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Shaun Harvey's continuing campaign against the Football League

25 October 2018

Irregular Diary writes: Tuesday evening – a game under the lights is always a welcome one and even more so when it ends with three points.

Saturday against Exeter had been an interesting one in that I can't remember the last time a Town team were applauded off at both half and full time having not scored a goal and picked up only a point. It backs up a theory that so many of us feel: if the fans think the effort is there, they will back you whatever the result. That is not to say that during the torrid six-match losing streak effort wasn't applied, but perhaps decisions and bodies on the line weren't quite where we, as fans, felt they should be.

Colchester arrived in Cleethorpes positioned well within the play-off places having spent some cash in the summer on Harry 'On Ice' Pell, as well as the free signing of Frank Nouble from Newport County. Without going into too much detail on the game itself, it seemed to me the Us were happy to slow the game down from the off. The ref and his assistants helped by giving decisions for non-fouls and blatant throw-ins the wrong way. Thanks to Wes Thomas' cool finish, a letter to the FA is on hold.

There were solid performances all over the pitch from what is a young side. Harry Clifton was awarded MOTM and I can't argue too much with that. He was desperate for that win and at one point in the dying minutes of the game was the furthest man forward, pressing from the front. For me though, the much-discussed Mitch Rose, making his 50th appearance for the club, was excellent: from tracking back with a perfectly timed challenge to moving the ball forward wherever he could. At 20 and 24 respectively, let's hope that partnership will flourish as the season progresses.

There was some social media coverage yesterday on the current legislation prohibiting football fans from viewing the pitch with an alcoholic drink in their hand. I could go into great detail here about how football fans are treated differently to people at every single other spectator event, and how fans feel the ban leads to chucking as much down your neck as possible before the game, then a crush to the bar for a swift couple of drinks at half time. The flipside is people up and down to the bar all afternoon rather than watching the game. Or lobbing it all over when we score (although I suggest a bit of self-policing would sort the latter).

What did interest me was a report from TalkSport naming some clubs pushing for a change in the law and others open to discussing it. You see, Grimsby Town were named on there – the same Grimsby Town who have boarded up a door to make it more difficult to get in and out of the bar and who now stop serving while the game is playing after trouble with Port Vale last season. That confused me a little. I'd stake my house on the Mariners not being part of any pilot scheme introduced in the future.

The Football League and its CEO Shaun Harvey have been quiet on the matter in public but privately are said to be interested in looking at a review, presumably to improve the 'matchday experience'. That's where I'm confused, because should the League ever put its name to a review in the public domain, it'll be on the basis of getting more people to a game. But at the same time it is streaming matches by stealth on its iFollow platform.

iFollow was introduced last season for those outside the UK and those with VPNs to watch any Grimsby Town game. That was accepted as an additional service which would not affect attendance at Blundell Park and other grounds up and down the country. There don't seem to be any figures available for subscriptions, but some must have been collected because the League has stated it's a success.

Harvey either isn't aware or doesn't care that clubs down the ladder rely massively on bums on seats. We aren't the Premier League, at which he looks so lovingly, who don't need matchday ticket sales

The "enhancements" described in that link include that "EFL Clubs will be able to live-stream in the UK and Ireland any league match via their respective iFollow (or equivalent) service that takes place outside the blocked hours of 14.45-17.15 on Saturday afternoons and that is not broadcast live on Sky Sports." That direct quote from the League's website suggests the streaming platform would then be open to UK residents for evening games at our level.

The compass of what we each personally feel is tipping the balance from football being about turning up to a stadium is tested. We always think of an away game we can't get to; Carlisle away was available, for example. The club itself seems to think that way and knows the possible consequences of our home games being available online. In the run-up to away games (including the international weekend ones) there was a push to pay your £10 if you couldn't make it and yet for Tuesday's home game I didn't see one promotion or acknowledgement of iFollow.

As Accrington chair Andy Holt has already covered substantially on Twitter, away  teams receive 5 per cent of the ticket value for tickets bought from their ticket office. If you pay on the day, the away club gets nothing. With iFollow a club receives £8 (I think it is) if you log in via their website, so on a one fan, one pass basis it is more financially beneficial for an away club to have fans sit at home and watch. But for every away game you benefit from at some point, you'll have a home game where some will watch from their sofa. If that's a home fan, the club's £20 is reduced to £8, and if it's an away fan the home club gets nothing at all.

That's not enough for the Football League though. In the CEO, it has somebody willing to chip away at fans attending a game in person at a stadium. Harvey either isn't aware or doesn't care that clubs down the ladder rely massively on bums on seats. We aren't the Premier League, at which he looks so lovingly, who don't need matchday ticket sales.

So to return to the quote above, where no match will be screened on a Saturday afternoon: now it's except when it's an international weekend. Where the hell did that come in? you ask. You'll struggle to find it online and it wasn't discussed at the Portugal EFL AGM/knees-up in June apparently. No, instead it was in a final paragraph of a letter sent to all member clubs at the beginning of July.

Some clubs read it and understood it, didn't question it and accepted it. But plenty of others didn't pick up on it at all, including our own Grimsby Town, and only realised days before. That didn't stop us pushing it on the Thursday and Friday before the game and we'd have done the same for the Mansfield game, but I'm sure we'll not be so forthcoming the next time we have a home game during international break.

You can't have it all ways though. The logical next step (if you can use the word logical with the EFL), is the complete abolition of the Saturday afternoon blackout rule. This has already been broken recently by Eleven Sports, a company created by Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani. They have said they'll not do it again but we might as well all start doing it because criminals are doing it anyway. A potential legal challenge has been mooted on the grounds that we don't really know for sure that having all games available all the time online will affect match-going attendances. Harvey has been quoted as saying he doesn't believe it will affect attendances at all, which is naive at best and dangerous at worst.

It's a worrying time because I can see Grimsby Town losing out here. The club should fight back against any starry promotion the Football League puts up for vote, should a vote even take place.

Suppose the League announces that next season all games not shown via a different broadcasting deal will be available. Those who buy season tickets but can't make a large proportion of games could decide not to bother. Rather than Grimsby Town receiving £350 for a season ticket, they receive £120 for the games a fan watches online. Away fans stay at home and rather then get £20 we get nothing and the away club receives £8.

And that's without delving lower down the leagues to those clubs who are second teams for many when the main team is away: why bother going to Bamber Bridge when you can watch Preston away online?

Some will say you don't know the effect any change will have until it's happened. That is true – but once that blackout has been tampered with, that's it. There is no going back. Football will always be a spectator sport but the future, as I see it, has more spectators outside the stadium than in it. That can't be right when the stadium isn't full.

I'll be at Crewe on Saturday. My two previous visits have seen zero goals scored, eight goals conceded and an assault by Gavin Gunning on an opposition player. Safe to say I'm hoping for third time lucky here!