First off, it's time to look back at the season just
finished and see how our predictions got on.
Unlike print journalism - where hacks forecasts are buried away
in a long-forgotten eight months old newspaper - web predictions
are all too easily accessible. Just go to the archive
page and click on the line that says 'Predictions for 2003-04'
in big bold type. So we might as well hold our hand up without excuse
for our failures.
At least the SPL didn't come into that category. Back in
August we took Celtic for the title and Thistle for
the drop. Although we didn't expect the margins to be as big in
In the First we reckoned that Clyde and Caley Thistle
might not have the bottle to go all the way and that St Johnstone
were the team to go for.
Well, we got that one wrong. While the men from Inverness and Cumbernauld
battled it out on the last day of the season, it was the team from
Perth which languished behind in third place.
At least we called the relegation slots correctly, telling you eight
months ago that Ayr and Brechin would go down.
In the Second we confidently predicted success for Airdrie
but took Morton to accompany them. For a long time that looked
a certain bet. But bet is maybe the wrong word to use, considering
the furore surrounding Morton's collapse. Hamilton, who we
thought would be involved in the promotion race but not quite good
enough to go up, nipped in to take advantage.
It was very nearly Dumbarton. Now that would have been an
embarrassment considering we tipped the Sons for relegation. But
we did get the other doomed side right, marking Stenhousemuir
with the black spot before a ball was kicked.
Stranraer were a side we thought could go close in the Third
but not close enough and we never even considered Stirling Albion,
plumping instead for Peterhead and Gretna, both of
whom just couldn't get near enough to the top two. We said East
Stirling would finish last but that was probably the easiest
pick of the season.
So, all in all, out of twelve predictions for top and bottom
we gave you seven at the start of the season. And of the
five others we reckoned four of them would be thereabouts.
That's not too bad a record. Time to pause and give ourselves a
cyber-pat on the virtual back.
But not for too long, lest our laptop-sized head swells to the proportions
of a mainframe.
Where it all began. Caley Thistle's first ever League game
- just under 10 years ago
For weeks now here at scottishleague.net, we've been
complaining about attendances. And the last day of the season proved
our point once again. In the English Premiership the final day was
a quiet one. The title long since won, relegation decided weeks
previously, all that remained to play for was a duel between Aston
Villa and Newcastle for a UEFA Cup place and to see if Arsenal could
finish the season unbeaten.
The three matches involved were all live on TV. Yet of the ten games
played, there was only one - Blackburn - where fans could roll up
and pay at the turnstile.
That's right. The 'sold out' notices were plastered up all over
England for totally meaningless matches.
How the SPL must have looked on with envy.
But just how bad are Scottish crowds right now? Using
the published (but unofficial) figures for 2003-04 we've
been able to make a comparison with official tallies from days gone
by. Bear in mind though that the oldest figures available from the
Scottish League go back only as far as 1961-62.
At first glance our game may seem quite healthy. Forty years ago,
in 1963-64, the average attendance for a League match was
5,340. Today it's 5,401. But of course back then teams
only played each other twice a season and there were only 630
League matches as opposed to 768 now.
Top team averages appear worse then because instead of three or
four visits from the Old Firm there were matches against Queen of
the South, East Stirling and Third Lanark to fit in.
But the standout figure- the eye-catching, jaw-dropping stat - is
the percentage of those who watch the big two. Back then 5.4%
of fixtures were played at Ibrox and Parkhead. Nowadays it's 5.2%.
But in 1963-64 just under one quarter of all fans attended one of
those Old Firm home games - 24.8% to be nitpickingly precise.
Today the figure is 48.85%
Yes, you read that correctly. Even though the Old Firm represent
fewer fixtures as a percentage of those played, their share of the
gate has almost doubled. We are now at the point where almost
one in every two fans who goes to a game goes to watch either Celtic
or Rangers at home!
And this has been a phenomenon which has grown inexorably over recent
years. It used to vary between a quarter and a third. There were
two big jumps in the Old Firm share. One, in the 1970s when the
Premier Division was set-up when the Old Firm share leapt
from 30.3% to 35.1%. but this soon fell back. The
second was in Graeme Souness' first season in charge of Rangers
when the figure rose from 32% to 36.8%. That also
fell back before starting to rise again in the Rangers nine in a
row era, first crossing the 40% threshold in 1995-96.
The figure rose to 44.9% the next season then fell back marginally
to 44.6% the year after that.
Enter the SPL. Since then the rise of the Old Firm has been
almost irresistible. 46.3% in the first year, 46.9% after
that. Then 48%, 47%, 47.8%. Now we have a new high (or
low) in 2003-04.
(Thanks to Anthony Young for providing the
Back now to the sixties. In 1963-64 a grand total of 2,602,619
watched 596 matches elsewhere than Ibrox or Parkhead.
In 2003-04 there were 730 games played elsewhere but only
2,121,443 in attendance.
So although the bare stats insist that, on average, there are around
sixty extra spectators at every game as opposed to 40 years ago,
those same stats show that the average attendance EXCLUDING
Ibrox and Parkhead was 4,367 whereas today it is a flimsy
While the OF go from strength to strength almost every other
club continues to lose support on an often drastic scale.
Of course there are exceptions - and sometimes surprising ones too.
In the season just finished, two relegated clubs - Brechin
and Stenhousemuir - have recorded their best ever
averages. That's thanks in part to playing at a higher level than
they have been accustomed to for most of the period and also to
a larger than usual contingent of travelling fans.
But every silver lining masks a multitude of clouds. Take Dunfermline
- best league position for 35 years, first Scottish Cup Final for
36 years, playing in Europe next season for the first time in 34
Yet the attendance for their last home game - v Rangers - was the
lowest ever for that fixture. And, most damning fact of all, Dunfermline
were better supported in 1991-92 - WHEN THEY WERE RELEGATED -
than they are now.
Aberdeen have known some bad times over the past decade.
Yet they have been watched by fewer supporters in 2003-04 than at
any time since reconstruction in 1975.
Hearts have just finished in the top three for the second
successive season - the first time they have done so since winning
the League in 1960. Yet for the second successive season
they have lost support. Not as drastic as some, granted, but if
they are losing fans when finishing third in the table, what would
happen should they slip?
Maybe they should take a look at their fellow Edinburghers? While
the Jambos have lost a modest 130 per match in the past two seasons,
Hibs have lost nearly 2,500. They were better supported
in the 1st Division than they were last season.
But they're not the worst. Kilmarnock have lost support every
year for the past five years. From an average of over 11,500
in 1998-99 they have slipped to under 7,000 in 2003-04.
Livingston won the League Cup but the novelty of SPL football
in West Lothian is wearing off. They are down almost 2,000 per
match on 2001-02.
Dundee are appealing for every supporter they can get as
the club remains deep in financial trouble. Yet there are 1,000
fewer of them sitting in the stand each fortnight than there were
two years ago.
Even Partick Thistle - the model of financial
propriety - are losing support. When they were last relegated from
the top flight - in 1996 - they had a support nearly 6,500
strong. Now it is just 4,710 - the first time they have ever
dropped below 5,000 in the top division.
Some do buck the trend. Motherwell and Dundee United's
improved performances have been rewarded with modest increases in
attendances. But even Fir Park and Tannadice draw fewer people than
they did just a few seasons ago.
Below the big guns there are some encouraging trends. Ross County
averaged 3,203 - more than twice as many as in their first
season in the League in 1994-95 and a truly remarkable figure given
the population of Dingwall and surrounding area.
Queen of the South, with 2,360, were watched by more
fans than at any time since 1965-66. Clyde, buoyed by their
push for promotion, had their second best figure since the 1975
reconstruction. And even clubs in apparent decline, like St Johnstone
and St Mirren, appear to have at least stopped the rot.
Yet even here there are warning signs that not all is well. Inverness
Caledonian Thistle drew bigger gates in the Third Division in 1996-97
than they did in winning the First in 2004!
Something the ICT officials will wish to bear in mind when discussing
the possibility of ground-sharing at Pittodrie.
The simple truth is that huge gates at Ibrox and Parkhead are masking
a big drop in attendances elsewhere. The average attendance for
an SPL game is over 15,000. Yet that figure was reached in just
41 of the 228 matches played - every game at Ibrox and Parkhead
and three times at Pittodrie when the Old Firm came calling. Just
how absurd the averages are can be seen from the away figures. Celtic
- the best supported side in Scotland - have the lowest away
average attendance. The reason for that of course is that they are
the only team not to have the benefit of a near-60,000 Parkhead
crowd counted as an away figure!
But the Old Firm are heavily reliant on season ticket
renewals. If the day ever dawns when their fans revolt against paying
upfront then they too will be in trouble. Ibrox is the place to
watch. Rangers supporters will understand one poor season. But if
2004-05 follows the same pattern as 2003-04 then the renewal rate
may begin to drop.
As Rangers rely on cash from over 40,000 season ticket holders just
to keep their horrendous debt from increasing any further, a loss
of even a couple of thousand season books could set in motion a
chain of events which will make the present financial crisis seem
trivial by comparison.
Such is the mad, mad world of Scottish football.