Of all the football matches I have had the immense good fortune to be at this season, a League Two game between Harrogate Town and Forest Green was one of the most enjoyable and uplifting.
It was not the highest-quality match I saw or the most tense. Harrogate lost. But just having a few hundred fans in the stands back when being in Tier Two was a massive privilege elevated it into something special.
Monday night at Oakwell blew it out the water.
There are different elements which make a good match.
If Barnsley v Swansea City had been a behind-closed-doors dead rubber, you would have classed it as pretty dire. When I tweeted late in the game I could not take my eyes off it, someone tweeted back to say “it’s the worst game of football I’ve ever seen”.
It was not about the technical ability or imagination on the ball. It was a Championship play-off semi-final first leg and with promotion to the Premier League on the line, both teams were desperate to win.
Sometimes when the football is dire, excitement compensates. Far better to watch two teams who cannot defend to save their lives play out a 5-4 than two technically brilliant sides pass the ball accurately without ever looking like breaking down the defences blocking their paths.
What really made it, though, was the Oakwell atmosphere. There were 4,500 fans allowed in for the first time since March 2020 and they made the noise of 10 times that. Just as at Harrogate, it made the game.
Players, journalists, chairmen and the rest talking about the importance of fans has been a constant all season.
But now we have to move beyond talking.
Some clubs backed it up with actions, such as Tranmere Rovers giving season-ticket holders a free seat for their play-off semi-final at home to Morecambe. Sheffield United are charging £40 for 2019-20 season-ticket holders to watch their relegated side play a match without much riding on it on Sunday, £20 for juniors.
Like so many businesses, football clubs will have a lot of making up to do on the balance sheet now they can open their gates again. They are not charities, and fans almost invariably want them to spend money on transfers – it has to come from somewhere.
But particularly for Premier League clubs, for whom money at the gate pales into insignificance against the new £4.8bn three-year extension to its domestic television deal (there is an overseas version worth similar eye-watering amounts too), there needs to be action to show all that guff about the importance of fans was not just that.
It is about more than just gate money on the day. Clubs with positive atmospheres inside their grounds win more home matches, clubs who get more points at home are more likely to get promoted/less likely to get relegated and clubs higher up the pyramid bring in more money.
Ticket prices are only part of it.
When clubs such as Bradford City and Huddersfield Town have offered cheap season tickets in recent years, it has been a signal that they value fans. They also recognise cheaper tickets can actually mean bigger attendances and, if the balance is right, more not less money at the turnstiles.
Bradford, Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United will be big clubs in their divisions next season but it will count for a lot less if the terraces are not busy and positive. People turning up to moan are damaging but a rocking stadium is powerful.
If Hull City fans return to the KCOM Stadium in the (totally justified) resigned mood they were last at it in, the result could well be the same again – Championship relegation.
Hopefully, Barnsley need all the support they can get next season to try to partly bridge the gap to some of the giant Premier League clubs. It would be a very nice problem to have.
But there are other ways where clubs and their owners need to show more respect to fans. Not letting them run the place by committee, bending over backwards to make crowd-pleasing signings the bank balance will not stretch to, and certainly not by winning trophies, although that would be very nice too.
The push for independent regulation of football is important, and the Government must step up to the plate having too many times wasted its strong hand in this pandemic, even in letting the Premier League dodge competition law to renew that TV deal in return for an extra £100m spread down the pyramid.
It sounds a lot but, over three years, it will be spread across more than 1,000 non-league clubs, Leagues One and Two (the Championship, where the financial gap most needs bridging can do one as far as the Premier League is concerned), women’s football, the Football Foundation, looking at head injuries in football, anti-discrimination and fan groups.
Meaningful fan representation is just as important.
Fans make the game. We all know it, we all say it. Now do something about it, football.
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