The Thundercliffe Files: surveying the Townhole

Cod Almighty | Article

by Paul Thundercliffe

6 September 2019

The demise of Bury has brought home how we all have a hole in our lives that only Town can fill. Attendances only tell part of the story of its size

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The demise of Bury produced lots of questions that demanded answers: the role of the owners; the role of the Football League; even the role of managers who must have known it was dodgy to be spending lots of money while attracting crowds below 4,000. My biggest question, though, is what those 3,200 people will do every Saturday.

That's Bury’s core support, their average attendance over a number of seasons. Sure, they get bigger attendances against the likes of Oldham and Bolton, who will also fill the away end, but in a town of 88,000, less than 4 per cent of the population regularly went to see the Shakers.

They've got to fill the void now left by the their football club. No matches, no build-ups, no highlights, no Twitter banter, no signing alerts, no away days, no nothing. No community, no togetherness, nothing to look forward to.

Imagine there would be no match day. No sitting in the same seat. No walking down the Grimsby Road. No scanning league tables or checking the form of the next opponents. No promotion or relegation. No last-minute winner. Nothing

Imagine if it happened to Town. Go on. Just for a brief moment, imagine no match day. No sitting in the same seat. No walking down the Grimsby Road. No Telegraph players ratings, no Cod Almighty match reports or diaries. No scanning league tables or checking the form of the next opponents. No Boxing Day football. No promotion or relegation. No last-minute winner. Nothing. Sure, you'd not be spending £10 a week on Öhman to score first but just how big would your Townhole be?

This got me thinking. Are some Townholes bigger than others? If you are a season ticket holder, is it naturally bigger than a casual fan who goes to bigger games? Does the Grimbarian exiled to London have a tinted Townhole? Surely all Townholes cannot be the same?

This naturally leads to another big question: Town’s great attendance debate. What is our core support? Why did we have attendances of 4,000 in the second tier? What does it take to improve attendance? Will Town ever attract more fans on a regular basis?

When looking at the average attendances over the past 100 seasons or so, there are the obvious correlations of successful seasons. Promotion spikes occur in 1955-56 (up 7,800 on the previous season), 1971-72 (+7,000), 1978-80 (+6,000), 1989-91 (+3,000). It suggests the Townhole would be massive if we got continually promoted.

Interestingly, when we were promoted in 1998 the average attendance went down by 400 on the previous relegation season. This may have been due to bigger away crowds in 1996-97 but is still fairly startling given the success of that season, and there was a spike the following year.

There was a small spike of 670 during our promotion season from the Conference and a rise of almost 1,000 for our first season back out of the wilderness. Attendances have since plateaued. I think it is fair to say Town have a core support of 4,000. Massive Townholes.

Town’s attendances have hovered around this mark since the demise of the fishing industry. From 1927 to 1963, by contrast, there were only six seasons where the average didn't reach five figures. Some of those were played in the top division, but the highest ever average was 18,238, when we finished 11th in Division Two. The next season Town were relegated on average crowds approaching 16,000.

So an affluent, bustling, vibrant town saw the match as an integral part of the week. It was a workers' game and there were plenty of workers. I do not think it is a coincidence that attendances have fallen in the same way our industry has.

Even when we’ve had successful teams and managers, the average can drop, most notably during Buckley’s first two spells when occasionally gates would drop below 4,000. There are a few reasons for this. I think some fans got a bit bored of the football – crazy, I know. There were economic factors that are still prevalent today, and I also think that it wasn't that fashionable to go to the match.

The proliferation of football in the nation's psyche has led to a more solid average recently. Social media plays a part in that, galvanising fans and making GTFC a vehicle for looking forward to the game – to filling that Townhole.

I also think that our Conference days have helped, particularly away days. Town always had a core away support but I would say that non-League swelled those numbers as we won more than we lost, saw some different grounds and, well, all Town aren't we? I certainly don't remember 1,000 fans at Morecambe before our demise, and long may these away days continue.

Could the club attract more fans? Of course. And there are green shoots of ideas coming through with family tickets and more for young fans to enjoy. The shift worker has never really been catered for, so flexible tickets are welcome, although I would say £22 a game will put off the casual fan.

Whatever the attendance, whatever your average over this or any season, one thing is true: we all have a Townhole. Having to fill it every Saturday at 3pm with something else doesn’t bear thinking about.

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