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Is Football for a Fiver the ticket for outpriced fans?

DAN NOLAN finds out about the supporter-led history of Charlton's cut-price matches, and how they might offer a model for others to tackle turnstile costs

AWAY days have taken a toll on my pocket almost as much as my patience lately. So it’s a rare blessing that I’ll be through the Valley’s turnstiles for a fiver on Saturday.

That’s, obviously, not including a London return ticket (£7.20), pre-match refreshments (£20 or so in the Anchor & Hope), something at half-time and something else to mull over afterwards.

That’s expensive enough — and for fans travelling down from Blackburn to Charlton it’ll spiral upwards. On any away day, getting through the turnstiles should be the least of fans’ worries.

Amid a nasty combo of austerity and inflated ticket prices over the past decade, many have looked to the Football Supporters’ Federation’s Twenty’s Plenty campaign and upped pressure on their clubs to do something about gate prices.

This is all the more urgent for the likes of Charlton and Blackburn, whose fans have endured some of their lowest ebbs — inflicted by the ownership — at that same time.

For both, off-field woes notably, physically crept onto the pitch. A flag-bearing protest chicken (a not-so-subtle nod to the poultry-peddling ownership) was ushered off by players at Blackburn’s Ewood Park in 2011, while Charlton’s tie against Fleetwood in 2018 was “stopped at the Valley as bags of crisps are cleared from the pitch,” as per the club’s official Twitter account.

For Charlton, that was about crunch time for former owner Roland Duchatelet. Their opponents on Saturday are still owned by the Venkys chicken barons, though sympathies have tenderised in such a poor financial climate.

Charlton’s first Football for a Fiver day came near the start of a heady season in 2011 — managed by club legend Chris Powell (pre-Duchatelet) — where they conquered League One in their fourth season down.

“The great thing about the initiative,” CAFC Supporters’ Trust head Richard Wiseman tells me, “is that it arose out of a joint club-supporter working group.

“It’s a really good example of how supporters and clubs can work together for positive effect.” 

With the game always scheduled for just before season tickets are put on sale — pulling in an extra 5,000 people (this year’s home allocation sold out in short order) — there’s added desire for a good showing on and off the pitch. 

But, under the former ownership, there was only so much that cheap tickets could do for off-pitch relations. Last season’s Football for a Fiver coincided with the February where anger against Duchatelet spiked. 

And things haven’t quite worked on the field at these games either of late: Charlton 0-0 Blackpool, Charlton 0-2 Shrewsbury, Charlton 0-1 Bury, Charlton 0-1 Rochdale…

“It hasn’t been a fantastic advertisement unfortunately,” Wiseman jokes. “Nevertheless it’s a goodwill gesture and is likely to have been an access point for some new supporters. 

“Morale is high among fans at present because of the new owners and a big crowd of about 24,000 will produce a great atmosphere. [Manager] Lee Bowyer often comments on how much it lifts the players.”

Reading are the first club in the league to have implemented the FSA’s £20 cap. But, in the Championship at least, Charlton’s annual price plunge seems to be the next best thing.

More so since the matches have almost exclusively been against distant teams. Charlton is naturally more interested in bolstering home support and selling season tickets, but the scheme’s PR has only been boosted by helping out far-travelling away fans each year.

For home fans, it’s also a chance to give other clubs a nudge in the right direction. Blackburn are one of the worst offenders in the league when it comes to away tickets — not least because they force smaller away supports into the upper rafters of the Darwen End.

And with Premier League tickets capped at £30, it is hard to justify teams such as Blackburn — and notably Leeds, who have charged almost £40 for away tickets in recent years — to match or exceed these levels in the second tier.

Charlton opened this season with a visit to Ewood Park, to the tune of £25 per ticket, plus £28 on the club coach (maybe double for a train) and all the other associated costs. 

That Blackburn fans don’t have to worry about tickets for the reverse is unusual, but accentuates the inconsistency of pricing in the league.

“I’m not aware of a similar initiative that CAFC fans have taken advantage of,” Wiseman admits of Charlton’s scheme, “although Leyton Orient also have a Football for a Fiver game each season.” 

But Wiseman is impressed with Reading and tells me that the Trust is now pushing for a £20 away-day cap at the Valley. 

“We held a meeting earlier this season with CAFC about the FSA’s campaign and we are hoping to persuade CAFC to reciprocate for Reading fans when we play them later this season. We hope such a move would be revenue-neutral as it would encourage more to come from Reading.” 

After four seasons, Reading says that the change has indeed cost them nothing, with losses offset by healthier attendances and concessions sales. 

But Wiseman suggests that there’s other business holding clubs back at the turnstiles. 

That high-priced Leeds was among clubs who rebelled last season against the undervaluing of televised games by the EFL and Sky is unsurprising.

“The difficulty for non-EPL clubs in capping prices is that gate revenue is a more significant percentage of income than for EPL clubs because of TV income,” Wiseman explains. 

And while preventing a repeat of Bury’s demise is the first thing the EFL needs to address, fans must hope that squeezing more out of Sky and others in future will have a positive impact at the turnstiles. 

“We fully support the FSA campaign to extend the Twenty’s Plenty campaign to all EFL games,” Wiseman says.

But until then, inspiring a few more £5 Saturdays up and down the leagues would at least be good progress.

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