Issue Customer Disservice

As told by Paul Firth

I guess that it can be difficult to adjust to life in the fourth division when your team has had a brief spell, two seasons around the turn of the millennium, in the Premiership. The eight consecutive seasons spent in the top two divisions saw so many changes to Bradford City’s stadium in particular and professional football in general that for those who had become supporters only after the promotion of 1996 the surroundings of League Two must be quite a shock.

Some of us, of course, had spent most of our lives watching third and fourth division football at Valley Parade and at away grounds of similar standard. The 1985 fire may well have brought about the biggest structural changes to the old ground, but there have been plenty more since. When we had played for so very many years in a ground with only 4,000 wooden seats and plenty of vast open terracing, the development of an all-seater, 25,000 capacity stadium with modern facilities suggested to the old hands that football really was changing for the better.

For those of us who watched our football back in the sixties at decrepit grounds, where toilets were, shall we say, basic and corporate boxes were about as real as the Tardis, the changes throughout the eighties and nineties seemed to befit the new era. We wanted to be treated as ‘customers’, not just as turnstile fodder. We wanted to bring our children along, knowing that they would be safe and comfortable. The nostalgic days when the youngest spectators were lifted over the heads of the almost exclusively male adult fans, so that they could sit at the edge of the pitch and see what was going on, were dead long before Mr Justice Popplewell and Lord Taylor were publishing their reports into safety at football grounds.

Those of us who had been young supporters in the sixties and seventies had lived through the escalating violence at and around football. If we had thought so far ahead as to wonder whether we would allow our own children to come with us to games, we would surely have shuddered at the prospect of bringing them into such an atmosphere. Much as we wanted to encourage them to be the next generation of supporters for our local team, we could not have risked bringing them to Valley Parade or any other ground.

I hope my fellow-survivors of the fire will forgive me for saying that perhaps we were fortunate to be Bradford City supporters from the late eighties onwards. We had already paid in advance a very high price for the progress that came in the next twenty years and are still paying a rather different, purely financial price for the promotions of the nineties. Victories on the field were watched from ever-improving stands; from more and more seats; and even after three-course lunches from in-house caterers.

The outsider would probably argue that the lurch back to the bottom division was attributable to the way the club was managed after the Premiership years, to the previous chairman’s ‘six weeks of madness’, to the two spells in administration and, generally, to that familiar malaise of modern football, overspending. We deserved what we got and shouldn’t complain about watching fourth division football.

Most of us don’t complain, although we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t compare the facilities at Valley Parade with those at grounds we haven’t visited for a few years. Not all lower league grounds are still rooted in the 1980’s. Some clubs have excellent modern stadiums, even though their teams are playing in Leagues One and Two. Others have at least a partial excuse for poorer facilities, having just come up from The Conference and with very limited finances to develop their grounds.

But it’s not just about seats and prawn sandwiches. What has really changed for the better in professional football is the attitude towards spectators. Directors have realised that they have to run their clubs on commercial lines. They have to treat their supporters more as customers. Safety is still an issue, so visiting fans are kept apart from home supporters. Stewards are not there just to show people to the right seat. It isn’t quite like working in a theatre. But then the Romeo supporters at the Old Vic don’t hurl insults at the Juliet fans, do they?

Bradford City supporters should be the last people to argue that other clubs should spend more on improving their grounds. Those who live in glass stadiums, etc. But attitude costs very little. I was quite getting the hang of being a ‘customer’. Some of the grounds where I have been spending my money of late have not had the facilities I had been accustomed to. But the clubs in question usually had genuine explanations and almost always gave advance warning. If I hadn’t been prepared to risk the uncovered terracing at Accrington, I needn’t have gone. They told us in advance, our club printed that warning in the programme and I went with my eyes open.

Other clubs have given me a choice of standing in the open or sitting under cover. Macclesfield, for example, told us in advance that there would be a limited number of seats available, so we got there in good time to make sure we were not left out in the open. They realise that not all visiting fans want to stand outside. Some do, but we less young ones have become accustomed to covered seating. So, within their understandably limited resources, well done to Macclesfield for giving us a choice.

And so it was that my travels around the fourth division had persuaded me that even the lower league teams had accepted the need to look after the fans, as far as finances permitted, and that they didn’t assume we were all teenage hooligans. But all that confidence in the better, more customer-friendly game came to an abrupt end at Edgeley Park, the home of Stockport County.

I’d been there as an away fan not that long ago. Three years back, on an early season sunny Saturday, we had had the ‘Macclesfield’ choice, except that the open area was seating, because Stockport had spent some time in what was then called the First Division, where all-seater stadiums were compulsory. This time around it was early March and the weather forecast was for strong winds and driving rain. So, once again I wanted to make sure I got a seat in the covered area. There’s nothing quite as bad as sitting in the pouring rain. If you are uncovered, somehow it feels better to stand up and get wet.

What a disappointment, then, to discover that, contrary to previous recent experience and in the absence of any pre-match advice, we were not allowed into the covered seats. They were to be kept empty. There wasn’t even the old explanation about keeping the fans apart. As I said, three seasons back we could sit in there, with the home fans much further down the touchline and well away from the visitors. But this time those covered seats were just empty, as if to taunt those of the visiting fans who really would have liked the opportunity to sit under cover.

A few tried to shelter from the driving rain by walking to the corner nearest to the empty seats, where the stand provided some protection from the strong wind and rain. The reports of the stewards’ reaction to that harmless and understandable movement do not make happy reading in the context of customer care. The situation was exacerbated for me by the news from a friend that he had been to the same ground earlier in the season and seen visiting supporters, admittedly in much lower numbers, in those same empty seats.

I thought all of football had long since cottoned on to the notion that for every young lad who was prepared to stand in the pouring rain with his shirt off there were three or four couples who wanted to bring their children into a comfortable environment. It’s called customer choice and, while football cannot safely give the fullest range of such choice, in most cases it costs very little and in all cases it encourages the very supporters professional sport needs to attract.

At the start of the week when 700 Bradford City fans turned up at Edgeley Park their club had just won a Football League award for a revolutionary ticket pricing scheme aimed entirely at making football affordable in one of the best appointed grounds in the lower leagues. Maybe we have got too accustomed to safety, comfort and affordability, all in one package. I know that if I’d been seeking to make a good impression and achieve a higher income for Stockport County, I would have taken heed of that weather forecast and given the visiting fans the option of paying the same price the Stockport fans paid at Valley Parade to sit in covered seats. Maybe the Football League could think about how it wants its clubs to treat their fans and advise on minimum standards (finance permitting) of customer care.