Monday 23 April 2018

Ticket policy no bundle of laughs for fickle fans

Eamonn Sweeney

Y ou couldn't deny that it was an exciting contest last Saturday night. Two bitter rivals really going for it, aggression, competitive spirit, a match with everything. Who'd have thought Liam Brady would get so worked up about a simple question from Bill O'Herlihy?

There mightn't have been much for football fans to admire on the pitch but there was plenty for cockfighting aficionados to savour in the studio. Fit Brady's neck with a nice set of steel spurs and RTE will have a sure-fire ratings sensation on their hands.

But was O'Herlihy right to imply that the relatively poor crowd at the match owes something to Ireland's style of play? Or was Brady correct in asserting it's all to do with the economic situation? Travel with me right back to the apogee of the previous great Irish recession, April 1987. Unemployment was at an all-time record high of 17.1% and had been over 15% since 1984. Emigration was rising and two years later 2% of the population would leave the benighted republic amid a general feeling of national hopelessness. Yet 49,000 turned out on the 29th of that month to see Ireland being held to a 0-0 draw by Belgium.

But when Ireland met Bulgaria in their final match of that campaign in October, a 2-0 victory with goals from Paul McGrath and Kevin Moran which left us in with a slim chance of the European qualification that eventually transpired because of the miraculous intercession of Gary McKay in Sofia, there were only 26,000 spectators present.

Why? Because that draw with Belgium was followed by two unimpressive victories over Luxembourg which led to the general opinion that our new manager Jack Charlton didn't have a clue. That win over Bulgaria was our last competitive match before the heroics against England in Stuttgart which changed everyone's mind about a boss who at the time was being berated for his boring football and defensive tactics. But on October 14, 1987 we weren't all part of Jackie's Army. Not by a long chalk.

The difference in those two attendances shows that success, more than style, is what draws the crowds no matter what the economic situation. Brady's assertion that Charlton's team, for whom he played very well that afternoon against Bulgaria, played unattractive football but drew huge crowds is right. But it was only when that unattractive football produced results that it did so. At the moment, Trapattoni's team haven't had the pragmatic payback which can make the aesthetic disadvantages worth bearing for the average fan. If we'd made the last World Cup finals or even beaten Russia earlier in the qualifying campaign, there'd be a lot more people travelling to the Aviva. Fans can be a fickle bunch.

Then again, during the disastrous Staunton managerial era we were able to pull in 67,495 to see Germany in Croke Park when our chances of qualification had vanished and a scarcely credible 54,000 to see Cyprus when almost everyone had lost faith completely in the team. There's no doubt that the economic good times which prevailed then made people more inclined to pay for an international football night out even if they suspected that the rewards wouldn't be great. If fans are a fickle bunch, they are entitled to be so during an economic crisis which means few of them can be sure of what the future holds financially. So on balance you'd have to find for Brady.

And your sympathies would also lie with him given that while Brady was playing his heart out for Ireland in the eighties, O'Herlihy's most significant contribution to Irish society had been as a spin doctor who contributed a great deal to having Garret Fitzgerald's coalition government of 1982 to 1987 elected when Garret, Alan Dukes and the boys did to the economy what Brady and Frank Stapleton used to do to opposition defences.

Yet perhaps the greatest cause of the drop-off in international attendance may be the FAI's insistence on 'bundling', the sporting equivalent of insisting that someone who wants to see Radiohead playing in The Point has also to buy a ticket for the same price to see Mundy in Whelans. Bundling made sound commercial sense for the IRFU and the FAI during the good times when people didn't mind that it was essentially a scam designed to force fans into buying something they didn't want.

Now it just looks like an insult which is why it's good to see that the FAI have finally abandoned the policy. But it went on far too long and lost the team a great amount of public goodwill as well as the advantage which can be gained from having a home stadium full of passionate fans.

From an accountancy point of view, 30,000 fans at €60 a head are better than 50,000 fans at €30 a head. Maybe that's why accountants don't win many football matches.

Sunday Indo Sport

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