Apr 27

Modern football doesn't need to alienate the game's traditional fans

Posted by SoccerHistory

As many readers of Soccer History magazine are probably aware, I am a long standing supporter of Lincoln City, having first watched the team over 50 years ago. All fans know that there will be highs and lows when following a club, even if it’s Manchester United or Chelsea. It’s just that the further your club is from the Premier League elite, the more likely the lows will predominate.

Lincoln City fans have rarely had anything to cheer about since the team lost their place in the old Second Division back in 1961. Prior to the 2016-17 season there had been two championships in that period and two relegations out of the Football League; the only times the Imps had been paired against even vaguely glamorous clubs were in the (midweek) League Cup and the club is one of the very few with long standing Football League membership never to have played at Wembley Stadium. Following the Imps for most has been an act of duty with a distant hope of success rather than any expectation.

The one exception to this general mediocrity was in the mid-1970s when Graham Taylor’s team steamrollered over all opposition to win the Fourth Division title by a country mile, establishing a new record for points achieved in a season. The team won 32 of 46 League games, and only four by a single goal margin, such was their domination.

Fast forward to the 2016-17 season and the Imps entered their sixth season outside the League. The National League is not an attractive one for fans: the prize of a Football League place appears to have contributed to a level of gamesmanship, dour tactics and super competitiveness which rarely produces good football. It’s all about the results.

Remarkably, the Imps, having rarely even entered the top half of the table in the previous five seasons suddenly looked like possible promotion candidates. The main contributor to this was the management team of Danny and Nicky Cowley who, with a small influx of players, have transformed the team’s fortunes to the extent that the coveted Football League place was obtained once again making the Imps the only club to leave and re-enter the League on five separate occasions.

The success of the Cowleys on the field has been covered in great detail by the national press but the changes off the field are perhaps more remarkable and deserve attention. Many older fans have been dismayed by how the Premier League has ‘modernised’ the game through  marketising and commercialism, a move which has alienated and often excluded many traditional supporters. Fans of the pre-1992 game have often moved on from their first love and into the sedate and sometimes exotic world of ground hopping and other ventures in pursuit of ‘pure football’ where most of the clubs operate to a different agenda.

Until the current season City’s fan base seemed to belong to that pre-1992 era: mostly men attending out of habit and hoping, but not expecting, that things might get better.  Midway through the season, starting with the FA Cup victory over Oldham in December, the atmosphere at matches has been transformed and in a mini tsunami the club and its fans have been propelled into the modern world of football overnight. Attendances have more than doubled: from an average of 3,400 to around 7,400 or around 75% of the ground capacity. In recent seasons it’s been a matter of turning up at the ground shortly before kickoff, finding a parking space and paying at the gate. No longer. Attending both home and away matches requires planning. Most games are all-ticket and it’s not always easy to get one, particularly for those of us who live away from the city. The club sold around 9,000 tickets for the visit to Arsenal for the FA Cup quarter-final without any emerging on general sale, demonstrating the huge demand that exists.

However, it’s not just about demand for tickets. The interest locally is almost universal. Individuals previously not known to have any interest in the club have suddenly become supporters who attend every match. Local shops have displays in their window relating to the club and its exploits. Many with no interest at all in football listen avidly to the match commentary on local radio.

More significantly the demographics of the fan base have changed dramatically. Sincil Bank is no longer a preserve of the male species as it might have been in the 1960s, ‘70s or even ‘80s. Look around you and you see family groups, often three generations sat together; there are also many more women attending than ever before, not just young women but also older women.  Attending football has become an event in a way that it probably never was in the past, for in the days before crowd trouble blighted the game the family atmosphere at games was created by fathers and sons with few women being present.

It’s not of course just about what happens on the pitch. National League football is never pretty and is often quite ugly. The crowd have become part of the event for home matches. Significant here has been the role of the covered stand (the Co-op Stand) in an area of the ground which many years ago housed the popular bank of terracing. The atmosphere on the open terracing, even for matches attracting many more than the current ground capacity, was rarely more than ‘good’ even at the best of times. The more enclosed nature lends itself to singing and chanting as the volume of noise is amplified towards the pitch. This is perhaps a very significant factor in the history of singing at grounds generally: the amplification created by a covered section (seated or standing) produces a better sound than that from open terracing and, of course, in turn encourages more singing and chanting.

The singing and chanting at Sincil Bank, often for most of the match, is no longer the preserve of the local ‘Ultras’ but is something that almost everyone takes part in, young and old, male and female. Since that Oldham cup-tie the ground has come alive and the crowd has become the “12th man”, driving the team on in the closing stages of the season when the players have often looked exhausted.  Jimmy Hill, manager of one of the first modern community clubs, Coventry City, said in the 1960s: "You can beat a team but you can't beat a team and a city,” and this is exactly what has happened this season at Lincoln.

Lincoln City FC has indeed entered the modern world of football over the last 12 months but in a way which is rather different to many of the country’s top clubs in that they have taken the fans with them rather than excluded them. The attendances, substantial by National League standards, have been increased by generous discounts to parents with children, encouraging attendance of family groups and different generations. This is rather different to the elite clubs post-1992, where fans have often been priced out of attending, even though many grounds have increased capacity. One of the more enduring memories for the Imps was the match at the Emirates against Arsenal. On that day around 9,000 away fans out sang the 50,000 or so home fans; the increased capacity created by the move from Highbury seems to have been met by overseas tourists judging by the bemused looks on many of those entering the home sections.

What Lincoln City have shown is that you can modernise a club and its fan base without alienating the traditional supporters or financially excluding them. The Imps have not only achieved this but they have done it in such a way as to make Sincil Bank an intimidating place for visiting teams, not through the threat of violence that hung over the game in the 1970s and ‘80s but through the sheer enthusiasm and commitment of the fans to the team.