Tag Archives: Football Finance

The romance of the FA Cup is not only dead, it’s long gone.

AFC Wimbledon and a small club from the seven tier of English football apart, there was little intrigue in many of the third round FA Cup matches. ‘Giantkiller’ headlines are long gone from the competition, as the Premier League’s continued evolution moves its clubs beyond the reach of even those just trailing behind.

Photograph: Wembley, Author’s Own

Sure, there is still the odd minor upset from time to time – but the finances of today’s game in the United Kingdom mean many of the top tier clubs can play a mixture of regulars, youths and those in need of getting 90 minutes under their belt, and still record a relatively easy win over whatever lower division side throws at them.

That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of passion, excitement and entertainment on display. Dover Athletic’s fixture against Crystal Palace afforded us the opportunity to reflect on just how far the London side has come recently. They won their match comfortably in the end – the hosts’ tired legs succumbing just enough to make the vital difference after a huge effort in the opening half. The fixture might not have been settled definitely until the hour mark; the result, however, never seemed in doubt.

We then switched our attentions to Manchester City, who hilariously fell behind at home to Sheffield Wednesday. The latter are a decent side and were always going to be tricky opponents that needed to be felled with care and precision. However, City piled forward in waves after going behind and once James Milner equalised, there was an immediate fear that a winner would duly follow.

Wednesday ran themselves ragged holding on and could genuinely feel hard done by when Milner’s second hit the back of the net in added time but there was such a feeling of inevitability about it that the commentary team on the day barely acknowledged their ‘brave’ efforts before sending them packing back to the Championship. City, in contrast, were ‘relieved’ to be through to the next round and simply glad of no significant headline coming from the Etihad Stadium.

On then to neighbours United, who made the trip to Yeovil. The tie – the viewers were reminded on numerous occasions – meant a huge deal financially to the home side, who had even commissioned a once-off jersey to commemorate the occasion. Social Media did question this specific idea; however, as anyone involved with a League of Ireland club knows, you have to make hay while the sun shines and, at least in terms of football, that’s a big Premier League team coming to town.

Yeovil’s efforts on the pitch were incredible. They made United look distinctly average in the first half – and it was this encounter, more than any other over the five days, that stood out as an example of what the FA Cup third round really means for football’s minnows today.

To beat a team well ahead of your league ranking, you need to have the perfect day and hope your opponents are not only off form and missing a few of their big talents, but that they’re also thrown further off course by playing against unknown faces, sometimes at a new ground and surrounded by a wall of hostile banter.

Manager and players alike have to get their tactics and approach absolutely spot on. In a game where the smallest of mistakes can result in disaster, the lower division sides just don’t have the physical fitness, skills and players to mix it with the biggest of the Premier League sides any longer. They cannot rely on boggy pitches to slow their opponents down or engage in an arm wrestle to ensure victory. TV money has not only moved football’s biggest names in another realm, it has also moved Premier League clubs into another stratosphere of competition.

The saving grace was, of course, the respective performances of Blyth Spartans, who were 2-0 up against Birmingham City before losing 3-2, and that of fan-owned AFC Wimbledon.

For the latter, despite being defeated by the one and only Steven Gerrard, Monday night’s game showed what being in the 3rd round of the competition still does provide smaller outfits: huge spotlight, the opportunity to showcase your football club to your own local population that are drawn in by a big name draw, as well as an opportunity to tell the world exactly what you stand for – benefits that are not too dissimilar from a League of Ireland club competing in Europe…

In the Dons’ case, the club backed the ‘Justice for the 96’ campaign and refused to move the fixture from their home ground though it could have meant a bigger financial windfall. To put the latter into context, one of Rochdale’s backroom staff described the TV income from their third round game (circa. £25,000) as being ‘huge money’ for his club.

On the night itself we were treated to anecdotes about the AFC Wimbledon players. ‘Great run from Sean Riggs, who wants to be a tattoo artist I believe’, while Adam Barrett was the man that missed the third round draw because he was wrapping Christmas presents. This is a football club, remember, whose founding trust was told starting again and forming AFC Wimbledon was “not in the wider interests of football”.

Yes, commentators, pundits and supporters alike all profess a love for the ‘beauty’ and fairytale stories of the FA Cup year in year out. Yet weakened line ups and its timing directly after the intensely busy Christmas fixture list suggest that the big players are just happy we can settle down to the real business of vying for silverware now that the heart-warming and ‘back-to-grassroots-football’ third round ties are out of the way.


Attendances – the biggest stick of them all

One of the biggest sticks consistently used to beat the League of Ireland with is that of attendances, or rather the lack of them. Compared to the Premier League and even Championship, the numbers are meagre but when put into a different context, the situation is not so straight forward.

During our research for the Improving Football Governance project, we uncovered an interesting and unexpected stat that I have been repeating time and time again since – to whoever would listen!

According to a Uefa benchmarking report, nearly half (48%) of top-flight clubs have an average attendance of less than 3,000. Quite suddenly, perhaps the League of Ireland doesn’t figure as poorly after all.

There was an outcry recently when a late decision to televise the Cork City and Shelbourne match on a Thursday evening, moving it from an already-refixed date on a Saturday, left away fans out of pocket.

Having already made arrangements for the Saturday fixture, many simply couldn’t travel on the new date because of work commitments. As a result, the attendance on the night – as it was also a ‘school night’ for Cork City’s home crowd – was significantly reduced. It’s also worth mentioning that there is no longer any bonus money for having your game shown on television.

It goes without saying that attendances have everything to do with a team’s form. There have been some great crowds seen at Dundalk and St. Pat’s this year. Champions Sligo Rovers, on the other hand, have seen a dip in numbers – according to their manager – as a result of their failure to challenge for another League title and Cork City, too, have seen a decrease.

The situation in the First Division is even more worrying, and has been for some time. While over 2,000 people witnessed Athlone Town become champions, crowds are typically more a couple of hundred people rather than anywhere near a couple of thousand.

Screen shot 2013-09-30 at 20.15.15Mid-week fixtures in a League that is effectively part-time don’t help in the slightest, though they are fewer in number this season.

There was plenty of chat online on Social Media during Cork City’s trip to The Showgrounds a few weeks ago when one lone CCFC fan was snapped in the away stand.

He was later joined by three more hardy comrades but considering that Sligo is usually an overnight trip, arranging a Monday night game gave away supporters little or no chance of making the 10-hour round trip.

Screen shot 2013-09-30 at 20.14.48

Keeping track of the fortunes of our senior team, it’s easy to understand that Irish football fans – generally – are not as likely to attend a live football game as opposed to watching a fixture on television or in a pub.

The FAI, like League clubs, are struggling to convince Irish sports fans that being there is what counts the most and until that point of view gains some ground, we will all continue to suffer when results dip.

I know club officials that shake their heads when they hear one of their home games is on TV. Television coverage almost always affects gates and with no financial compensation to make up the difference, it can be the difference in making wage and bill payments a struggle for that fortnight or not. It’s time to understand and concede that we are a nation of event junkies and that there’s no easy fix.

The alternative solution, of course, is to become less dependent on gate income. That’s easier said than done in the current economy though, especially given that decent crowds, in turn, always attract more interest in – and usually more lucrative – sponsorship deals. A rising tide lifts all boats, as they say; just as it’s hard, if near impossible, to escape a spiraling whirlpool without significant intervention, change or simple hard-won luck.

And it’s there, within that downwards creep, that you’ll see the real fear. The ‘fear’ that any change or initiative might negatively impact or dent the existing crowds (that clubs fight hard to retain), so as to ensure the drive to do something different simply can’t be risked. The ‘fear’ that another bad season will be the tipping point, and perhaps the ultimate ‘fear’ that there will be no upsurge or Spring tide at all.

So… how can the League move forward? Like anything in life, it’s about taking a long, honest and critical look at where we are, focusing on what’s possible in the short and longer term, and putting both the findings (warts and all…) and plans out into the public domain so all efforts can be measured and improved upon.