A BUMPER crowd is expected as Celtic bring in the bells at home to Partick Thistle on Wednesday.
With free tickets dished out and buses laid on, who knows, the Parkhead ground may even be at least half full. It hasn’t been that way recently. Indeed, the past two league games are the first back-to-back such encounters to have attracted crowds of less than 30,000 while the championship has been a live issue since the stadium became a 60,000-seater arena in 1998. Then, accurate attendances were given out. Now, these require freedom of information requests, with the club aggregating the number of paid-for-seats, which amounted to 46,000 for each of the victories over Hibernian and Hearts this month.
If that appears undoubtedly healthy then what is not is that around 20,000 season ticket holders – around half the entire figure, in fact – are electing to think better of occupying seats they have already parted with their money for. It will be pointed out that the weather and time of year led to a dip in attendances throughout the country but that doesn’t explain what is driving down Celtic’s capacity to have punters come out to watch them.
In the year-and-a-half the top flight has been devoid of the Rangers brand, Celtic have made great play of the fact that they have a standalone strategy not dependent on rivalry with a club playing out of Ibrox.
And, having turned a debt into cash in the bank and posted a near-£10 million profit last year, they are making good on their assertion.
Yet the declining interest from Celtic fans in watching a procession to their third championship demonstrates that they would struggle to operate at their current level if there was never again a team called Rangers in the top flight. The last two home games offered a glimpse of what would be the norm if the club operated in an environment in which they had no major – even from a numerical and cultural sense – rival.
The 20,000 no-showers among Celtic’s season ticket holder base probably retain their tickets currently for two reasons: they received a £100 reduction on them last summer and it will probably be only 18 months before there is a Rangers to ridicule and lord it over in the Premiership. Without that promise of ding-dong derby days, most of these fans would probably chuck their tickets.
In a non-Rangers world, then, Celtic would have a rain-or-shine hardcore of around 25,000. When they won the last of their nine-in-a-row run of titles in 1974, that was roughly their home average, as it was when they hit rock bottom in 1994.
To live within the means that a 25,000 season-ticket-holder base generated, there is no way Celtic would operate with the £30m playing budget they have at present, or spend even sums of £2m on a couple of players every summer. Such a reduced season-ticket-holder figure – with child and younger person reductions taken into account – would bring in around £8m. Celtic’s ticket sales for the Champions League last year alone were £10m. In the Martin O’Neill era, season tickets sales coined in £23m.
Celtic are too cautious to rely on Champions League income every year to prevent major losses.
However much their club’s supporters may want to be in denial about it, then, with no Rangers permanently in their domain, Celtic would undergo serious downsizing and most home games the club’s stadium would be morgue-like. In turn, a lower spend on player wages would inhibit the calibre of individual that could be recruited, which would result in the team being weaker and potentially more vulnerable across the three rounds of Champions League qualifiers they require to negotiate to reach the group stages.
It is perhaps surprising just how quickly almost half Celtic’s season ticket holders have canned watching domestic games.
Two years ago, their team wasn’t even champions. The apologists would claim that the club’s treatment of the now dispersed Green Brigade and its perceived attempts to “sanitise” the support has helped turn off sections of the support, but few are buying that. In the Glasgow domain, for a great many it is quite clear that hatred of the other side fuels interest more than love of their own club. And without this adversarial outlet, it is noticeable how the stuggles of both Celtic and Rangers have become internalised. When it was put to Celtic manager Neil Lennon that some of his supporters appear to have short memories, he said: “And a self-destrcut button. And it’s not helpful.”
The Irishman said he “can’t look at” the possibility that some Celtic fans have turned to navel gazing about their club as a more satisfying pastime than actually attending games.
“My objective is to take the team forward,” Lennon said. “I am aware of the point being made because it is almost as if they need something to fight or argue about. But I can’t do anything about that.”
In terms of the lowly 25,000 crowd estimated to have turned up for the 12.15 visit of Hearts last Saturday, Lennon pointed to mitigating circumstances beyond climate. “It’s the first time we’ve had a home game televised for a while and it’s Christmas as well which might have had a big effect on the crowd. We are always looking to give fans value for money and we’re always looking to bring a player in who might capture the imagination as well. But we’re 16 games unbeaten and we can’t do much more than that. Our away form has been very good but it’s a little bit different at home where teams camp in for long periods of the game. I know it’s up to us to try and break them down but we try to give the fans value for money at home as well.
“I don’t think [what has happened with the Green Brigade] has had any effect. There might have been a Champions League hangover as well. We’re out of that competition now. I would expect over the festive period the crowds will pick up again and we have Partick Thistle on New Year’s Day and I would imagine there will be a decent crowd for that one.”
A “decent crowd” these days, is very different from what it was five years ago.