That joke isn’t funny anymore

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On Saturday afternoon, esteemed journalist Rory Smith of the Times did a tweet of Wigan Athletic’s empty (closed) South Stand with the accompanying headline “FA Cup Fever hits Wigan”. Ouch.

He subsequently got hundreds of tweets back from angry Wigan Athletic fans pointing out that he had done the oldest joke in the book and it was, quite frankly getting a little tiresome.

Me, I stayed out of it purely because I didn’t need to get involved. I’m kind of proud that Wigan Athletic fans are not prepared to take this kind of sh*t any more and social media gives them the tools to fight back against this constant tirade of ridicule thrown our way. In a measured, statistical and rational way of course, I would never condone abuse.

Rory is someone I have had a few dealings with and one of the better ones out there and stuck up for us in the past, he’s not one of those with an eternal grudge against us who constantly attacks us mentioning no names *cough Mick Dennis, Paul Wilson, Brian Reade*.

His defence that it was only a joke perhaps suggests we should all let this go and not get on our high horse about it and stop taking things so seriously. But when the joke is continual and always at your expense it starts to get a little tiresome. As @MarshCP said on twitter “call your wife fat once and it’s a joke, do it every week and it’s turns into psychological bullying”.

That was that (I say that but he’s still getting stick now as I type this) but we do have a massive problem here and it is having an impact on the one area where football matters most – on the pitch. The stat doing the rounds yesterday was that we have won just one home game in the FA Cup in 11 years. It’s of little surprise to me.

It would be easy to dismiss this and say that we have a lot of highly paid professionals on our books who shouldn’t start playing like plum duffs simply because there is a stronger glare of plastic on show. But footballers are fragile beasts with above average egos which they like to have massaged by the support of a passionate crowd. And nine times out of ten at the DW – even in league games – that passion is most evidently found in the North Stand.

The fact is that we have 10,000 empty seats most home games and another 5,000 empty seats in the home end alone when it is a cup tie, hence the club’s decision to close the South Stand. Justified but still no less embarrassing. To leave one whole end of the ground empty REALLY MATTERS in today’s football world so it seems but as the alternative involves thinly spread fans being even more thinly spread it does seem to stack up.

Up the road at the Reebok, Bolton are getting similar crowds to ourselves (no matter what their lot claim) and they box a little smarter by leaving their upper tiers empty. Thus giving off the impression that every stand is populated, has fans in it and there are fewer empty seats as they are tucked away out of pitch level. Due to the layout of our ground we end up advertising the fact to the extent that those fancy flashing neon hoardings in front of the stands may as well be saying “HEY GUYS LOOK AT ALL OUR EMPTY SEATS #BANTZ”.

So that’s how it is but why is it?

There are two contributory factors: there are the thousands of fans who go missing for cup games and there is the ergonomics of the DW Stadium. Let’s deal with the first point first.

 

Whenever the flak start flying someone will invariably make a comment along the lines of “can’t believe how fickle our fans are, they all want to go to the final but can’t be arsed with a third round tie”

Can of worms cracked open in no uncertain terms.

This is always a very divisive and dangerous argument and one I tend to walk a very perilous tightrope on. My TNS colleague Wildheart argues the case very strongly about the financial hardship suffered in Wigan and towns like it meaning affordability of extra games is low and has been for some time.

Therefore, anyone who can afford to go to turn around and slag off anyone who can’t afford to is treading on very thin ice.

I would say that it is only one albeit the strongest dimension to the argument though and would put forward Macc away last year as the argument. I saw people that day happily p*ssing away £100 of ale money who wouldn’t have dreamed of paying a tenner to go to the Bournemouth home game in the previous round or in some cases any home game. Of course, it may well be that they are more interested in DRINKING than watching Wigan Athletic play football but it is still a valid point: that there are some people out there who can find the money but simply can’t be ar*ed turning out due to the low grade nature of the fixture.

I’ll park that there and say the following factors come into play:

1. People are skint and have to pick and choose

2. People are working (which is probably a bit redundant as if people have to work Saturdays, they have to work Saturdays, FA Cup or not)

3. Exiled fans can’t always make it up

4. People can’t be ar*ed

I understand the first three and there’s also the expense of Christmas and the Europa League expense to take into account but I think in the interests of collective responsibility we may have to accept that some fans do fall under this can’t be ar*ed category.

It’s probably lazy on my part to badge this as a “Sky generation” thing but given it represents 90% of Wigan Athletic fans seeing as we were getting relegated the year the Premier League came along in front of 1,841 fans at Springfield Park there may be some truth in it.

That Sky generation who has been brought up to believe that the cup doesn’t matter which is inherent throughout every football club but it is exacerbated within ours because of the time period in which our fanbase has grown.

Of course, many years earlier Wigan Athletic used to get huge crowds in the FA Cup when we were a non league club, when we were the giant killers. Indeed our biggest ever crowd of over 27,000 was for an FA Cup tie versus Hereford, albeit it half a century ago now and the year before we got into the league we had 13,000 on against Sheffield Wednesday for a cup tie when our league gates were barely 1,500. It’s past history but serves the point of proving that we had that tradition and are now just “any other club” – that’s human nature and the way football has gone – even after the events of May in the way in which our (collective) fanbase approaches the cup.

The attached link appears to validate this.

 

 

 

You look at clubs a bit further up like Doncaster, Yeovil and Barnsley who are

similar to ourselves: clubs in our division facing lower division opposition as a barometer but rightly or wrongly we are perceived as a bigger club due to our recent history and the fact that our ground is miles bigger than theirs.

I’d say in the case of Southampton there may also be a bit of the “Sky generation” creeping in like ourselves seeing as 20 years ago they were getting 12,000 on rattling around at the Dell for league and cup games so the newer fans turn their noses up at the cup.

Yet somewhere like Middlesbrough where financial hardship is more than equitable to Wigan get 15,000 on despite a hardly attractive home tie versus Hull. Cheap tickets perhaps? So are ours.

Finally, as we again know a lot of our support is Sky generation because it’s under 21 and you can’t blame people / kids especially for believing that the Premier League is the only thing that matters when that’s what they get told by the mainstream media on a daily basis.

The bottom line is that we’re big enough to take the piss out of the rugby for getting 5,000 on in a cup or play off game yet 30,000 glory hunters turning up when they get to the final yet it seems we are no better much as we’d like to protest otherwise.

And again and finally, before the stick rolls in, I’m not criticising any individuals who can’t afford it. Just saying it’s not as simple as that.

 

So we move to the second point, the aesthetics of the ground and bluntly speaking home games not feeling like home games for the fans or the players and this ultimately affecting our results.

Put simply, by far the biggest obstacle in our advancement of a club is exactly the same inanimate object that was the zenith of our advancement as a football club over the past twenty or so years, namely the DW Stadium itself.

It is a huge millstone around our neck and has become food and drink to lazy and even professional journalists to consume and scoff on at will.

It’s simply too big for us and we all know this. I just doubt that anything will ever be done about it which makes all the arguments and even articles like this somewhat futile. And of course this is all with the benefit of hindsight.

But that’s not to say there aren’t options. We’ve long opined that an all seater ground holding 18,000 would be more than adequate for our needs but it seems that the club would never consider structural change (which would cost money) to reduce the capacity (which would in theory reduce future revenue for bigger games and also cost money). A double whammy so to speak.

We could reduce the capacity of each stand by 1,500 seats by removing the top and/or bottom six rows (temporarily) including the away end and partitioning it off meaning a more compact, noisy fanbase and compressing the vast, open spaces of the DW. Or we could do what Bolton did and create a gangway half way down the stands where the exits are to give a two tier effect (and it’s clear to see that when Whelan built his ground, he modelled it on the Reebok). We could even get on the front foot with the safe standing proposals and build from the front to make a more compact, intimidating arena. Mind you heaven forbid any football fans get wet in 2014!

Yet as I say it all costs money, and having debated it with club officials at length in the past, one compelling argument which has been made from them in particular is why spend money on something which has no other benefit than to make us feel better about ourselves”. Not Jonathan Jackson’s words but his own view is similar; that there is a long game at work and that if we can increase our average by 500 a season in a sustainable manner then eventually we will have made progress.

Reducing capacity isn’t that ridiculous apart from maybe some more potential, initial stick and was an avenue none other than Juventus went down after Italia ’90 reducing their stadium’s capacity from 67,000 to 41,000 and moving it closer to the pitch in the process (and dare I say increasing ticket prices). Surely, if it’s good enough for them it’s good enough for anyone to consider? However my previous discussions with the club demonstrate little appetite from within.

The away end dilemma summarises the situation perfectly. I hate the fact that up to 5,000 away fans can congregate in one stand, make a right racket, out-sing the home fans, inspire their players, influence the ref while the home fans attempt to rouse themselves spread across three partially full stands. Away fans are generally better anyway – more committed as they’ve travelled and usually a higher percentage of alcohol in their system dare I say. We know this as well and of course travelling Latics fans are no different.

We could easily sort that out by just giving them 4,000 tickets and sectioning off a bit at the back. There are tangible rewards from the above: less away fan noise and domination means more home influence which if you believe in any way shape or form the mantra that “Support makes a difference” then could make a difference in our home form i.e. we win more games, which brings more success in financial terms and plus more home fans through the gate.

It might not though and we might just be stuck with it. You can understand the club officials perspective – who’s going to be the man to tell Whelan that we could sell another 1,000 tickets to Burnley fans and bring another £25,000 in but have decided not to as it might adversely impact the atmosphere in the ground.

See what I mean? Tough sell isn’t it?

Of course we share a ground with another team and for one reason or another they may not be too happy with it either as it would definitely have an adverse impact on their revenue as their crowd dynamic is very, very different. The rugby team in any typical season will get 23-24k on against Saints, the Rugby League El Classico maybe £20k on against Warrington and then maybe one other crowd in the high teens because they’ve done a large ticketing promotion or given the North Stand away to sponsors. The rest of their gates for the ten or so other games are around the 11-13,000 mark. So this is their regular home average unless they are playing a team who brings around 6-7,000 away fans. Yet they’d miss out on tens of thousands of pounds for the 2 or 3 big games a season, and ticket revenue again is much more essential in rugby league than football.

What’s the point? Why should the club go out and spend a load of money for something that will simply make us feel better and make those nasty journalists and snide Soccer AM banter merchants who call us names on twitter pipe down?

Again, we all know that per head of population, Wigan Athletic fans are one of the best supported in the country. We are just unfortunate to have been a little too ambitious in our new stadia design at a point in time and with all these away day banter accounts and the nation’s considerable obsession over attendances (much of it propagated by TV fans of big clubs who never even leave their bedrooms looking at the state of them) the whole “empty seats”, I’m afraid the stick isn’t going to go away.

Ho hum. Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

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