DCSIMG

Stuart Bathgate: Dundee United set example for SPL

Despite the empty seats in the away section Dundee United increased their home support on Saturday. Picture: SNS

Despite the empty seats in the away section Dundee United increased their home support on Saturday. Picture: SNS

  • by STUART BATHGATE
 

SO WAS the Rangers fans’ boycott of Tannadice a success? Yes, judged by what it was intended to achieve.

But there is another perspective from which to assess the Saturday stayaway: that of the many people in Scottish football who oppose not only Rangers, but Celtic as well. From their point of view, too, the boycott has to be deemed a success.

Let’s start with the aim of the boycott. Dundee United’s stance on newco Rangers’ bid to stay in the SPL provoked the displeasure of the Ibrox club’s fans. They were not the only club to do that, but were among the most prominent, and there had also been other sources of friction.

So when the teams were drawn together in the Scottish Cup, the supporters organised a boycott. Estimates of the number of away fans in the ground to witness the 3-0 home win range from 250 to 400, which is roughly one-tenth of the number who would normally go with Rangers to Tannadice.

A 90 per cent compliance rate is pretty good going. Any union organiser who got that level of support for a call to industrial action would be ecstatic. Mission accomplished, then, in that respect.

And the reasons for the boycott were widely publicised, so we all now know that the Rangers support are not happy with the way their club have been treated by Dundee United. Mission accomplished there too.

What of the result? You could argue that teams invariably do better with a vociferous support behind them, but in this case, Rangers’ fans would be right not to lose any sleep over the effect their absence may have had.

There were almost 30,000 at Ibrox for the League Cup tie with Caley Thistle back in October. Rangers lost that one 3-0 as well.

They also lost at home to United in last season’s Scottish Cup. And the season before in the SPL. So if a full-strength, top-flight Rangers can lose to United at Ibrox, it’s fair to presume that a Third Division Rangers would not have done any better at Tannadice even with a few thousand more supporters.

Saturday was a little bit different, of course, in that there were more United fans present than usual. The last time the teams met at Tannadice, the attendance was just under 9,464. Two days ago it was 9,564. Not a great difference as a total, but a significantly bigger turnout by the home support or neutrals.

Some Rangers fans have argued this was only achieved thanks to the publicity given to the boycott and the fact that United lowered their prices, but that hardly matters. Any game which becomes a major talking point attracts more fans. And any drop in price tends to increase sales.

It can’t be a bad thing that the United board did what they could to get a higher attendance. Indeed, that is something which every other SPL club should look at.

In any other walk of life, if a product went unsold in its thousands, something would be done. But in Scottish football there are thousands of empty seats in stadiums up and down the land, and yet clubs do little to try and shift more tickets.

Over the past two or three years, when disposable incomes have been going down for most people, clubs have been doing even less, not more, to attract more fans. Many of them have been putting resources into their own websites, which is fine as far as it goes, but not if it is done at the expense of effort elsewhere. You’re preaching to the converted on your own website. What you should be doing at the same time is reaching out to the unconverted: to the lapsed fans who need a reason to return; or to the merely curious, who need to be enticed along by something more sophisticated than the tired old mantra of “Come to the match and support the team”.

United chairman Stephen Thompson has become a bit of a pantomime villain for the Rangers support. But if he got even a handful of first-time customers through the gates on Saturday, he deserves the thanks of everyone in the game.

And let’s be frank about it. As well as first-time attenders, the Tannadice crowd would have contained a fair number who would normally stay away for a visit by Rangers or Celtic. It’s the same everywhere. There are some people with young families, and others who simply prefer a civilised afternoon out, who steer clear of visits by the two Glasgow clubs and their sizeable travelling support. We all know people like that, and they are usually ignored because they are not hardcore football fans.

The game can’t survive on a dwindling hardcore, and there are many Old Firm fans who think it cannot survive without them either. But Saturday’s match showed it is not too difficult for Scottish football to reach beyond that hardcore. And it provided some evidence that the economic clout of its two biggest teams is not so great that it should be allowed to dictate every decision.

Thompson and other club chairmen might hope there will be no more boycotts. Many supporters of other SPL clubs, and the wider communities in which they live, would gladly have more.

Strachan’s subtle touches bode well for future

A FRIENDLY in February, against unglamorous opposition, away from the national stadium. It’s the sort of fixture, in any country, which would normally provoke an outbreak of indifference from supporters and a rash of withdrawals from players, but, so far, Scotland’s match against Estonia on Wednesday has produced a different reaction.

As Gordon Strachan prepares for his first match in charge of the national team, at his old club ground Pittodrie, the dominant impression is the groundswell of goodwill he has received from all quarters. He is the appointment the fans wanted and his public pronouncements to date have been well judged, ensuring a positive reaction.

Strachan is well aware that, with the relative scarcity of resources at our disposal, unity is essential. A subtle politician with decades of experience at every level of the game, he knows that he needs everyone on his side, and he saw the difficulties with which his predecessor Craig Levein had to contend as a result of avoidable

disputes.

When announcing his squad of 28 last week, Strachan revealed he had been given free rein by Celtic manager Neil Lennon to select as many of his players as he deemed fit. That’s only right, you could argue, but it is well known that our biggest clubs have not always been so understanding.

The selection of Rangers’ Lee Wallace was another sign of Strachan’s political nous. The job is not all about keeping the Old Firm on side, but it’s part of it. And the way in which he has dealt with that part is just one of several early indications that Strachan’s reign will be a productive and perhaps even a happy one.

 

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