Empty seats should shame football, not football fans

There was an inevitability about the recent criticism directed at Manchester City supporters, as tickets for their FA Cup semi-final against Brighton went unsold.

Man City have dealt with empty seat jibes for a number of years now. Sections of sky blue at the Etihad Stadium not reflecting the domination of Pep Guardiola’s team. Last weekend, BBC 606 presenter Kirsty Gallacher got flak – and unfortunately, a fair share of abuse – for he apparent condescension towards the City fans who stayed away from London.

As has been pointed out by hundreds of supporters already, mocking the fans themselves misses a wider point. Saturday was Man City’s 18th Wembley trip in nine years. Not only this, but fans of The Citizens have to budget for a Champions League Quarter Final (and potentially beyond), as well as a Cup Final and the home stretch of their Premier League campaign. Man City didn’t have an enormous fan base before they became oil-rich, and whilst it’s tempting to think their money bought them millions of fans alongside their playing talent, this hasn’t really been the case. While there may be the odd sky blue shirt in Kinshasa or Beijing, this is nothing compared to the domination of Man United, Liverpool, Barcelona or Real Madrid shirts.

Wembley tickets are expensive. Cup final tickets are retailing at £45 for the cheapest seats, and £145 for the most expensive. It may not be comfortable to hear, but football for so many is no longer a working-class pursuit. Ticket prices alone don’t price every working-class fan out, but they along with travel, food, drink and accommodation mean football obsessives can’t see the beautiful game live.

It’s sad to think that there may have been some lifelong Stoke fans who couldn’t attend our FA Cup Final in 2011, although I’m almost sure it happened. People understand these economic realities. People know that other people are being priced out, and cheaper ticketing is an almost universally popular suggestion.

Despite this, football fans have looked at empty seats through the lens of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ support. Fuller stadium, better atmosphere, better fans. We like to scorn the fans of other clubs for their sparse crowds – Wigan in particular, has become a byword for small followings. Latics fans will talk about the town’s rugby obsession, the club’s short history and the raft of other clubs around them, but it doesn’t stop the jibe.

Do Stoke fans have any right to mock a few empty seats at The Etihad? We know from our own experience how much attendances are linked to success on the pitch, but we don’t have the same exorbitant ticket prices – nor the volume of fixtures – that City fans must contend with. This is ‘tiny violin’ territory to be sure, but it is true.

It’s a bit hard to stomach Stoke fans decrying other Stoke fans for not renewing their season tickets. No matter the circumstances of each individual non-renewal, a decline in sales for 2019/20 will be seen as a poor reflection on the loyalty of Potters fans. While those without the means to renew may be ‘excused’, it may also be that for many Championship football does not represent value for money (at least not a second time) even for those who can afford it.

It’s not the place of football fans to belittle others who choose not to go. Even those who simply don’t fancy going from an entertainment standpoint. If you want to point fingers about empty seats, point them at the custodians of a game that’s turned the working man’s ballet into an exclusive, boutique experience.

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