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SAM MORSHEAD: 'Don't mock the plastic fans'
PLASTIC fans - an unnecessary and derogatory description of occasional supporters or a very accurate social commentary?
It’s a question that comes up on a frequent basis in our neck of the woods. Every time Swindon Town earn themselves a major fixture - be it a visit from a Premier League big boy or a trip to Wembley - several thousand new faces appear in the red section of the crowd, their arrival met with a mixed reception from hardened regulars.
So why is it that Town struggle to keep hold of these fans? What can be done to attract them to matches week in, week out? And when will we learn that their presence is to be applauded and not mocked?
First off, the figures. Swindon Town’s average home attendance this season, taking the Chelsea game out of the equation, is a shade over 7,800. There were 11,500 on hand to watch Bristol City get beaten by Nile Ranger’s late goal last week, but 2,500 of those had made the brief trip down the M4.
Attendances have declined since the Paolo Di Canio era, but only marginally. For the past 20 years, including the Premier League campaign in 1993/94, the club has found it hard to secure capacity audiences.
We can blame a whole host of factors but it’s hard to point the finger of fault in any one direction.
Swindon by its very nature is a transient town. Since the decline of the Great Western Railway in the 1960s and the relocation of many Londoners and their families under the Town Development Acts of 1952 and 1965, football fans in the town have longstanding predispositions to support clubs in the capital.
It’s hard to coax a Gooner into becoming a hard-toothed Robin and many of those whose family backgrounds included frequent trips to Highbury, Stamford Bridge or White Hart Lane would understandably prefer to continue spending their Saturday afternoons following their own side rather than putting their weight behind a local team to which their association is purely geographic.
The mass consumerism model of the Premier League has hardly helped. In days gone by it would have been an honour to grow up to represent your hometown club. Nowadays Swindon town centre isn’t flooded with replica shirts adorned with ‘Luongo 4’ or ‘Pritchard 11’. Take a walk down Regent Street or Canal Walk on a Saturday morning and you’ll see enough Manchester United kits to start a youth academy.
Smaller clubs can do their best to promote themselves within their community but it’s hard to stop a runaway train, and that’s exactly what the English top flight is. Because of the grandeur, the money, the glitz and the glamour, the heartbeat of the sport in this country is becoming worryingly irregular.
Our national media don’t do the Football League any favours. The regular highlights programme on the BBC is handed a TV slot which appeals only to those struggling with the after-effects of one Jaegerbomb too many, the column inches afforded to the lower leagues by the Sunday papers wouldn’t stretch around the waist of a size zero model and pundits commenting on League One football too often resort to ill-researched clichés and generalisations that reflect a total ignorance of what life is like at the ‘rough end’.
Too often the Football League is belittled by the writers who have the most influence. A case in point is the print coverage of Town’s 2-0 defeat to Chelsea on Tuesday night.
Of course, given their audience’s interests, you’d expect the likes of the Daily Mail, The Mirror and The Sun to exhibit favouritism in their reporting – just as I do on a weekly basis in these pages.
However, the sheer snobbery of some of the guff spouted in the aftermath of that tie was nauseating. Only Dominic Fifield in The Guardian and The Independent’s Simon Johnson had the balls to pay lip service to Swindon’s performance.
For the readers of every other major national daily, it was hard to discern whether or not Chelsea were playing against shadows when in fact, despite their doubtless inferiority, Swindon put up an entertaining and gutsy challenge for their star-studded guests.
It’s that kind of ignorance which diminishes the credibility of the Football League nationally and globally. ‘They don’t matter. No one cares about them. Why should I?’ If the journalists entrusted with keeping the game alive in all of us are regularly resorting to a literary chant of ‘who are ya, who are ya, who are ya’ what chance do small-town clubs with small-town catchment areas have of reaching out to potential fans, young and old?
But the buck does not stop there. As fans of a smaller club – and, contrary to the opinions of some, Swindon Town does remain a smaller club – there has to be a willingness to engage occasional visitors to the County Ground.
Mocking so-called ‘plastic fans’ is a self-defeating exercise. It may just be a bit of fun, and let’s be honest it does raise a giggle in all of us at times, but put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s trying out a Town game for the first time because they’ve been drawn to the County Ground by the lure of a high-profile fixture.
If you’re taunted simply for being there, caricatured as a fairweather fan and told not to come back, would you? It’s unlikely.
The club needs the money pumped into it by every single man, woman and child who walks through its turnstiles – whether that’s for one game or for an entire season.
And who knows, if they are welcomed warmly and treated to the kind of football this brilliantly talented squad are capable of they might just make their weekend jaunt routine.
Clubs like Swindon Town rely on community because aspirations of grandeur are grossly inappropriate.
If the institutions and individuals at the top of the game are unwilling to open their eyes to the sport’s foundation then local communities must do it themselves.
On Tuesday night the Robins produced the perfect advert for the product they are flogging to the general public. The community came out in droves. It was special.
So to those who may not have thought about coming back for the visit of Tranmere on October 5, a parting point… they play like that every week, you know.
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