% top flight increase in 1993-94 showed. United and Arsenal both posted 25% rises. Promoted Newcastle jumped 16% from their already high base. Up with them came West Ham (28.5% increase) and Swindon (42.5%) from admittedly lower starting points. Wimbledon, with the lowest support in the Premier, rose by almost 25%. Most spectacular of all were Wolves in the second tier with an increase of over 61% from 13,598 to 22,008. Even Chelsea managed a modest 3.3% rise, though on a Wednesday evening just ten days before they took on Man Utd in the FA Cup Final, a mere 8,923 supporters passed through the Stamford Bridge turnstiles for a league match.

Growth in attendances was inexorable from that point on though. By the time of Euro 1996 and another successful performance from the national team, (even if it ended with a predictable semi-final penalty defeat by Germany) crowds were in the high 20,000s – back to a level last seen in the 1970s. At the end of 1997 the TV contract was up for renewal and Sky upped the ante, paying £670M for the same number of live matches – sixty- but this time with only a four year contract. From £60M per season the league was now pulling in £167.5M – a phenomenal increase. But it suited both parties. No one bought a satellite dish to watch shopping channels, music channels were wanted by those without the keys to the household purse strings and even Sky’s movies turned out to have a limited appeal. The broadcaster had yet to produce their own programmes and the importation of US blockbusters lay some way off in the future. Football though was a different matter. It was the motor that drove satellite expansion.

Back in 1992 fears had been expressed that live TV would have an horrendous effect on attendances. Hitherto, live football had been confined to the World Cup, the European Championship (and even that competition wasn’t guaranteed), the now-defunct Home Internationals, European finals, domestic Cup Finals and the occasional big European club game. Long-term Football League Secretary Alan Hardaker had been implacably opposed to live TV football. As early as the mid-1950s he rejected attempts to broadcast live. To be fair to Hardaker (which is, given his opinions on other subjects, somewhat difficult to do) he was not alone in this and was probably expressing the majority opinion of the time in believing that regular live football would decimate attendances. Brian Clough was also a voluble proponent of this theory.

But by 1997 and the end of Sky’s first contract, the evidence was there for all to see, even if some couldn’t believe their eyes. Far from ruining attendances, they had increased in the top flight by over 30%! Live TV was turning out not to be a barrier to attendances but a shop window into which people were peering and liking what they saw.

Other significant events during that last season of the initial Sky contract were the arrival of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal and Ruud Gullit’s promotion to player-manager at Chelsea. This was the first time big clubs started looking overseas for a manager. It wasn’t just the start of a trend, it also saw the gradual increase of foreign players of the past few seasons turn into a flood as managers drew on their previous experience to strengthen their new clubs. Gullit and Wenger brought genuine talent into English football. Gullit immediately went out and signed Gianluca Vialli, Gianfranco Zola and Roberto Di Matteo. Here was a statement lit up in neon. Top Italian players now signed for English clubs, not the other way round. Yes, the likes of Gullit and Dennis Bergkamp had arrived from Italy prior to this but neither was Italian, Gullit was on a free transfer and Bergkamp was deemed surplus to requirements. When Gullit’s Chelsea won the FA Cup in 1997 he became the first manager from outwith the British Isles to win a major trophy in English football. In the years to come, and Alex Ferguson excepted, this would become the norm. English or British managers winning English trophies became a rarity.

By the end of 1997-98, Chelsea’s Frank Leboeuf and Arsenal’s Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira became the first English-based players to win a World Cup winners medal since 1966. Of the rest of France’s World Cup winners, Fabian Barthez, Christian Karembeu, Marcel Desailly, Youri Djorkaeff, Stéphane Guivarc’h and Christophe Dugarry would spend at least part of their careers in England – not all with great success it must be said. But the idea of nine World Cup winners from another country playing in English football would have been unthinkable just a few years previously. There were others in that French squad who caught Wenger’s eye and within two years Thierry Henry and Robert Pirès had signed for Arsenal too.

These were players fans were familiar with from their international exploits. Supporters knew there was now real quality on display in English football and they acted accordingly, turning out in ever-increasing numbers. By the end of Sky’s second contract in 2001 the league held a strong hand in negotiating its next TV deal. This time the period was narrowed down to three years but in return Sky increased its coverage to 110 matches, handing over almost twice as much as previously - £1.2bn – in the process. By the end of the following season the Premier average was at 34,448, up by over half of what it had been at its launch. It was definitive proof that far from harming attendances, live TV coverage was improving them. The average was at its highest since 1953-54 and, largely owing to ground capacities it is a level which had reached almost saturation point. Fifteen seasons later it has never dropped by more than 560 per game or risen by more than just over 2,000.

The next contract actually saw the amount destined for the Premier League’s coffers dip, with an increase to 138 live matches and the amount per game falling from £3.64 to £2.47M. Despite that drop it didn’t affect the quality of player joining the league – or manager either. At around the same time as pen was put to paper with Sky, Jose Mourinho was doing the same at Stamford Bridge and with a guarantee that when it came to players he could write virtually any number of zeroes on the end of the cheque at a club now bankrolled by a multi-billionaire Russian oligarch.

That too was a portent of the future as Russian, Asian, Arab and American billionaires bought up English clubs, some to use as their personal toy, others as a cash cow and some for the genuine betterment of the club.

Any worries that the game might be on its way down and another drop in TV revenue might see the beginnings of a fall in the quality of player moving to England were soothed when Sky’s monopoly was broken and they were forced to share coverage with Setanta when the TV contract came up for renewal. The figure increased to £1.7bn and slightly more when rights were shared with ESPN in the contract after that.

But the real big – shockingly so – increase came with the next deal when BT Sport emerged as serious players in the live TV market. Their presence wiped ESPN off the map and forced Sky to bid ever upwards. The number of games broadcast rose to 154 – 40% of all Premier League games. In return the league saw the value of its contract rise to a staggering £3bn. Every single televised match was worth over £6.5M to the Premier League. BT Sport weren’t prepared to concede though and it was their determination to stay in the field which saw TV cash shoot up in the current deal, for three years, which started in 2016-17. It’s worth over £5bn to the Premier League, another two-thirds rise and brings the value of each and every one of the now 168 live televised games (44%) to over £10M. Sky won the lion’s share (70%) yet again but they were forced to bid way more than budgeted for lest they lose out to BT Sport, which already held most of the UK rights to the Champions League.

£10M to screen, no offence intended, Hull City v Crystal Palace? It’s crazy money, absolutely no doubt about that, but it would be even crazier to reject it.

The basic principle remains the same. The partnership between satellite (and latterly, cable) TV and football is too lucrative for both sides to be cast asunder any time soon. TV football rights sells dishes and cable. Clubs can afford higher salaries as a result. Higher salaries entice a better standard of player. Better quality on the pitch brings in fans. Packed stands create an atmosphere. A terrific atmosphere at games encourages TV companies to show more live games. To keep their TV rights, broadcasters have to win contracts. Contracts are won by outbidding competitors. Outbidding competitors means more money. More money means clubs can afford higher salaries.......

That’s before we even begin to consider the increased advertising and sponsorship that worldwide as well as domestic TV coverage brings.

I’ve dwelt at length on TV deals as they have smashed the decades long established nostrum that TV was an evil which would destroy attendances. Over twenty years since the establishment of the English Premier League and its first long-term TV contract, top flight average attendances are an amazing 70% higher than they were then. Nor has this been at the expense of the lower orders, though their rises are proportionately smaller and the disparities in wealth and spending power are greater than ever. The second tier is drawing almost 60% more than in the last pre-Premier season, the third level is up by around 40% and the fourth close to 30%.

Will the good times ever end and if so, when? History tells us there is always a saturation point, a period when a decline in attendances sets in. The questions are when will it start, by how much will crowds fall and for how long? There have been previous booms which may be instructive. From its earliest league days back in 1888 English crowds rose sharply, more than doubling in the first decade. That growth continued until the First World War. At one point, crowds rose for eight consecutive seasons. Though the pace was slower. If it took ten years to double then it took another fifteen years to double again when top tier averages first hit the 20,000 mark in 1913-14.

It has proven impossible to double that again in the century since.

The end of the war saw another short-lived increase before crowds fell back as a consequence of depression and mass unemployment. But, interestingly enough, most of the previous gains made were largely held. Before 1913 no season averaged 20,000. Between the wars every season did so and crowds were on the rise again before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. As most are aware, the really big expansion in attendances came after 1945 with figures which even the Premier League has yet to replicate as the top flight reached its all-time high of 38,776 in 1948-49. From there on there was a gentle decline before a sharp fall in the early 1960s. By 1966 they were at their lowest post-war level. England’s World Cup win that year kick-started a boom. Within two seasons crowds had jumped by an average of over 6,000 per game and for the seven years from 1966-1973 they never fell below a 30,000 average – the 30,000 mark wouldn’t be hit again until 1999.

There was another slow decline until the beginning of the 1980s when there was a calamitous fall of 7,500 per game between 1980-84 as crowds slumped to a post-World War One low. Rises after that were slow, until after the first season of the Premier League. Even here, some perspective is needed. It wasn’t until 1995-96 that the 1966 average – at that point the post-war low remember – was overtaken. Three seasons later they hit the 30,000 mark and haven’t looked back. Even in the great post-war boom average crowds stayed at 30,000+ for just ten consecutive seasons. They are now on course for twenty.

I believe that eventually this increase, like all others, will end some day. As pointed out earlier, when eighteen of the twenty clubs have 90%+ of their grounds filled for each match, potential for expansion without reconstruction and/or rebuild is limited in the extreme. If saturation point is reached in selling dishes or cable then contracts will dwindle. Or if one of the big purchasers of football rights starts to lose money or goes out of business altogether (see ITV Sport and Setanta for small-scale versions of this and the effects on what is now the Championship and the then SPL) then the point will be reached when the world’s best players will stop coming to England, fans will recognise this and act accordingly. For decades Italian football ruled the roost when it came to vast crowds, high wages and top players. That came to a crashing end and it could eventually happen in England too.

Could clubs price themselves out of the market? Possibly, but it has shown no signs of happening yet. Credit cards are happily maxed out to purchase season tickets at Arsenal and Chelsea. Man Utd - which used to operate at reasonable levels of admission - have hiked theirs sharply since the Glazers took control with no effect on crowd figures whatsoever. Those who departed to form and follow FC United of Manchester simply saw their places at Old Trafford taken by people at the front of the long season ticket queue.

Right now English football couldn’t be in a better place. Deloitte have issued a football “rich list” since the start of the century. The “Italian warning” is there in black and white. In its first report there were five Italian clubs in the top ten. Today only Juventus are there – and they scrape in in tenth place. Today, like Italy in 2001, there are five English clubs in the top ten. Two from Spain and one each from France and Germany make up the numbers.

But its not so much the presence of the big English clubs that raises eyebrows – does anyone really expect not to find the two Manchester clubs, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool in the stratosphere – but what happens down the scale. Eight English clubs are in the top twenty. There are no fewer than FOURTEEN in the richest thirty and ALL TWENTY Premier League clubs are in the top forty in the world in the most recently published list.

Here’s a poser. Two of the following twenty clubs are in the richest thirty in the world. Which two? Ajax Amsterdam, Feyenoord, PSV Eindhoven, Valencia, Sevilla, Lazio, Fiorentina, Lyons, St Etienne, Celtic, Rangers, Cologne, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Fenerbache, Zenit St Petersburg, Porto, Sporting Lisbon, Anderlecht, Stoke City, Swansea City.

Buy yourself a cigar if you said the last two. Incredible as it seems, the largest financial services company in the world says these two middling-to-low Premier League clubs are wealthier than any of the famous names above. How do they manage it? For a start, despite all the talk of greed that surrounds it, the English Premier League has one of the most equitable distribution systems in the world when it comes to cash. It’s not as egalitarian as the NFL which splits its TV cash equally amongst its clubs (oh, the irony in the land of unbridled capitalism) but the basic payments and sliding scale it operates is a great deal fairer than most. Around a sixth of the pot is allocated via TV coverage. Each club receives a guaranteed minimum payment irrespective of how many matches are screened though the more often the greater a club gets – but the payment per match remains the same irrespective. Payment for Hull v Palace is the same as for Man Utd v Man City. The lion’s share of the cash - around two-thirds - is handed out equally to every club. The remainder of the pot – just over one-sixth of the total - is allotted according to league position on an equal sliding scale of each club “earning” the same amount more than the club below it right down the line. In this way even the last placed club earns a mouth-watering sum and that’s why the entire Premier League takes half the places in the world’s top forty richest clubs. It’s not just the money, it’s sound management and (so far) acceptance by the biggest clubs that what’s good for one is good for all.

It doesn’t happen elsewhere, especially in countries like Spain where clubs have traditionally negotiated deals individually, though the Spanish are now coming round to the English way of doing things. It’s certainly not how things work in Scotland either where the top club takes about 50% more than the second. In the days before Rangers fall from grace 1st and 2nd were treated more equitably with a huge gap down to third.

Another factor in keeping crowds high is that away fans show no signs of ceasing to travel in numbers, even when their match is on TV at noon and supporters face long treks and additional costs. The home fan pays for admission and possibly a programme and a snack at half-time. The away supporter is often faced with a long trip to the game, (Sunderland v Southampton for example) an early start, greater transport costs and inevitably far more spending on food and drink. The home fan may forego the half-time pie and Bovril but the away fan with a round trip of several hundreds of miles might just need something more to keep them going.

Yet every game sees large numbers of away fans in attendance. This is part of the British tradition of football attendance. It has been there since the very early days of league football when travelling was encouraged thanks to the short distances between teams and the ubiquity of rail connections. One hundred miles was the furthest between clubs in England and half that in Scotland.

There can be many complaints about TV coverage of English football- the endless babbling from commentators about the “best league in the world” – which, when English clubs were regularly winning the Champions League, it may well have been. Or the “most exciting in the world” when they are doing less well in Europe. Again, this may well be true. It’s not the most competitive but neither are the leagues in Spain, Germany or Italy. But as the great Scottish manager Jock Stein once astutely pointed out, a race between two octogenarians may be competitive but few would want to watch it.

But for all the annoyance with commentators it can’t be denied that this is a league people want to watch worldwide. Its success can’t just be attributed to smooth advertising either. No matter how slickly a league is promoted no one will watch it if it’s rubbish. Few in the UK use the acronym EPL for the English Premier League but drop it into conversation with someone not from these shores and they will instantly identify it with English football. More, they will automatically express their appreciation of it.

It’s true that per head of population England is still a long way behind several other leagues. But the greater the population the less likely a high ratio can be maintained. Compared to its closest rivals it is doing terrifically well. Excluding the populations of Scotland and Northern Ireland but including Wales, as their best clubs play in England, there is a total population of around 55M. That’s about 20% more than Spain but less than three-quarters of Germany and several million short of France and Italy. Per head, support in England is greater than in any of these countries.

Like France, English football also has to contend with other popular spectator sports, particularly Rugby Union where top flight attendances average just under 13,000 and over 2,000 watch the second tier. This excludes European games which take up a huge chunk of the season, and Welsh club fixtures too. But in addition, England, unlike France, which has less than a dozen professional teams, also has a popular Rugby League set-up with average attendances of 9,000 at the top level and almost 2,000 below. Neither Germany, nor Spain, nor Italy has any other spectator sport challenging football at such a level. There is therefore an argument that English football attendances (French too) are actually better than the headline figures suggest.

On top of that, England has a fourth national division - which none of their nearest rivals have - and that attracts over 50,000 each week. Then there’s non-league football which is supported by approximately 85,000 every Saturday. So it’s not just the Rugby codes which operate in opposition to the Premier League, there are large pools of spectators watching non-Premier football each weekend. By my reckoning the Premier average weekly turnout of around 350,000 is easily outnumbered by the 430,000 or so who attend lower level league and non-league matches. This happens in few, if any, other countries and is a further testament to the continued commitment of English spectators by and large to their local teams – something which is regarded with awe and envy in other lands.

The Premier League average of 36,660 in 2014 was the highest since 1949-50 and the third highest ever. That’s a remarkable achievement. There is one caveat though. Back in those days there were twenty-two top division sides and an extra eighty-two games per season compared with now. The lower the number of games the more likely the average will rise if only because the “missing” teams tend to be less well supported (yes, there have been exceptions when the likes of Man Utd, Spurs, Chelsea, Villa, Newcastle have gone down but by and large teams at the foot of the table are among the worst supported).

A comparison can be made by looking at the previous third best supported season, 1947-48. The average then was 36,217 (oddly enough the best supported side was Newcastle United then in the Second Division). To compare accurately, the two teams relegated that year (not necessarily the worst supported clubs) need to be removed from the equation so that we are only looking at clubs ranked 1-20 in league order. The relegated pair were two poorly supported clubs, Blackburn Rovers (18th of 22) and Grimsby Town (22nd). All their matches, both home and away, need to be subtracted from the division’s total in order to count only the top twenty teams playing each other twice for a total of nineteen home matches, the same as now. The result is that the 1947-48 average jumps to 38,270. Using the same approach in other early post-war seasons, current figures would appear to be somewhere between 6th – 8th best ever but definitely superior to anything in the last sixty years. So, while they may be slightly less spectacular than at first sight, best for over sixty years is still something to shout about.

It’s totally unscientific but I can think of no better way to make comparisons. There are other factors which weigh in in support of one season or the other. In the 1940s there were no floodlights, many noon and early evening kick-offs and often several matches played within a few days of each other. All this means that those crowds may have been even higher still if played along 21st century lines. On the other hand the fact that grounds are filled to the brim now suggests that if the kind of capacities available just after the war existed now then modern-day attendances would be even higher than they are.

One thing we can be sure of is that despite rises since the early 1990s, league figures as a whole aren’t as big as the late 1940s/early 1950s. In 1950-51, the first season with ninety-two league clubs, the overall league average was 19,802. It hasn’t been as high since. Last season it was 14,919. Those numbers are comparable to the late 1960s, better than the early ‘60s and with the exception of the last two pre-war seasons better than anything in that era since four divisions were established in 1921. But they are not as good as the decade from 1951-1960.

Time though to list the Premier figures. In 2015-16 the smallest crowd of the season was 10,863 (and that was at 95% capacity at Bournemouth). Biggest was 75,415 at Old Trafford (99.7% full). The average was 36,453, representing a staggering average occupancy rate of 96.19%. The format should be familiar to all. Twenty clubs play each other twice. There are thirty-eight games per club, 380 for the season and the bottom three go straight down.

75286 (99.51) Manchester United
59944 (99.48) Arsenal
54041 (98.08) Manchester City
49754 (95.06) Newcastle United
43910 (98.14) Liverpool
43071 (89.72) Sunderland
41500 (99.29) Chelsea
38204 (96.34) Everton
35776 (98.05) Tottenham Hotspur
35345 (98.77) West Ham United
33690 (78.97) Aston Villa
32021 (99.01) Leicester City
30751 (94.60) Southampton
27534 (99.26) Stoke City
26972 (99.39) Norwich City
24636 (98.26) Crystal Palace
24631 (91.74) West Bromwich Albion
20711 (99.05) Swansea City
20594 (95.44) Watford
11189 (97.60) Bournemouth

The Championship is like the Premier in that it is second only to Germany in terms of support (and occasionally ahead) and also like the Premier way ahead of third. The third and fourth best second levels (Argentina & France) combined cannot match the Championship average of 17,583. Recent Championship seasons have produced the best crowds in over forty years. Another way to look at it is that only fourteen leagues worldwide averaged more than the Championship. More people watch the average English Championship match than the top flight in Brazil. There are fifty-four top divisions in Europe. Only six of them have higher averages.

If anything Championship figures are better than the headline figures. Just as the Premiership average gains from having two clubs fewer than in the old First Division so the Championship suffers from having two more than the old Second Division. Back then there were 462 games in a season. Now there are 552. Even though the two “extra” teams are ones which would previously have played at the top level, the same simple rule applies. The more games the more likely it is the average reduces.

Many people say it’s far harder now to be promoted from this level and survive at the top but that’s always been the case. I think it’s more accurate to say that it is far less likely for a team to be promoted and enjoy instant success like Ipswich Town in the 1960s or Nottingham Forest in the 1970s. Indeed, promotion for clubs of that mid-level stature is becoming more and more difficult. Even so, there are clubs in the Championship which seem a more “natural” Premier fit than some at the higher level. Birmingham City, Derby County, Sheffield Wednesday and above all Leeds United. That’s before considering recently relegated Aston Villa and Newcastle United.  That these teams aren’t in the big time and Bournemouth, Hull City and Swansea City (currently) are says that upward mobility still exists despite the inbuilt mechanism of the “parachute” payments doled out to ex-Premier clubs upon relegation which should not only cushion the fall but help expedite a speedy return.

In 2016-17 this division contained two former European champions, a former European Cup finalist which was also a two-time winner of a European trophy, lost another final and was twice semi-finalist in the European Cup/Champions League and a former Fairs Cup winner with Champions League experience. There was a twice runner-up in the old Fairs Cup and a UEFA Cup winner as well as a Europa League finalist. Eight of the twenty-four teams have played in the European Cup/Champions League at some time or other. Even if some of these achievements were some time ago, that’s still a mark of the high quality on offer.

At the opposite end of the scale the sight of Burton Albion playing in England’s second level, when they were a non-league team just seven years previously demonstrates that upward mobility doesn’t start and end with promotion to the Premier. The recent presence of other ‘smaller’ clubs like Doncaster Rovers and Yeovil Town added variety to the division but also helped dilute the average attendance. As did now Premier League Bournemouth.

With its own TV deals, the Football League brings in a steady source of income for its clubs if nowhere near that of the Premier and at times many empty places can be seen in the stands. Blackburn Rovers are a good example. Overall though the Championship fills most of its grounds nicely. On average there was an occupancy rate of almost two-thirds (64.42%) in 2015-16 – far higher than most top divisions. Ahead in fact of Serie A and almost on a par with France’s Ligue 1.

The format is easy to understand. Twenty-four teams play each other twice for a total of forty-six matches. The top two are promoted automatically and the next four play-off, initially over two-legs with the final place contested at a neutral venue (Wembley) in a match frequently cited as the richest single match in world football, given the huge financial difference between going up or staying as you are. This match frequently draws the biggest league crowd of the season. In 2014 for example 87,348 watched the play-off final. That was the fifth highest league attendance anywhere in the world that season - only Barcelona’s two home matches against the Madrid clubs, Club América's Apertura Championship 2nd leg tie v Club León and the big Teheran derby attracted more.  The bottom three go straight down.

There are 552 matches in the season. In the second level in Germany there are only 306, thus it's easier for the German attendance figures to be higher. On a like for like basis it's perfectly feasible for the Championship to be the better-supported division.

29676 (88.33) Derby County
25654 (84.72) Brighton & Hove Albion
24627 (70.89) Middlesbrough
23125 (58.09) Sheffield Wednesday
22446 (56.88) Leeds United
20157 (65.33) Wolverhampton Wanderers
19676 (64.30) Nottingham Forest
18989 (62.65) Ipswich Town
17603 (58.65) Birmingham City
17566 (68.41) Fulham
17335 (68.24) Hull City
17285 (71.54) Reading
16823 (74.62) Burnley
16463 (49.41) Cardiff City
15994 (87.11) Queen’s Park Rangers
15632 (57.66) Charlton Athletic
15292 (92.12) Bristol City
15056 (52.42) Bolton Wanderers
14131 (45.05) Blackburn Rovers
13158 (43.14) Milton Keynes Dons
13035 (55.69) Preston North End
12631 (51.56) Huddersfield Town
10310 (80.78) Brentford
10025 (83.40) Rotherham United

The grandiosely titled League One third tier has the same numbers and format as the Championship with one exception. The bottom four go down, not three. While the averages are good they are not, comparably, as good as either of the two levels above them. This is a division in which the presence or absence of a single well-supported side can affect the averages significantly. In 2009-10 it hit levels not seen since the early 1960s, recording the sixth best ever. Last season’s figure of 7,166 was the best in the world and the point at which England overtakes Germany in levels of support. The Germans draw larger averages in the top two levels but from here on down the line, England has more fans than anywhere else. Despite the increase in the numbers following the big Premier clubs, this is due largely to the continuing identification of supporters with their hometown team. No club at this level seeks to have a fixture amendment in order to avoid clashing with a televised Premier match the way they do in Spain with Barça and Madrid. There is no other league in the world where a team can finish 52nd in the league rankings and average a five-figure gate as Coventry City did last season, let alone League Two Portsmouth (74th).

All in all, forty-eight clubs – slightly more than half – in the English leagues average 10,000 or more. That’s way ahead of any other country. Germany is next with thirty-seven. Average occupancy rate in League One was 46.31% in 2015-16, not only higher than any other third level league but many second and some top levels too.

19803 (60.56) Sheffield United
18138 (72.16) Bradford City
12750 (39.10) Coventry City
9772 (42.47) Barnsley
9465 (37.83) Wigan Athletic
9407 (46.69) Millwall
7409 (47.11) Swindon Town
7052 (40.67) Blackpool
7001 (56.50) Southend United
6676 (64.32) Chesterfield
6500 (42.68) Doncaster Rovers
6316 (54.53) Gillingham
5492 (48.60) Walsall
5447 (38.04) Peterborough United
5407 (54.75) Shrewsbury Town
4993 (26.35) Port Vale
4551 (45.21) Crewe Alexandra
4361 (32.01) Oldham Athletic
4136 (40.93) Colchester United
4089 (59.16) Burton Albion
3907 (42.55) Scunthorpe United
3571 (30.68) Bury
3308 (62.29) Fleetwood Town
3098 (30.23) Rochdale

The fourth tier League Two is discussed in the chapter dedicated to that level internationally.

No comments:

Post a Comment