The views in these blogs are those held by the individual blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of Everton Football Club.
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We could debate the merits of filling the visitors’ section and we might argue that we want Hull City’s corner of the Bullens Road Stand empty and our section at Villa Park packed to the rafters. Whatever your views are on this, we were asked by the Premier League to do a very specific job - to address the declining numbers of travelling fans, a trend contradicting the very pleasing figures on home fan support.
There are many factors at play, not least the one I raised with the Premier League on fixture scheduling. Yes, the reality is that we absolutely have to accommodate the broadcasters, and I’m certain the job of those responsible for compiling the fixtures is hard enough as it is. However, in simple terms, there are better times of the year, or weekends in the season, to make the longest journeys. Newcastle United on New Year’s Day or Swansea City the week before Christmas isn’t helpful. For those of us who drove home from the Fulham Capital One Cup tie recently, it might also be helpful if whoever is in charge of motorways could refrain from doing their work in the middle of the night, on a matchday. Being sat in a car or a coach going nowhere on the M4, barely out of London at approaching midnight, would stretch anyone’s loyalty.
The Premier League and all the clubs acknowledged that there are many things influencing the fans’ decision on whether or not to travel. These include pricing, transport, scheduling, access to illegal broadcasting and facilities. In simple terms, it’s really about how visiting fans get looked after. All of these things were on the agenda. And just to be doubly clear on the Premier League’s instructions, they asked us to commit at least £200,000 of existing money, at our discretion, to ideas, activities and events that would fill visitors’ sections. It was left to us and it was our money.
Where are the gaps?
Everton’s starting point was to look at our numbers, to analyse attendances in the away ends across our 38 Premier League games. For us, and this will come as no surprise, the away end was full 19 times. It was full wherever and whenever we were on the road. To be fair, last season, it was actually full on 18 occasions. When our New Year’s Day fixture against Newcastle United was moved to an evening kick-off on a normal working day, to be screened live on TV, we fell just short. The same can’t be said of Goodison. Only five teams brought the full allocation of 3,000 fans and thirteen teams (almost 70% of the League) didn’t even attempt to take the 1,200 seats in the Upper Visitors’ Section. Realising this, if we wanted to do what the Premier League had asked us to do, we needed to work on fans coming to Goodison. That’s the brief I set to the team here. That’s also the brief I gave to our Fans’ Forum, who ultimately helped shape our final decisions.
Of course, as we’ve worked on this, other clubs have disclosed their plans and it would be wrong for me to comment on those. All I would do is ask you to consider what the task was and think about that in respect of other clubs - one club's situation being totally different to another's - and make your own judgement on whether or not their plans will be effective. My instruction was clear. It was to be creative, it was to come up with a range of ideas, it was to demonstrate we were prepared to work at the challenge, and it was to make a commitment to do what we’d been asked to do.
What we are going to do at Goodison
Coming back to what we’ve done, and what we’ll commit to do, I hope all fans will have noticed many exciting improvements at Goodison on matchdays - something built on from last season. I’ve spoken in the past about our four target areas for improvement and priority, and one of these is ‘the matchday’. And, as we increase the numbers of visitors to Goodison, the matchday team’s current and future plans will have elements away fans can share and elements bespoke to them. Of course, lots of other things will also help fill the visitors’ section of the Bullens Road more regularly, basic things like talking to visiting clubs and travelling fans in advance of the game, providing information on travel, parking and accommodation and building relationships with visiting Supporters’ Clubs. We’ve also made a commitment to work with our Heritage Society to improve St Luke’s Church and make it a place to proudly show off our unique history to all fans, home or away, visiting Goodison.
Our travelling army
At the risk of labouring it, or being defensive, remember there are no gaps in the away ends away from Goodison and, responding to what we’ve been asked to do, we are doing things to try to fill that upper corner of the Upper Bullens. That’s why our bias has been ‘inbound’ rather than ‘outbound’. Does that mean we are taking our away support for granted? Of course not. We’ve been recognising this amazing loyalty in a number of ways for a while, with ticket priority rights and special events, and, as you will have seen, we will be stepping this up.
The visitors’ sections away from home might be full but we need to ensure they stay full. While other clubs will do bespoke things for Evertonians arriving at their grounds and the welcome we’re giving visitors to Goodison should be visible at the grounds we visit, we recognised we needed to do more for our own fans. That’s why we’ll do something to make following Everton away from home more affordable. It’s why we’ve targeted a time when you need it most and a time when people traditionally say thank you. Throughout December and over the New Year, we will offer £5 off all away tickets. That’s the games at Manchester United, Arsenal, Swansea City and Stoke City, all subsidised to allow us to give something back. And we’ll do even more for junior fans. Our junior support can enjoy the New Year, at the Britannia, on us, for just £1. It’s our way of saying thank you and our way of saying how much we need your continued support up and down the country.
I’m also very excited about the dedicated Away Fan Ambassador we’ll introduce for travelling Evertonians. When we discussed it, it was clear it is an important and exciting role. This person will be on the lookout for deals, will be spotting any problems and will be on hand to resolve any issues. He or she will text us telling us to avoid the M4, will tell us about hotels with money off, and will pick up the phone when we’ve lost our ticket. These are the things that will make a tangible difference to away support levels. It’s a role that I’m looking forward to seeing in action.
I’ve just been in a meeting talking about being a fan-led club. It’s undoubtedly our aspiration, and our away fans’ initiative underlines our commitment to making sure our actions speak louder than words.
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