The Diary

Cod Almighty | Diary

It's hard to be a garbage man when a sailor stole my glove

8 November 2017

How do people decide whether or not they're going to the football? Greater minds than your original/regular Diary's have tried to figure this out and failed. So have the people who run Grimsby Town Football Club, for that matter. And plenty more besides.

Is it a question of which division we're in? Not really. Our visitors generally bring a few more fans, on average, as we move up the leagues. But there seems little relationship between the home turnout at Blundell Park and our status within the 92 – or indeed the 116. We would often see more people watching Town in the Conference recently against sides like Gateshead and Woking than in the 1990s and 2000s against Charlton or Leicester, three divisions higher. So, no.

Town's style of play is sometimes cited as an influence on attendances. This is something we're hearing a lot at the moment – boring Sladeball and all that. Certainly right now Russ appears to be prioritising tightness in his team's own half of the pitch above enterprise in the other, and plenty of fans are turning off from it. Even when Town were pushing for automatic promotion under Russ in early 2006, only 5,000 or so could be arsed to watch. So there's something in this.

Fast forward a year though. The lord of passing and movement, Sir Alan Buckley, is back in the hotseat. Earlier in the season the successful loan of Martin Paterson lifted the spirits of club and fans. Danny North and Peter Bore are now tearing fourth division defences a new one in a tremendous run of seven wins in eight games. But crowds are lower than they were under Slade the previous season. Even those rubbish gates of about 4,000 up in the second flight were under Buckley – glorious football, Cockerill and Gilbert, the lot. While Town fans might be turned off by dull tactics, then, we're not necessarily turned on by the good stuff.

This asymmetry is at play again when you look at another factor people refer to when discussing attendances: cost. I reckon this, too, works differently at the two ends: high prices put some people off, but lower prices wouldn't necessarily draw more people in.

Barely a month goes by without some messageboard expert telling us Town could make more money by cutting ticket prices to a tenner because attendances would double (and that means double the money spent on tea and burgers, too!). No they wouldn't. The boost that occurs when the club does a special offer is small and short-term. If there was a quick fix to be found in the pricing of matches, it would have been found years ago and everyone would be doing it.

In truth, I reckon the reasons people don't go to the football are much more complex and intangible than anything we've considered here.

I think better-supported clubs are better supported because of a stronger culture of unconditionality among the fanbase – because more fans retain the principle that you just keep going, regardless of any variables. I wonder whether, in more successful times, we didn't develop a culture of continuous attendance because of the men being away on the trawlers half the time.

In fact I sometimes think the defeatism that has become ingrained in our town since the fishing industry slumped four decades ago prevents us believing that anything of lasting good can emerge from Grimsby. That local people who like football but never watch the Mariners, when they joked about GTFC being rubbish even when we were top of the second division, were acting on the same influence as those who comment derisively to the Telegraph about absolutely everything that happens around the town, be it the emergence of hundreds of jobs in renewable energy, a revamp for the bus station, or a nice mural on a wall.

Then again, the lowest crowds Town have ever recorded were in the late 1960s and early 1970s (just before the brief reign of Lawrie McMenemy), and we still had a fishing industry then, so that theory doesn't completely work either.

So what can I tell you for certain? If league status, playing style, ticket prices, and local economics, culture and psychology can't fully explain Town's attendances, can anything?

Well, I keep wondering how and why, recently, we attracted more season ticket holders than at any time in the past 20-odd years when we were a non-League club, with an owner who most fans deemed clueless, playing supposedly defensive football under Paul Hurst. And I've come up with quite a simple explanation. We knew who the players were. And we liked them.

My first-born, Baby Diary, is one of many Town fans who loved the players of 2015 and 2016, who almost took us up, and then took us up. Can I get him to come to a game now? No. Why? We've been round the houses for an explanation. And then we hit on it. He loved those players, and now they're not there, and we don't really know why.

Alright, we know why Omar Bogle isn't there. But what of Amond? John-Lewis? Arnold, Disley, Pearson? Even Ollie Palmer. (Baby Diary liked Ollie Palmer. So did I. It may have been the goals, or it may have been opening a bottle of beer with his teeth.) I can't explain to a nearly-nine-year-old why they've left. I can't even explain it to myself.

Better footballers have represented Grimsby Town in the past, and one day may again. But those players were proper Grimsby players. They understood us, and our club, and our town. We knew them and related to them. And that, above all else, was why we went to watch them play.

I really don't expect someone like John Fenty to be capable of grasping this. Values like community and identity are too human and subtle for some folk. And that makes me sad and fearful for my club. I don't know whether we'll see a team of proper Grimsby players like that again. But we can hope. We can cherish what we had. And in understanding why we responded so warmly to those teams, we can at least understand ourselves a bit more. Then maybe we can value it more highly if it ever happens again.