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Experts explain the importance of match-going football fans on the sport

With no chances of mass gatherings in the near future owing to COVID-19, Alvin Martin, an ex-England international and football finance expert Kieran Maguire, explain the impact a match-going fan can have on the sport.

Call the spectators 12th man or the difference-makers or simply part of the furniture, match-going football fans are an inescapable part of the sport, from the racket they make to the currency notes they spend.

The 2018/19 season saw an average attendance of 38,168 at a Premier League game, while over 14.5 million people went through the turnstiles overall. All that converts into a fat sum of £677 million brought in on a matchday by fans.

The volume that fans can make can be louder than a live rock concert. It can be compared to standing next to a pneumatic drill, so loud that one can easily hurt their eardrums and also damage their hearing.

However, with matches to be played behind closed doors until further notice, stadiums that usually host thousands of fans will be empty when football makes a comeback following a long absence due to the pandemic.

Betway has come out with the below infographic on the number of fans who attended the Premier League 2018/19 season.

When competitive football will begin to be played in front of empty seats, it will be no different than an art gallery void of any paintings, although you identify the setting, there is something important that seems to be missing.

Former West Ham captain Alvin Martin said: “To go from playing in a full stadium to playing behind closed doors is eerie.

“The atmosphere that you’re reliant on isn’t there and you can’t feed off the energy of the crowd.”

For the record, Alvin Martin played in the West Ham team that defeated Arsenal in the 1980 FA Cup final and their subsequent campaign in the European Cup Winners’ Cup the following season.

The defender took part in both legs of their first-round match against Spanish side Castilla, the first of which was played at the Bernabeu.

West Ham went down 3-1 and, following fan trouble in Madrid, UEFA ordered the return fixture at the Boleyn Ground be played without any fans.

Recalling his memories, Alvin Martin, said: “You could hear every word that was being said.

“In fact, we even got a knock on the dressing room door during our half-time team talk with John Lyall.

“It was one of the directors who had been sent down to ask if we could keep the industrial language to a minimum.”

In spite of their ticking off, West Ham went on to clinch the match 5-1 on the night and 6-4 on aggregate to storm into the next round.

Alvin Martin, though, was much more used to playing in front of a packed stadium.

The defender did play 17 matches for England and is fifth on West Ham’s list of all-time appearance makers having played 596 times for the club during an 18-year period.

Alvin Martin said: “At West Ham, the fans created an atmosphere that was up there with the very, very best.

“They are the ones that you play for. When they turn up at a game, they set the stage for you.

“They enhance the feeling of the game and the worth of it. You know that if you’re playing in front of 30 or 40,000 people then you’re doing something important.”

It is easy to figure out how supporters can play a vital role in the performance of their team.

It is their vocal backing and also the extra responsibility that comes from playing in front of a passionate crowd that can lift the performance of players.

Alvin Martin said: “Those big atmospheres help give you an extra five or 10 per cent that you can’t replicate in training.

“They make you nervous, which I think is a very healthy thing for a sportsperson. When you’re nervous, that’s when you perform your best.

“If you go in for a tackle and there’s a crowd roaring for you and willing you to win it, I think inevitably it puts a little bit more onto you.

“Similarly, when the crowd produce that enormous roar when a goal goes in, it gives you a lift.”

The lift that the former English footballer mentions about is the psychological boost a player gets from the energy of the spectators, is not just confined to in-game performance.

The hectic schedule of a professional footballer means they are usually required to play more than 50 games a season and at times have to juggle both weekend and midweek fixtures.

It comes as no surprise that the physical exertions associated with their kind of job can often result in them playing in spite of having injuries that they pick up along the way.

However, Alvin Martin says that the buzz created by a football crowd also has the power to help someone play through the pain barrier.

The former English footballer said: “I remember a time under Harry Redknapp when I had three injuries in quick succession.

“For two or three weeks I was playing with a fractured elbow, fractured hand and a nasty gash on my head.

“One day, I was doing the warm-up at the Boleyn and thought: ‘I’m not going to be able to play here, I’m in a lot of pain.’

“But as soon as the dressing room bell went and I knew that we were going out on the pitch, it gave me a kick of adrenaline.”

Well, the influence that match-going fans have isn’t just confined to matters on the football pitch either.

The £677 million raked in as matchday income in the Premier League in the 2018/19 season works out at 13% of the overall turnover for all the 20 clubs, which converts to £1 in every seven coming from fans.

Although that may not sound like a substantial proportion of income on the surface, it surely is a source of cash that clubs cannot afford to miss out on.

Football finance expert Kieran Maguire adds: “If you talk to anybody – it doesn’t matter the nature of their business – if you’re getting these regular streams of revenue, then you would be foolhardy to throw any of those away.”

Of course, the total sum is not evenly distributed among each of the Premier League clubs with the bigger teams that have bigger stadiums making more than their smaller counterparts. During the 2018/19 season, Manchester United collected £111 million from matchday income, which made up 18% of their £627 million turnover.

On the other hand, Bournemouth earned £131 million, of which just £5 million came from match days. But even for the Cherries, that amount is invaluable.

Kieran Maguire, who lectures at the University of Liverpool apart from being the author of The Price of Football, said: “£5m is still £5m. Over the course of a season for Bournemouth, the money from a matchday will pay for the wages of two players.

“You can’t keep on writing a cheque for £5m a month, even if you have got a decent amount of money in the bank to begin with.

“But Bournemouth lost £27m last season, so you add the loss of matchday income to that and it can only make the situation worse.”

It is, therefore, necessary that with no match-going fans, clubs have to come up with alternative revenue streams to make up for the shortfall.

Kieran Maguire said: “They will be trying to claw that back in some shape or form.

“I think football might have to re-invent its relationship with fans in terms of its ability to offer an experience.

“Those clubs with good lines of communication to their fans will be successful, they will work hard to engage with them.

“The industry is big, but it’s got to innovate.”

Should football fail to adapt to the new normal, then Kieran Maguire knows what is in store for the future, as he said: “Clubs have got such high fixed costs and they might have to think of ways they can cut back. The return to some form of live action is essential. I’m not trying to be sensationalist.”

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