AT Easter Road last Saturday, they were collecting for a foodbank. Not pies and Bovril, you understand, but bags of supermarket produce for more nourishing meals. Although the effort puzzled my seven-year-old son, who couldn’t understand why we had to resort to such drastic measures because “this isn’t Africa”, the donations made for a poignant sight – all the more so because we were at a football stadium.
Some of the food will have been handed in by fans who must come close to busting their budget to support their team.
A seat in the East Stand for Hibs’ match with Alloa – down a division, don’t forget – cost £22. Football in Scotland is expensive and sometimes – as on cold days when the play is dismal and the captain misses the ball completely – I wonder how even 8,031 bother to turn up.
Looking around last Saturday, no one seemed affluent enough to be able to risk 20-odd “leisure pounds” on Liam Craig not managing to contrive a fresh-air shot. Although there are obviously needier people out there right now, the crowd should have been sent away at the end with free gifts. That, or they all deserve medals.
Contrast Easter Road with Upton Park where looking on proudly as your kid leads out West Ham as the mascot can cost as much as £600. A study published on Friday exposed the prices of “matchday packages” at English Premier League clubs. You get more than mascot rights for that sort of money, oh yes. Football kit, signed balls and photos of the special day. But even rubbishy Queens Park Rangers, clattering about at the bottom of the league, ask 450 quid, although I suppose in their case that might include a place on the bench for the junior fan. Truly staggering.
Actually, there isn’t a great deal of contrast between Scotland and England here.
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We charge less for our football but it’s still too much. Hibs didn’t drop their prices when relegation meant the club would be welcoming some burly bruisers from across the Forth to Easter Road (and by the way Cowdenbeath played doughtily when they visited and deserved a point). Scottish clubs insist they can’t charge less because the TV money isn’t in the game right now, but there has to be another way. We can’t carry on asking the fans to shoulder all the financial burden.
Look at the empty stands. Row after row of brightly painted, colour-co-ordinated availability. If Shaun Maloney’s winner for the national team against the Republic of Ireland is the most uplifting image from 2014 then the lack of acclaim for other goals because everyone’s at Asda is the most depressing, not to say alarming. No one likes to admit this but, if the ba’ isn’t quite up on the slates yet, then it’s definitely flirting with the guttering.
Oh no it’s not. A club like Inverness Caley Thistle are getting to cup finals. They’ve established themselves near the top of the SPFL. They’re doing all of this despite only having been around for 20 years which, viewed as part of Kilmarnock’s epic existence, is the length of a Willie Waddell fag-break, a Frank Beattie head-rush meander up the park. And now they’re saying to their fans: Pay us what you want, that’s OK.
Next month supporters can make a qualitative judgment on the game against St Johnstone and hand over the sum they think it’s worth.
Or, as is probably more likely, they’ll hand over what they can afford after – if their household is anything like mine – being very nearly wiped out by a Frozen-themed Christmas. Either way, ICT versus the Perth Saints is going to be the football equivalent of the album In Rainbows, by the brainy band Radiohead, a revolutionary release of a few years ago which handed over control of the transaction to the consumers. (There, I’ve done it, I’ve found a way to get Thom Yorke and Yogi Hughes into the same sentence – surely a first in sports journalism and deserving of one of the countless prizes on offer from Gary Lineker at the Hydro).
There’s a difference, though. Radiohead were wealthy and could have taken the hit if people had sought to obtain the album for a penny. And, for everyone such as Bono who praised the band for trying, in the face of internet leaking, to forge a new relationship with their audience, there was a critic of the wizard wheeze who called them arrogant, pointing out that, because of the drastically altered mechanics of the music industry which Radiohead had just shaken up, some more, young groups would never be able to make a living from their songs. Nowadays it’s more cost-effective to be a solo performer.
You’d never call ICT arrogant. They’re a well-run club but, like many in the Scottish game, they’re close to driving themselves demented trying to pull in the punters and the pay-what-you-want plan is just the latest, mildly desperate effort. But, unlike music, football cannot downscale the basic model. Inverness could not take the field as an individual act, Ross Draper against the rest, even though he’s a formidable fellow who’d be capable of holding out for some time.
The dream of a scheme like this is it pulls in such bumper crowds that the club’s running costs aren’t affected, that they can still pay for more than the bold Draper to turn out for them. Suddenly the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium looks like a proper, bustling ground rather than a large bothy on a hillside for a few hardy Gore-texed souls.
“We’re trying to get more people in,” says marketing manager Ian Auld. “We’d like people to pay what they feel the ticket price is worth in terms of how they see us and the game as a whole.”
Season-ticket holders, of course, have already stumped up for the duration, and may grump at what is bound to be viewed by some as an opportunity for cut-price admission. The offer is aimed at those yet to be seduced by Yogi’s footballing philosophy in a place that always looks perishing even when it’s balmy – those guys and their kids are the fans of tomorrow.
I wish Caley Thistle well in this venture because, even if it is a runaway success and they end up having to build a bigger bothy for all their new fans, you don’t feel this is club who would ever charge their mascots 600 quid.
It’s certainly a brave move. While some may put in cheeky and exploitative bids for tickets, others will offer up what they believe to be a fair price for a Scottish football match right now. Other clubs will doubtless wince at the outcome. Some delusional ones may be shocked. But they should all watch the experiment with interest, and be glad there is as yet no opportunity to claim rebates retrospectively when a game doesn’t match the expectations of the price you paid, after the skipper had taken careful aim and hit absolutely nothing.
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