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Three’s a Crowd (AFCW edition)

Many years ago, when we used to play people like Man U, Liverpool and Chelski on a regular basis, we had a bit of a problem. No, not mortgage busting ticket prices, nor the club’s insistance on letting away fans into the Holmesdale and punishing our fans for getting the arse. But instead, it was getting people into the ground in the first place.

I can remember our last seasons in the professional leagues. Taking less than 100 to places like Everton and Sheff Weds wasn’t unusual. Granted, they were evening games, and in an era when the club openly hated us (and we responded in kind), but even so, they were perfect opportunities to take the piss out of our support.

At the time, I used to do a semi-regular feature called “Three’s a Crowd”, which basically pointed out that while our attendances were small, they were relatively pretty healthy. It also pointed out that “big” clubs such as Sheff Weds were in more trouble than we were. It may sound odd to read that, but when I eventually get round to doing the archive, you may see that stating that makes perfect sense…

Fast forward to the day you’re reading this, and the roles have dramatically reversed. We are the big fish in the small(ish) pond. An attendance for one game beats all the other attendances for that day combined. We get proper stewarding (mostly). We get specially installed facilities (mostly). We are in short the club we never ever dreamed we would be.

Right now, we have a problem at AFCW. We’re starting to obsess get worried about the crowd size. We are failing to get crowds of over 3000 people. Indeed, some have calculated that we’re getting 2000 (after knocking off away fan turnout, which even now is neglible)

If we take 500 people away, we’re disappointed. We examine everything to the minutest detail. By the time you read this, the DT will have set up a sub-sub-committee to examine why exactly 422 people didn’t turn up to this year’s Bromley evening game with a reduced capacity. How times have changed. Even five years ago, if we took 500 people away we’d be congratulating ourselves. It does seem strange that we could get crowds of over 4k for Chipstead and Vile, but struggle to get 2500 for a good Staines side.

A few contextual points. The game against Malden Town at KM got 2,528, which is run-of-the-mill. It is only 700 or so less than what we got for Sheff Weds, Norwich, Everton and Luton Town in the top flight pre-Prem hype days. It’s not that much less (and in fact may even be more) than League Cup ties against people like Wigan and Cardiff – and those sort of games weren’t that long ago. So if anything, our crowds have merely reverted back to what they were in the top flight.

Secondly, people do seem to be comparing our CCL era crowds and decreeing that we’ve slumped. We could have played pub teams from the Beverley, the Crown and the Prince of Wales and still have got 4k. Some may argue that we were playing pub teams anyway. Why this was so is explained below, but it does seem many have fallen into the trap that Prem sides fell into. That is, basing your entire modus operandi on hype and short-term popularity. If you take a freak period in our history and apply it elsewhere, you’re going to die disappointed.

Of course, it’s hard to ignore that attendances aren’t as high as they were. But why? Well, people’s habits have changed. Do you look at AFCW now in the same way you did in 2002? Or 2003? Or even 2004? Unless you’re mega obsessive, it’s unlikely. The period between 2002 and 2003/4 was unique in football watching. The novelty, the excitement, the therapy session after the last few years, and more than a little fear that if you didn’t go then AFCW would bellyflip over due to slumping crowds. Wankelmann and Koppout would have won and you would have subservently trudged back up the M1 to be greeted by Reg Davis’ sneers.

Today, there isn’t that hunger. We know AFCW will be here tomorrow, bar the club getting involved in a financial scandal. We know we can afford to miss a game if for whatever reason we can’t go. People’s circumstances are different now, be it money, job, family (never underestimate how a death or two can seriously change your attitude). In short, real life has intruded.

Some will point to what happens on the pitch. And yes, it may not be the free flowing total football that everyone expects. That said, our CCL games weren’t exactly Champions League standard. I’m pretty sure that style of play is an excuse as opposed to a reason not to turn up. Usually, if you say that you’re not turning up because the team’s crap (and I assume that you’re a true fan, and not some JCL supporting AFCW because it’s fashionable), you’ve got another reason altogether not to go.

Watching any sporting event is a hit-and-miss thing. That’s why it’s the most popular form of entertainment there is – you don’t quite know what you’re going to see. One week you can see some of the best play you’ll ever see, and the next week the same people can put in a stinker. And often do. AFCW in 2005 is no different to 99.99% of clubs anywhere. Certainly, in my experience anyway, crowds drop because of ticket prices*, “feel” of the club, facilities on offer, distance of fixtures, that sort of thing.

* – witness what happened when Sunderland played Arsenal in the Carling Cup. They reduced the price to £5 and got a 48k sellout. This despite the Mackems playing utter shite.

And anyway if style of play was that problematic, then getting 2.5k away to Hampton and Richmond this season wouldn’t have happened. Remember that we were on a very bad run of form then.

The moral of all this is that we don’t have that much of a problem with crowds. Certainly not a big a problem as many fear. Sure, it would be nice to be getting 3k as a minimum again. But right across the board, attendances aren’t as high as they once were. For every 6k attendance you get in the Conference, you get many shit ones that would send our fans into blind panic. AFCW is now settling down all over the place, and that does include turnouts. It’s probably best to bite the bullet, admit that times have changed and look after those who do still go. The rest usually falls into place.

Of course, you wait until we draw Fulham in next season’s FAC…..