Thursday, 1 December 2011

Lower League Football, It's growing...

In his debut article for The Football Front, Daniel Speller explains how the attendance of League one and Two matches is steadily increasing along with the quality on the pitch.

In a footballing world where more and more fans are jumping on the bandwagon and supporting top clubs such as Barca, Real, United and Man City, it’s intriguing to see the growing levels of support for the lower English leagues.

Take Hartlepool United for example. A League One club. A club currently 12th and filling on average 75% of its ground every week, impressive huh? A club that is Geographically close to Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Doncaster and only twenty or so miles south from high-flying Newcastle United. Why is it that they are attracting big crowds every week? Now I say big, and I mean big for Hartlepool’s standards. Hartlepool’s stadium capacity is 7229 and with an average attendance 5491 turning up every week. It’s safe to say it’s not that far off a full house. Hartlepool offer affordable prices and without a doubt this is one of the sole reasons as to why lower league teams are attracting large numbers week in week out and with kids willing to sing their hearts out to support their team, the clubs benefits from it in more ways than one. Rousing support without a doubt boosts atmosphere and with people singing for the players rather than clapping them on and off the pitch at the beginning and end of the game it's bound to have a positive effect on player morale too. I experienced this first hand in January when Newcastle came to Stevenage for a 3rd round FA Cup tie and to this day I am convinced the atmosphere unsettled the Newcastle side. Barton as you can imagine took a lot of stick and when Newcastle showed signs of "uncomfortableness" it showed and the crowd picked up on it. What I'm trying to say is when the crowd get's going at any club let alone the Premier League's elite it really is a moment to behold and savour.

However, as I briefly touched upon earlier, money and affordability does play a large part. A season ticket for an adult at Hartlepool is on average £376.50 compare this to Middlesbrough who are a Championship club and that figure rises to £420-595. Therein lays one of the sole reasons lower league football in England has seen a rise in support. Premier League and Championship football is just too expensive to watch. The Championship, full to the brim of Premier League talent and have their prices high simply for “financial reasons”. David Gold, chairman of West Ham stated in the summer that he “can't justify paying huge wages to players and passing on the cost to fans however a financial reality”. This is an idea that Adrian Durham of Talksport was totally against and in turn, many other football fans. It’s not just Premier League football that’s excluding a large percentage of it’s fans, but the Championship is also resorting to high-ticket prices to help fund their astronomical wage bills in the hope that the players they have signed will guarantee them promotion. Gold's quote without a doubt highlights the increasing problem in Championship football. Clubs are willing to take a risk on ex-Premier League players in the hope that it will fire them back up this (and I know it's still early days) has not been the case at Leicester City where as I'm sure you are all aware, spent big in the summer in the hope they'd run away with the Championship. This hasn’t turned out to be the case. The side are currently 9th in the Championship and 13 points of the leaders Southampton. A change in manger surely doesn't help but when you've spent big and the fans are paying for it in more ways than one, it doesn't bode well.

But let’s step away from finance and get serious; lower league football is becoming much more attractive. Let’s take League One again for example; Charlton and Sheffield United (ex Premier League), Sheffield Wednesday (ex Premier League ), Huddersfield and even the once mighty MK Dons are all playing their trade there. With these big names, comes ex big name players; Clinton Morrison, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Lee Hughes and Richard Cresswell to name. But slowly but surely ex Premier League players will reignite themselves down the footballing ladder. These players, albeit not single-handedly, do still however attract fans to watch their team play. For example I can remember earlier on in the season at Stevenage when Notts County came to town a lot of the home fans were talking about Lee Hughes perhaps a bit negatively but it highlights the point that big time players playing in the lower leagues are getting fans talking and more importantly, getting them paying. Not to mention the League's are breaking the typical stereo-type. Traditionally when you think of lower League football you think of the dreaded away trip to Carlisle/Plymouth in the pouring rain where you'll witness 90mins of hoofing the ball forward to the well-built striker in the attempt he'll get a lucky header that floats in. Well I can tell you that is no longer the case. Having been to four Stevenage home games this season and seen them beat Charlton, the Sheffield’s Clubs and lose to Notts Country it's evident that this is no longer the case. In every game, both sides kept the ball on the ground and looked to play it and with the way the English game is evolving it's nice to see this is spreading down the Leagues. I say the word evolve because I personally believe that that is what's happening to the modern game. You’ve got to look at this with open eyes and you cannot categorically deny that there are times where the football becomes ugly and it turns into a game of who can head the ball the furthest. However as the game evolves and the footballing ethos is further developed eventually I can see the "Footballing Divide" between the Leagues to the Premier League gradually becoming smaller and smaller.

League’s 1 and 2 are also providing a platform for some very interesting managers to show off their capabilities. Take Chris Powell for example, he took over at Charlton last season, pulled them through to a below-par 13th place finish in League one and in his second season he’s got them currently 5 points clear and only losing once (1-0 away to Stevenage). The fans adore Powell from his tenure at the club as a player and this was undoubtedly what saved his job, without his previous reputation his shot at the big time could of been over before it'd even begun. Graham Westley currently in charge of my local team Stevenage FC has not seen his success go un-noticed in recent years. Having led them to back to back promotions it was inevitable he would be linked with a job in the big time. The Media speculated that it'd be Westley who would take over as Watford manager in the summer. It was however not to be and Sean Dyche got the job but it's certainly interesting to see these accomplishments being noticed. Westley's style has undoubtedly changed over his 2nd spell at the club. However the mentality "witness the fitness" remains and it's easy to see why they are so successful. Stevenage without a doubt are one of the smallest clubs in the Football League and with roughly the same squad that saw them promoted from the Conference it's evident to see that Westley has something about him - I mean, you don't beat Newcastle 3-1 at home if you're not up to scratch do you?

A further example would be Paolo Di Canio at Swindon. Lets face it, all of us including Hammers fans were sceptical if Paolo would be able to cut it as a manager however 18 games in Swindon are sitting in 7th in League 2 on 30points eleven off the pace, not bad for a rookie eh? If the League position doesn't impress you then maybe the fact that he led Swindon to a 4-1 win over League 1 high-flyers Huddersfield who at the time of writing are 44 league games unbeaten. If that's not enough to get chins wagging then I don't know what is.

If you want to have a moan at me on Twitter you can find me @Daniel_Speller

This article was written by Daniel Speller, you can follow him on Twitter:@Daniel_Spellerr .

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