|The Circle of Football-Supporting Life|
Written by ElephantintheRoom on Sunday, 20th Jan 2019 14:30
There has been a lot of talk about Town’s shrunken support base in recent weeks and a flurry of initiatives to increase crowd numbers and enthusiasm.
The manager has initiated a relentless charm offensive. Ticket prices have dropped, which works wonders in the short term – especially when you win. But it can equally do enormous harm when the match is terrible and/or the players cynically walk off as they did in a game against Middlesbrough a few years’ back.
Long-term it simply isn’t sustainable – unless football can move closer to other business models where customers are paying hugely different prices for precisely the same thing. Vocal support does it for some – with the latest incarnation, Blue Action, making waves. Others take the simplistic view that winning brings in the crowds. As it does to a certain extent. But what if you rarely win?
The trouble is, football clubs and supporters change drastically over time. Generations have drifted away from Portman Road in recent years because they don’t much like what they see. It will take a lot more than Paul Lambert’s charm offensive and free bus passes to create a permanent uplift.
Against this background, the answer to the ticklish problem of how to increase crowds is decidedly tricky. It’s quite ironic that an owner who has allegedly got rich by profiting as an unwanted middleman from tickets people are desperate to buy now has to stop haemorrhaging losses by shifting tickets so few apparently want. And the reason this is such a tricky problem is that there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ supporter – hence no typical target audience. Support is a lifelong, illogical commitment. Support, like life itself, comes in many stages.
Stage 1: Going with Dad
Most supporters start going with their dad as the baton is passed from father to son or daughter. I can’t remember my first games. I am told I saw Town winning the league, but I don’t remember. I wasn’t too young, I would have been seven – but I wasn’t ready. I went because I had too.
Standing on a milk crate in a heaving crowd or stuck behind someone in the old West Stand meant I could rarely see anything. And often I was quite scared. Eventually I grew to be taller – and by 1964 I could see what was going on and no longer had to ask my father those magic words ‘Who scored?’ By now I was a fan.
In those early years we stood in Churchman’s or the West Stand. I’m not sure why. I suppose you had the sun in your face in the East Stand – and the North Stand was not for my dad. But unfortunately for him I was now looking wistfully at the far end and beginning to yearn for ‘atmosphere’.
Stage 2: Going with mates
By the time secondary school arrived I was ready for the North Stand. New friends who were already North Stand veterans made this a natural next step. My dad initially came too, just to make sure I was safe in that seething mass of noisy humanity I suppose. But eventually he drifted off to the West Stand. Now I was on my own, pushing through to find my mates in ‘our spot’.
By now Town were back in the top division – and some of the players then are still on my all-time hero list. Ray Crawford, Billy Baxter (of course). But more prosaically, Diesel Morris, John O’Rourke, David Best – and the greatest player ever to pull on a Town shirt…. Danny Hegan.
You may mock – but you probably never saw Hegan’s effortless control and silky skills. When he left, the fee was £90,000 at a time when the transfer record was Law’s £115,000. Given the record now stands at Coutinho’s £105 million that makes Hegan ‘worth’ well over £80 million today. But I digress.
Stage 3: Ultracult
As my addiction grew, like many who now choose to sit (or stand) in the North Stand today I was slightly sniffy about the other stands. It’s all about atmosphere isn’t it?
I never thought about it back then, but by the age of 11 I had stood in all four stands – and sat in the two with seats. I was young enough to know no fear when trapped in a surging, moving crowd with my feet off the ground. Yet old enough to sing encouragement and shout abuse – and wonder why so few wanted to join in.
And I could actually see the game. To top it off Town were in the top division in an era when English football really was the best in the world.
It helped that, thanks to my school being in Ipswich and my home being 20 miles away I had a free rail season ticket. Now I could go with my mates to reserve games too.
These were great. You could walk from Churchman’s to the North Stand at half-time (or vice versa) so Town always attacked your end. My ultracult mates came too and we could see young players developing. I was never convinced by Brian Talbot who looked as though he ran in slow motion, but Lambert, Whymark, Harper… these were players I knew backwards before they got in the first team.
And eventually there was a lad called Beattie playing at left-back. I was on first name terms with him too, by the time he got into the first team.
At some stage, my brothers and I (for now we were three) and my father started going to watch Norwich too. One weekend at Portman Road, the next at Carrow Road. We were not alone. I come from North Suffolk and in my neck of the woods your friends either supported Town or Norwich. And many went to both. I even developed quite an affection for Norwich – back in the Ron Saunders and John Bond era. And strangely, like at Town, Norwich began to enjoy some halcyon days too with me along for the ride.
Stage 4: Leaving home
For me leaving home meant university at the height of the Robson years. I’d come back for big games and the European adventures. But most weekends found me watching Bristol City or Bristol Rovers. And here too both clubs went on dramatic upward curves.
I’d seen Bristol City lose to Town in an FA Youth Cup final – but here were those kids as men, getting promotion to the top division and knocking unbeaten Leeds out of the cup. It was in many ways a footballing home from home. Rovers too were on their way to promotion in the much-loved Smash & Grab era. I still look for their results from time to time.
If I’d stayed I would still be a fan – but you never forget your first love. And in my case it was Ipswich Town, even if I was now seeing them fewer than ten times a season. And although I was now in my 20s I had known nothing but success as a football fan – the good times rolled on wherever I went.
Then came a job and certain responsibilities. Even a three-year stint in Scotland. I went to many Rangers-Celtic games and literally soaked up the atmosphere where fans drank Tennant’s lager non-stop, filled the empties with urine and threw them to spray the crowd in front. Lovely. I set off on an exodus to visit every Scottish ground. And then I got a job back in England.
Stage 5: Taking your girlfriend
This is I think, not a good idea – and generally in my experience, not a success. Even my wife-to-be went to only three games. The first I cannot remember. The second was ‘that’ game against Manchester United and the third an end of season game against Bolton where the players kicked balls into the crowd. Or missed the crowd, as happened near us. A salutary hint of the awful 0-0 to follow and the end of my wife’s brief affair with Ipswich Town
Stage 6: Rediscovering Dad
As most of my friends were now scattered around the country and many had lost interest, I started going with my dad again. Living a fair way from Ipswich meant it was a long journey – and meeting my dad for lunch or a pint, was fun, even if the football was dire.
The games now somehow seemed less important, the players not as good. I wasn’t falling out of love with the club, but this was the post-Robson era when the club had started to lose its way.
Strangest of all there had been a role reversal – my pensioner dad now had a child-like enthusiasm. ‘Who scored?’ he’d frequently ask as his declining eyesight let him down (or some idiot stood up in front of him).
Eventually we’d get season tickets together and relive the sixties again in reverse – thirty years on. Initially in the West Stand, which seems appallingly designed with pillars and poor angles – and then back to the East Stand to watch Town rise and fall again. Twice.
Stage 7: Going with your children
I’d been looking forward to this. Three generations going together. The baton passed again. Alas I lived a long way from Ipswich and this was now the era of the Premier League. Most of my children’s classmates supported Spurs or Arsenal – but I had some willing accomplices for a while.
Birthday treats involved bringing a whole host of kids to the ground – which was beginning to get rather expensive. When Town were back in the Premier League again under George Burley, I bought eight tickets at White Hart Lane, one of the early games, before Town’s season took off. Town were hopeless and I eventually had a chance to applaud when Jamie Clapham had a consolation shot.
Big mistake as it alerted some cretins behind that I was a Town fan – and they indignantly demanded of the stewards that I be relocated with the Town fans in a far-flung corner. The stewards were actually going to eject me for applauding good play when I pointed out that half my charges were wearing Spurs shirts. The segregation rules didn’t (and still don’t) allow for groups who may actually support both teams. Or indeed away supporters who simply want a better view.
Suffice it so say I, my son and his Spurs-supporting mates spent the next 45 minutes being threatened and abused by morons in return for my £240. Some birthday treat.
I have three boys and none of them took to watching Town. Two of them played to a reasonable standard, which I suppose is better, and that gave me the deep joy of being linesman at kids’ football matches with a first-hand insight into the sheer idiocy of parents (not just dads) at kids’ football.
Although I bought season tickets Ipswich Town simply wasn’t for them. And in truth it wasn’t as exciting as it had been for me. Children today have so many other things they can do. And adults too. Football simply isn’t the be all and end all it once was.
Stage 8: Going grey
When I was younger I wondered why so many Town fans were so old. Then my dad retired and I began to understand. Just like in those far-off school days, the match on Saturday (if only they were always on Saturday) had real meaning for him once again.
There was a camaraderie on the bus before and after the game – and the game itself somehow seemed more exciting. Some pensioners have their flask of tea or coffee. My dad had his hip flask – which made even the most tedious second half more bearable.
Football really mattered again and upping the OAP age for tickets was probably one of the more insane of many loony changes of the Marcus Evans era.
After my kids dropped the baton, it was just me and my dad for a number of years. One brother was in Sheffield, one in Cardiff. Neither of my brothers have seen a Town match in decades except at convenient away games. But my dad’s enthusiasm burnt undimmed after fifty years – and even grew as mine seemed to drop off a cliff.
Did I really want to spend good money to see Ivan Campo or Jimmy Bullard top up their retirement funds? Or Lee Bowyer in a Town shirt for goodness sake? Roy Keane? Mick McCarthy? Town blatantly throwing cup games? Town advertising ticket touts and offshore betting? The endless stream of loans and short-term contracts? Homegrown players loaned out and ignored?
It seemed rather tacky, even unpalatable - the polar opposite of what I grew up supporting. But I went because my dad did – and things could only improve (or so I half hoped) even as they got progressively worse.
Stage 9: Drifting away
Nowadays I don’t watch Town very often. My dad has died, my children aren’t interested. My mother has now died too, so the old routine of dropping in after the match has also gone. Life has scattered my friends and family around the world. Season tickets have scattered local friends who I used to go with across all four stands. I’m pretty sure I won’t go again this season for the simple reason I don’t identify with Paul Lambert’s short-term solution.
I was quite enjoying the end of the Mick McCarthy era. The sudden influx of lower league players, the crop of overhyped youngsters. Surely a half-decent manager could recreate something approaching the Town of my youth?
Alas from very early on you could tell the Hurst era would go off the rails – and while I like Lambert and his apparent enthusiasm, I can’t find it in me to support the morass of short-termers he has now shoe-horned into the team. I’d rather watch some of the ones he’s frozen out. At least they’ll probably be here next season.
Yet I’m probably one of those that Lambert thinks can be lured back with honeyed words. One that Marcus Evans thinks can be reeled in on the baited hook of a £10 ticket, or one that Blue Action think will be singing songs in my now empty seat in the East Stand. Actually no – I don’t think so. I’ve dropped off the edge of the cliff for now. And as I have described above the reasons are many and complex.
I’m not alone - perhaps some of you feel the same for a variety of different reasons? As you go through life, your priorities change. As your children grow up, their interests become your focus, not your football club. People move on and are far more mobile than they used to be. And they have so many other things they can do.
Football isn’t cheap entertainment any more. Hell, most of the time it isn’t even entertainment – it’s a sort of voluntary mental torture and anguish that has you screeching for the final whistle even when winning.
Worst of all it isn’t easy. The rush to all-seater Portman Road has meant you can no longer just go and buy a ticket and push in next to your mates. The focus is all on season tickets – which to my mind is plain wrong. When Town had crowds of 34,000 the majority weren’t season tickets. They went because they could. Now they can’t.
When Town went all-ticket in the John Lyall era they excluded thousands of their long-term supporters. A mistake they quickly repeated in 2000 to alienate thousands more supporters.
Worse still I don’t much like what Town have become. It was an appalling decision to sell the club to the Marcus Evans Group – a complete betrayal of the club and its legacy. Nothing that has happened since had changed my mind. The constant churn of players and managers. The offshore facelessness and unpalatable mediocrity.
Ipswich Town are not really ‘my’ team any more, even though I am a shareholder. Nowadays I’m embarrassed to admit I am a Town fan – which invariably engenders sniggers and smiles of sympathy from supporters of other clubs. Once it was something to be proud of and brought comments of envy.
But clearly it is something around 15,000 others, maybe more, can identify with. Perhaps because they are at different stages of their supporting circle of life. They may not have experienced, nor care what the club once was and stood for. They like what they see now. And that’s fine.
But the thorny issue of drawing a bigger crowd remains. To succeed, Town have to tap into what supporters seem to crave most – a sense of belonging. If Lambert and Lee O’Neill can rediscover a bit of the club’s identity and develop something worth supporting – perhaps even some heroes, then at that stage people really will return.
Stage 10: Drifting back
That’s not me just yet – but it could be. I now have grandchildren of my own. Granted they are not old enough yet – and they live in Wales – but I’d quite like to take them when old enough. There is the baton to pass on after all.
Relegation? I’ve seen that a few times and I suspect it would now be very good for the club. Perversely I would quite like to see third division football at Town, simply because I never have. If Town get relegated, I’ll be back for sure. If they stay up, I probably won’t be going very often – unless there is something to reconnect me with my blinkered vision of what Town used to be – and still could be.
And is that so bad? Why do you have to see every single game to be a supporter? Sure, some people do, as I once did. They bleed blue for now, but eventually most will drift away. But that doesn’t make them any more valuable than others that simply commit to fewer games. Even if you’ve drifted away, you’re still a supporter – it’s a lifelong commitment. And passes quickly by.
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