Saturday, 26 January 2013

Bye Bye Blackman?

So Nick Blackman is potentially on his way to Palace. Am I really that bothered? To be honest I am relatively sanguine about it. You get used to these events that after so long you feel anaesthetised and numb to the nagging annoyance and anger you know you perhaps should feel.
United have sold much better players than him in the past and will no doubt do so again in the future. There are very few clubs in any division that will retain their best players, not least a League One club that made a loss of £13m last year. A club stymied in its transfer activities by a move to being a break-even business and achieving a wage cap percentage they would have been nowhere near in the last two years of failure.
Tabloid reports we paid £350,000 for him; the key is what we make on top of that and realistically it isn't going to be the significant amounts that many Blades fans openly crave. For a League One striker with 11 league goals, 6 from the penalty spot we aren't going to get much more than double that. The truth is, we will never know, hidden behind the increasingly used mask of undisclosed fee…..with potential add-ons. Profit would give Danny Wilson room to manoeuvre in the transfer market, with both monies coming into the club and an increase in turnover which will consequently increase the wage budget and total value of the available salary funds within the cap.
The importance of strengthening other key areas, assuming funds are released, is surely clear to see. We have a lack of options in central midfield and a dearth of creativity in wide areas. That lack of wide supply is due to a combination of poor delivery and Danny Wilson's insistence on persisting with inverted wingers, forever cutting inside to little effect. Blackman is as guilt of that as anyone. Look how frequently the Blades have struggled to break down opposition defences and how often an attack out wide ends with a narrow chipped cross on to a towering League One centre half’s temple.
Blackman is a bit of a show pony footballer. Erratic and lacking little confidence he must cause team-mates as much frustration as he does the fans at times, but as supporters we sometimes see past his failings because he scores goals. He is capable of much more than we get to see, if only he had a bit more application and thought we might see the substance as well as the style.
Yes he chases lost causes and often recovers the ball, but when there are easier positions to chase down, he is strolling around the pitch seemingly oblivious to the opportunity. At times he struts about the pitch with seemingly half-hearted indifference. That may not be the case, but his body language suggests a man who is interested in the work that gets noticed and not the off the ball graft required, particularly when played out wide.
In possession, you sense something exciting might happen, but equally as likely is a wild shot from distance blazed over the bar. His clear strengths are his pace, particularly when running at defenders, and his ability to hold up the ball, but how often does he do the hard work and then fail to part with the ball when a teammate takes up a good position? It is interesting that his stats show a player who has scored a goal once every two games and half of his shots per game are on target.
The biggest issue for me with his potential departure is that without Blackman we become an even more one dimensional team, lacking pace in every part of the pitch. Whilst teams hit us swiftly on the break, leaving us looking listless, we have no one likely to do that to the opposition. A huge amount of importance is placed on who and how we replace and strengthen the squad.
Yes, losing one of our supposedly better players at this stage of the season hurts. Some may say it shows a lack of ambition. You can only really say that when you see how the money is spent. Nick Blackman is our top scorer, but he has only scored 4 in the last 10 games; 2 of which were penalties. He is not the player around which the team's style of play revolves, nor is he the player we are ultimately reliant on for results. 
Every backbone and heart you break
Will still come back for more
As ever, at moments like this, fans take to the message boards, to social media and to their mobiles, hammering their keys like a demented woodpecker. They are blaming the board, Kevin McCabe, Danny Wilson; but few are actually wondering if the player himself is driving the move.  A pay rise and a move to a club pushing for promotion to the Premier League, what's not to like about that from Blackman's perspective? They are also ranting about a move that is still to be confirmed, but why should that stop those who set up the Kevin McCabe OUT Facebook group?
There are those who will claim that it is the final straw; that is them finished with the club, that they are not renewing season tickets next season; one even showed his cut up season ticket on twitter last night. Some will go to extremes; saying that Meadowhall with the missus is preferable. I think they annoy me less than those who say they will go to some away games, but not the home ones. As if part-time support and putting money in rival club's coffers helps the situation of the club they profess to love.
These are the "Drama Queens", as I prefer to think of them. Some may follow through with their claims, many will not. I am damned sure that selling Nick Blackman isn't an excuse to end years of support. I can see a cumulative impact of player sales causing frustration, but to walk away…really?
It is quite interesting that when you look up the many definitions of support in a dictionary they could each be applied to being a football supporter;
-          to bear or hold up, serve as a foundation for.
-          to sustain or withstand (weight, pressure, strain, etc.) without giving way; serve as a prop for.
-          to undergo or endure, especially with patience or submission; tolerate.
-          to sustain (a person, the mind, spirits, courage, etc.) under trial or affliction.
As Blades supporters we are all too familiar with the third and fourth definitions. Maybe some should remember that and put a little perspective in their rants. I am by no means happy with where our club finds itself, or with some of the decisions have been made, but really what would be left and what state would be in Kevin McCabe walked away? Think about that and maybe wait and see the state of the squad versus Coventry City on Friday before hammering your keyboards or opening your mouth.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Unwanted Visitors

With ticket pricing in the news again a real set to started on twitter with fans of various clubs, journalists, fan organisations and fanzines all having their say on the issue of ticket pricing. Sadly much of the debate with fans sinks to two trains of thought. One driven by partisanship where fans are happy to criticise other clubs, but see little fault in their own club.  The other prevalent train of thought seems to be "well I can afford it so what is the problem if some cannot?". This again misses the point and seems symptomatic of an increasingly selfish wider society, where it is all about "me" and balls to everyone else. A survival of the shittiest, if you will.

My piece on Huddersfield fans boycotting Bramall Lane last season, over the prices being charged by for a League One match, caused a bit of debate at the time. My point then was that it needed a concerted national focus on ticket prices and discretionary pricing on the back of the cases being highlighted. As much as there were elements of the Huddersfield boycott to be admired, their fans seemed to direct ire personally at Sheffield United whilst remaining oblivious to their own club doing exactly the same to other clubs (United included); albeit with marginally lower prices.

Nothing has changed in my view. The FSF and other fan organisations need to ride off the back of the current media storm and push the authorities for controls and caps to be in place. This has to be at all levels, not just the Premier League, regardless of whether this creates problems for clubs lower down the leagues. How can Alfreton Town charge £18 for Blue Sq Premier League football? Obviously, the Premier League are in a much better position to absorb these reduction; as the FSF Chairman Malcolm Clarke pointed out last week, the new Premier League TV deal would allow clubs to reduce existing prices by an average of £30 per ticket.

Whilst many focus on the generic issue of high prices for all fans; after all you cannot charge away fans more than a home ticket in an equivalent part of the stadium, others focus on the price discrimination in play with game categorisation and the added difficulties of the away fan, the debate set me thinking on a different track - whether football clubs really want away fans in their stadiums at all?

In some ways it seems like a vaguely romantic notion that clubs would see the benefits of away support; the thrilling atmosphere of fans chanting support for their team, shouting down the opposition, generating a buzz and a visceral roar to the game. Two sets of fans going verbally head to head in a to and fro of songs and chants is an integral part of going to the match. Yet, with a few exceptions, is this becoming a thing of the past?

Maybe I notice it more as clubs come to Bramall Lane with away support proportionate to their home attendances; dwarfed by empty red seats around them and 18,000 fans in the other three sides. But switch on Match of the Day or Super Sunday and you will see it in the upper echelons of the game. How many clubs sell all their away tickets, how many times can you hear the away fans chanting in and amongst the home support. How often is a match played out to the sound of Martin Tyler and Gary Neville and little else, aside from moments of goalmouth action?

Are the clubs bothered? Are the TV executives bothered? When the Premier League started and ticket prices were more affordable there were empty seats, what is there incentive to do anything about it?  You could even see them sticking on a pre-recorded tape of crowd noise, who in the millions of Sky subscribers, those that seemingly matter most these days, would notice? They seemingly aren't botheredabout empty seats, the only people who are bothered are opposition fans who have another verbal stick to attack the opposition with.

Having given it a bit of thought over the last week I can see why clubs might want to minimise away support. At first I thought the theories set out below might only benefit clubs in the Premier League, where capacity is reached and demand for tickets outstrips supply, yet some could still be applied to Football League clubs and maybe the increase in costs for handling away supporters outstrips the often minimal uplift in turnover from them being there?

Financial benefits of selling those seats to home fans

Obviously there are segregation issues to address and this is not always straight forward depending upon ground design, access routes etc. but if tickets are returned and sold to home supporters there could be a significant financial uplift for the club.

With tickets priced between £30 and £65 the cost of attending as an away fan could be anywhere between £100 and £200 depending upont ravel costs, food and drink, programme etc. In most cases the home fans have much lower additional costs of attending and more likely/comfortable to spend that on a ticket.

Certainly at the larger Premier league clubs, where there are more members than seats and limits on match-day availability the lack of opportunities to see their team will encourage the casual fan to look past the ticket price. After all, it is not like they are spending this amount week in, week out.

Additional discretionary spend

Money made from other discretionary spend  should increase as well. Firstly as a home fan there is a greater willingness to spend money at your club on food and drink for example. Then there is the additional spend in other club concessions and the club shop. Granted not every additional home fan will do this, but whatever proportion does, it is all additional income the club wouldn’t have had with away fans in those seats.

Sale of alcohol to away fans vs. home fans

Some grounds still impose a ban on the sale of alcohol to away fans. Obviously this will be relaxed if home fans take up the seats. Again it is a marginal financial benefit, but it is still additional profit.

Cost of policing and stewarding?

The greater the away support; the greater the costs incurred. Policing bills increase with increased resources deployed to maintain segregation and control outside the ground. The clubs' stewarding contractors will charge more for managing and maintaining safety in the ground. For the same sized crowd, the stewarding requirements will increase, the higher the proportion of away fans.

Partisan atmosphere

It could be argued that minimising the number of away supporters gives the home team an edge. Many clubs already try to marginalise the impact of away support; usually by placing them in a distant part of the stadium and making them barely seen or heard - take the rafters of St James' Park as an example.

The Premier League has said that it will encourage clubs to bring in new incentives to encourage away fans but will not intervene directly over ticket prices. There have been calls for a cap on the amounts clubs are charging away fans - particularly where the categorisation of matches is in place - but the league insists tickets are a matter for individual clubs. Yet again complete avoidance of the issue.

There have been various proposals put forward on the ticket price issue, many focusing on the problem for away supporters. One suggestion was that coaches should be subsidised for travelling fans, a laudable suggestion to some and the kind of incentive the Premier League were clearly angling for; but the cynic in me sees it differently.

Not all fans want to travel by coach, be held at service stations, be deposited next to the ground close to kick off, without the chance to explore a town/city and have a choice over where they eat and drink beforehand. This kind of suggestion just plays into the authorities' hands. We have already seen examples of "coach bubble" tactics from police,where fans have to buy joint match and coach tickets, and must travel to their home ground for a journey, escorted by police to the stadium. This has been used for high profile games, where they see a risk of violence, but this is hardly going to discourage them from making its use more widespread. At times it is the clubs as much as the police that are advocating such controls.

Yet again, what is proposed as a solution ends up being a punishment for the majority and reduces their civil liberties. Add in legislation that means that you can’t drink in a mini bus or coach going to or from a ground, it adds little to the supporter experience. Meanwhile, for those who arrive by train, it’s not unusual to be met off the train by police,corralled to a local pub and effectively made to stay there until shortly before kick-off.

I, as a shirt wearing fan, have been told where I will drink, not been allowed to leave for the ground well ahead of kick off and then been escorted there (arriving as the match kicked off), all the while having police dogs straining on the leash and cameras trained on us. Away fans are the enemy treated with contempt and suspicion, with no attempt to recognise the differences amongst them. So what if they miss a few minutes of the game.

I accept that there are some clubs taking positive steps and a look at the site of The Fan Experience Company highlights interesting and welcome initiatives from Brighton, Cardiff and AstonVilla.

As an example; Cardiff addressed explored each visiting fantouch point with all of the key club representatives involved (including the Safety Advisory Committee, stewards, police, fans and those responsible for the away fan experience within the club itself), unravelled it and effectively re-engineered it. Yet the irony in Cardiff’s stance in trying to make visiting fans more welcome is that their away support can sometimes suffer from restrictions on their travel and allocations. I heard recently of potential issues they face going to Leeds, whereby restrictions on ticket collection and an early kick off are being imposed, with a threat of tickets being withheld otherwise.

The initiatives mentioned above have reduced instances of crowd trouble and increased pre-match revenues from away supporters, yet they are the exception rather than the rule. They will remain the exception unless the mind-sets of those running the game change. Talking about the Manchester City game Arsene Wenger commented;

"I am really worried they are high for our supporters.For the visitors, it only happens once a year, so that is less of a concern. We sell out our games, but ideally you want ticket prices to be affordable to everybody. It is a very delicate subject." You can argue that he is focusing on his club and the specifics of the ticket price furore and also that he is not in a position to influence club policy, but if that self-serving attitude pervades the whole of the football club that has to be a concern. As long as our fans are okay, we don't care about the rest.
The game of football has devalued away fans for many years; demonised by the authorities, treated like second class citizens by clubs, police and stewards, their football watching made more difficult by television schedules and prohibitive costs, and all without a second thought. Not all of this is driven by the clubs, but they are complicit in it happening. Away fans are a vital component of a British football match, more so than in other countries and aided by geography and a culture of travelling support. It seems at the minute that host clubs have only a little interest in their well-being or experience. There may come a point in the near future where they don't care for them at all.