While the timing of the announcement by the Premier League clubs on 9th March of a £30 cap on the price of all away tickets from next season came as something of a shock, the fact that it came at all showed that concerted fan pressure can still produce results in this era of corporate football.
The announcement marked a major staging point on a long road that started in January 2013, when Manchester City returned over 900 of their allocated tickets for a trip to the Emirates as fans refused to cough up £62 a ticket on top of the cost of travel to London.
Suddenly alarm bells rang at Premier League HQ prompting its chief executive, Richard Scudamore, to say, “Absolutely top of our aims and objectives is to put on a show and keep attendances full. The clubs absolutely know where the Premier League stands on this. We want full stadia”
All of a sudden, the threat of empty seats at big games had become a reality and a very large genie had wriggled free of its bottle.
The Premier League responded quickly by launching the Away Supporters Initiative to provide limited subsidies of away ticket prices, often for the longer and less attractive trips where allocations might be hard to sell at full price.
It was a small step in the right direction but the big six remained opposed to any limits on their ability to fleece fans.
Around the same time the Football Supporters Federation (FSF), to which the major fan organisations at each club are all affiliated, launched a campaign with the catchy strap line “Twenty’s Plenty”, which was designed to utilise social media to spread the word.
The plan was to campaign as widely as possible about excessive ticket prices, to co-ordinate efforts across the game, to organise peaceful protests and to distribute leaflets outside the grounds.
Whilst its initial aim was to reduce away ticket prices as this would be more palatable for clubs due to the reduced numbers involved, the campaign also recognised the need to reduce prices across the board.
While fan groups have always sought to engage their own clubs in dialogue on this issue it was never realistic to expect unilateral action. At the end of the day football clubs are businesses and no well-run business is going to voluntarily put itself at a commercial disadvantage to its competitors.
A broader solution and a more professional approach was clearly needed.
The benefit of having a game wide campaign co-ordinated by a national body meant that fan groups at different clubs were now actively being encouraged to abandon their traditional tribalism and work together rather than individually, with social media the perfect vehicle to spread the word.
At Norwich, the Canaries Trust worked with Forces2Canaries, Proud Canaries and the Barclay End Projekt to get the views of a wider set of fans across in our regular and always constructive discussions with the club, but debate and canvassing was never going to be enough in itself.
What ultimately proved to be the decisive action in the campaign was an act of good old fashioned militancy.
On 6th February, Liverpool fans responded to the announcement of a top ticket price of £77 for their new Main Stand by staging the first supporter walkout in the 132 year history of Anfield with over 10,000 fans leaving their seats in the 77 minute.
It was stunning and it simply couldn’t be ignored.
Interviewed by the Guardian afterwards, one of those fans hit the nail firmly on the head: “No witnesses could have failed to draw the inference. Crowds matter. People matter. Without fans it’s just 22 fools in a field.”
The Premier League, Sky and BT must have been tearing their hair out at the prospect of further protests at televised games because it was hardly going to promote their precious “product” in the most appropriate light.
In fact, it is hard to believe that the concerns of the TV companies played no part in the League’s surprise decision to announce the price cap without waiting for the next Shareholders meeting scheduled for 23rdMarch when the issue was due to be discussed.
The cynic in me suspects that the fact that further protests and walkouts had already been arranged by the FSF for Saturday 19th March may also have had something to do with it.
It’s a great result but not the end of the story by any means. The FSF will continue to campaign for cheaper home tickets as well as an extension of the away price cap to the lower leagues so that ALL fans benefit.
For years it has seemed as if the TV companies and money men were steadily taking the peoples’ game away from us. March 9th was a small step towards reclaiming it.