I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m a Newcastle United fan. Yes, a Geordie born and raised with a stupid accent—the lot. Whenever I return home to see family, work or some other sort of punishment, I always check whether or not Newcastle are playing, and if they are I’ll always buy a ticket. Yet after it took an 87th minute Cissé goal to see us draw level with Hull at home in October, I found myself questioning why. I mean, I’d had a season ticket from 2005 until I moved to Manchester in 2012 and seen us get relegated, promoted and then finish 5th. That was it. No cup finals, no European nights—topped off with the board actually saying they didn’t see the financial sense in winning a cup, thus curtailing any sense of ambition, so why bother going at all?
But there’s something about Newcastle which makes fans keep going. We have the third largest average attendance in the league, filling 95 per cent of our 52000-seat stadium, which, keeping in mind Newcastle is only a city of just under 300000, is quite impressive. We also have an extraordinarily loyal attendance away from home and are the team who have to travel furthest out of all teams in the league, which is no mean feat.
The polar opposite of that is little old Wigan Athletic, my second team. The plucky underdogs who, “like the dirt underneath your fingernails,” a friend of mine once said, just wouldn’t leave the Premier League. The town had a sordid affair with football when it won the 2013 FA Cup, taking a quarter of the town’s 80000 population with them. They were vehemently criticized for not filling their allocation. “A small Rugby League town,” cried the ‘purists’. Yet, they still went on to win the cup against Manchester City. Wigan have had a remarkable 20 years, from the brink of extinction, to the dizzying heights of the Premier League, FA Cup final and Europa League. I think we’d all agree that’s far more exciting than Newcastle United, the bigger club, with more fans.
It also helps going someway to explaining why City are receiving such harsh criticism for their current gates during cup games. Leading the crusade was Manchester United old guard Paul Scholes, who said that he didn’t believe that City fans realised how fortunate they were to be playing Europe’s elite, and that they need to make special atmospheres.
Voice of reason Rio Ferdinand, now at QPR, chipped in on Twitter as he so often does saying, “big CL game & fans would rather Ramsays Kitchen or something at home [sic]” (followed by the ‘see no evil’ monkey emoticon). No one can quite be sure what Rio meant by that, or why he committed such grammatical genocide, but I think the gist was City need to be selling out their attendances every match to be considered a ‘top club’ like Manchester United.
After all, the Capital One Cup defeat against Newcastle and last week’s tie with CSKA Moscow at the Etihad, City billed their tickets as £15 for adults, £1 for kids and buy one get one free respectively, neither managed to sell out.
But there’s a deeper problems afoot than just claiming City fans don’t care.
The first is that the hub of Manchester City fans find themselves in the areas surrounding the Etihad and in South Manchester, are some of the most economically deprived areas in the country. The median income in Central Manchester is £23567 which is substantially lower than the national average of nearly £29000. Indeed, the average income in Chorlton was £36460 where Longsight was just £17661. So paying for upwards of 30 matches a season for many will simply be impossible due to financial reason.
Many of those fill the seats at Old Trafford, and this is well known to Manchester City’s owners who want to expand the clubs global image to rival Manchester United’s. The thinking behind this is not just to sell more shirts, but also to get more bums on seats. United’s superior global image was confirmed when Barcelona played at the Etihad last year, their fans did the stadium tour of Old Trafford before beating them 2–0. Salt in the wound, eh?
The second point that has to be made is that City fans are rather new to this winning malarkey. Neither of their title wins have been particularly convincing—one took a last minute Agüero goal against a relegation-threatened QPR on the last day of the season to win the league on goal difference, the other took a spectacular capitulation by Liverpool and Chelsea as well as another final day victory against West Ham. The primary hope for City fans every year is to win the Premier League, and that is quite simply enough. Let’s not forget that only 10 years ago City were playing Macclesfield Town. It is the same reason City fans aren’t putting pressure on Pellegrini just yet and took the ad in the MEN out in dedication to Mancini after he left. These aren’t dark days yet, City fans have lived through them already.
European competition is a totally different psychology, as we saw with the Liverpool team of 2005 and even the struggling Manchester United team of last season reaching the quarter finals of the Champions League. I would go as far to say that Manchester United would probably have got out of the group City were in this year. That’s because Manchester United have a legacy, an array of legends. Whereas on Football Manager 2014 under the Manchester City ‘legends tab’, you find Robinho, Jo and Sheikh Mansour. Two dodgy strikers and an exceedingly wealthy man, nice.
It was summed up quite nicely by two older City fans I talked to after they defeated Newcastle at St. James’ when City were in touching distance of their first championship. “I have a lot of time for Newcastle, you know,” one said to me. “You used to be just like us.”
In a few years City, providing the Sheikh’s money is still there, City will be a force in Europe. Pellegrini will hopefully get more time. If the quota really is five trophies in five years it is a good thing he already has two, as it’s unlikely they’ll get any this season. But if anything City proves it’s this—attendances don’t make any difference, and you can’t judge the fans that are in the ground on the fans that don’t show up.