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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Stacey

Attendances – English Football’s Unhealthy Obsession

Updated: May 7, 2023

I’ll start with a question: have you ever been on social media on a Saturday evening and NOT seen at least one post focused on the attendance, or lack thereof in some cases, at a football game that afternoon? I would say the majority of you will answer no. I know I certainly would. It feels like it’s almost become as regular a part of the footballing day as team news at 2pm and kick-off at 3pm.

So, why are people so bothered about attendances? Is it a pride thing, a petty yet easy way of ‘getting one over’ their rivals? Perhaps it’s a way of distracting themselves from their own club’s failings. Or maybe it’s just sad people doing sad things for sad reasons.

It’s worth noting that crowd-related ‘banter’ isn’t a product of the social media age. For decades, chants like ‘Your ground is too big for you!’ and ‘Is that all you take away?’ have been sung around grounds up and down the country, and that’ll never change.

However, when it’s in the ground, it doesn’t seem to bother fans as much. It sort of comes with the territory, finding as many ways as possible to gain an advantage off the pitch in the hope that it’ll give your team the upper hand on it. When it trickles onto social media, particularly faceless accounts and ‘trolls’, it becomes slightly more strange.

There are several contributing factors to a club’s attendances. The cost of tickets is always going to have an impact, as is the cost of travelling to and from away games. The longer a club has existed is another key consideration, as is the geographical location of their town or city.

Let’s start with the geography. It goes without saying that places with a limited number of professional football teams nearby will be able to attract more supporters, simply because they’re there. Like anything in life, the fewer competitors you have, the more profitable you can be.

Cities like Norwich, Middlesbrough, and Southampton are pretty far away from their nearest competitors and therefore have a much greater catchment area than a club from the North West or London.

In the current 2022/23 season, there are 20 clubs within around 30 miles of each other playing in the top five divisions of English football. The triangle from Liverpool to Manchester to Lancaster is densely populated with plenty of professional football clubs. Then when you consider four of the country’s biggest clubs (Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, and Everton) hoovering up a lot of the support in the overpouring areas, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that not every ground is packed out week after week.

But it clearly doesn’t matter. Burnley, Blackpool, Blackburn, and Wigan Athletic have all played Premier League football in the last 12 years. Blackburn, of course, won the top flight in 1995, and did so whilst averaging around 20,000 at Ewood Park, a ground that holds 31,300 [capacity]. They’ve come under fire from people for their empty seats, but I’m not sure they mind. They’re 5th in the league and got to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, all whilst barely filling half their ground. You’d have thought, given how much people go on about it, their lack of supporters would cause a problem.

The main whipping boys from the attendance police are Wigan Athletic - a Football League club of less than 50 years who have never had a large fanbase, yet have won more in the past 10 years than a lot of clubs in the country. But hey, they only average 10,000 in their 25,000-seater stadium, so let’s take that 2013 FA Cup success off them!

Wigan is almost equidistant between Liverpool and Manchester, so those of a certain age won’t have followed the Latics, who were non-league as recently as 1978. They will have chosen one of the big clubs nearby, as will their children and their grandchildren.

Elsewhere, Fleetwood, Morecambe, and Accrington Stanley all average below 5,000 supporters at home games yet compete in the 3rd tier of English football alongside Sheffield Wednesday, Ipswich, and Plymouth who all average well over 15,000.

Those three clubs are not only from major cities, two of which are miles away from a local rival, they’re all also well over 130 years old. And that leads us onto our second point:

The longer a club has existed, the more fans it will have had over time. As I’m sure is the case with most of you reading this, you support the club your parents do, or your grandparents, and so on. Therefore, the more generations a club has been around for, the more likely they are to have a larger, more loyal fanbase. I’m sure the majority of season ticket holders at those clubs, and others like Leeds United and Sunderland AFC, will be second, third or fourth generation fans. The historical success, or even just existence, of a club has a huge impact on their modern-day supporter base.

The final major impact is the ever-increasing cost of following your team. Not only are season ticket prices for home fans on the up season after season, but so are the prices for away fans who want to travel up and down the country supporting their teams. When you combine that with the current cost of living crisis we’re going through in the UK, it’s unsurprising that attendances might take a knock in some cases.

Clubs such as Reading, Luton Town, Wycombe Wanderers, and AFC Bournemouth all receive a bit of stick for their followings. However, it’s well documented that the cost of living down south, particularly in and around London and the South coast, is huge, so we have to take that into account when looking at their attendances.

What I should stress is, all of the points I’ve made make it even more impressive when a club is well-supported up and down the country. Those clubs definitely deserve their fair share of praise, and god knows they get it, but it doesn’t mean everyone else deserves stick. Because look, let's face it, attendances don’t really matter. Football matches are won by how many times the ball hits the back of the net - not by how many times the turnstile clicks pre-game.

We’ve seen well-supported teams succeed, and we’ve seen them fail too. Equally, clubs with smaller fan bases have enjoyed their fair share of highs and endured their fair share of lows. Every football club in the world has, regardless of how many people there were there to witness it.

So can we agree that passing judgement on another club’s fanbase, particularly one your team has absolutely no rivalry with, is just a little bit strange? They’re the exact same as you are: a loyal fan who cares passionately about their club. So what does it matter how many of them there are? The truth is, it really doesn’t... Written by Daniel Stacey of

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