Falling attendances at the City Ground this season have epitomised the lack of hope many fans feel about their club. But it’s also part of a wider problem in football, says Paul Severn
“This is NOT how a forest home game looks. @fawaz_alhasawi1 has destroyed the soul of the club and fans.” This tweet from former Nottingham Forest full-back Alan Rogers is accompanied by a dismal photograph of a half-deserted Trent End.
It’s amazing to think that Rogers made his Forest debut almost two decades ago. Relegated Forest were at a low ebb in 1997. The club had long since lost Brian Clough and Stan Collymore was a distant memory. Even Stuart Pearce had recently departed. His replacement, Rogers, made his home debut in front of a mere 16,524 against Norwich City.
However, thanks to the goals of Pierre van Hooijdonk and Kevin Campbell, attendances started to rise. Middlesborough were dispatched 4-1 in March the following year in front of over 25,000 and 29,302 saw Chris Bart-Williams score the decisive goal against Reading to clinch promotion in front of a full house. In reality, it was a generation ago. It seems longer.
I guess the recovery that season does show that attendances rise and fall with the fortunes of the club. It gives some hope for the future that maybe, the fans will come back one day.
However, it is hard to argue with Rogers, that the current situation is very much to do with the way the club has been run. I have always felt that fans will not attend games if there is no hope. That may mean no hope of promotion, or no hope of avoiding relegation. This season, there is no hope of promotion and fans understandably have stayed away.
The errors made in the last few years are well documented. However, if we are talking attendances, I think there were two watershed moments in the Fawaz Al-Hasawi reign. Firstly was the departure of Stuart Pearce. An impressive 28,028 saw Pearce triumphantly stride out of the tunnel against Blackpool to the adoration of every Forest fan. It was just over two years ago and it seems much longer doesn’t it? For fans of a certain age, a little bit of Nottingham Forest died when Pearce was sacked. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the decision, I think many fans’ enthusiasm withered as his team slipped from defeat to defeat. I wonder how many season tickets were not renewed?
The second watershed was the sale of Oliver Burke earlier this year. The teenager had inspired three home wins in August alone and there was a small flicker of hope. The sale of Burke extinguished not only any hope for the season, but also all remaining support for the ownership. Without hope, the gates began to fall once again – down to 15,864 against Preston just recently – the worst attendance since the League One days.
A long-standing (and now former) season ticket holder told me that he had accepted that Forest had become a mere feeder club. He complained that any quality player would be quickly snapped up by richer teams after a handful of games. I could completely see his point and there’s no doubt that the sales of Burke and Michail Antonio must’ve persuaded many other fans to reassess their priorities if even the ownership was lacking ambition.
However, football geeks who keep an eye out on other clubs can’t help but notice that Forest are not alone in their dismal attendances. On the night of the Preston match, Blackburn Rovers’ attendance was 9,976. Blackburn remember are one of only a handful of teams to lift the Premier League title. Even Hull City, in the promised land of the Premier League, had one gate of 17,768 this season.
Some clubs are bucking the trend. West Ham United are enjoying the third highest average attendance in the league, while Forest’s neighbours Derby (for whatever reason), enjoy much more healthy attendances. Perhaps these clubs have some hope which is presently absent at Forest. Perhaps one day that will also ebb away.
However, my dad suggested one other major cause which I investigated. In 2014, the Office of National Statistics published research into the richest and poorest parts of the country. The results are revealing. People in Kingston-upon-Hull have the fourth lowest disposable income in the country, with Blackburn third last and Nottingham last – £11,411 per person.
Closure of coal mines, cigarette factories and bicycle factories have hit Nottingham hard, and work today for many people means low wages, unsociable hours and zero-hours contracts. All eat away at attendances. People like me move out of Nottingham to find better employment opportunities and it is expensive to travel back for games. Second bottom on the disposable income list is Leicester – but perhaps something happened at that club to buck the trend…
Television of course is another major factor. It is now possible to watch around a quarter of Forest matches on Sky Sports. Amazingly four games in a row were on Sky recently – with all of them moved to awkward and prohibitive kick-off times when it comes to actually attending the matches. I’m sure many people have decided with some justification that for a similar price of a season ticket, they can see more than enough of Forest, whilst also enjoying watching the top stars in the Premier League and elsewhere in Europe.
The huge finances of the Premier League and Champions League have also had knock-on effects on the competitiveness of the Championship. Earlier this season I saw Forest pummelled at Villa Park by an array of multi-million pound signings. All were made on the back of parachute payments awarded to Aston Villa for failing to win games in their respective league. It is grossly unfair in any sporting sense.
Changes in Championship finances have meant that top players at all clubs now expect big wages. This means that ticket prices also become a factor for all fans. A two-tier Championship is already a reality. It loses its attraction for the fans of the clubs who cannot compete financially (in our case through mismanagement). Supporters have every right to choose to spend their limited income elsewhere.
The result is likely to be a generation of supporters who do not grow up as Nottingham Forest fans. The attendance against Arsenal in the EFL Cup was 28,567 with fans reportedly queuing around the City Ground car park to get tickets for a match which meant very little to Nottingham Forest. I was told that the person who occupied my season ticket seat videoed the Arsenal penalty on his mobile phone. I’m guessing that many of the 28,567 were actually Arsenal fans in some shape or form.
Time will tell whether the Forest that Alan Rogers joined is now a relic of the past. New owners may or may not halt the decline which has seen empty seats become the hallmark of Nottingham Forest in 2016. Explaining low attendances starts with Fawaz, but the discussion does not end there. Changes in football, television, in the economy and society mean that supporters are more hesitant than ever to buy expensive tickets to low-quality sport.
Bringing Forest fans back will be one of the toughest tasks of the new regime. We need fans to want to spend their money to watch Forest, rather than Premier League reserves. It will take careful, strategic planning both on and off the pitch to rebuild this ailing club, ground and fanbase. I hope they are ready…