In the second part to our For The Sake Of The Game feature, Kenny Pieper tells the worrying tale of his beloved club – Partick Thistle – and its struggle to keep up with the modern game.
When I was dragged kicking and screaming along to Firhill to see Partick Thistle for the first time in the early seventies it was probably to keep me away from three things; puff candy and the single most obvious reason Glaswegians have the worst dental record in the western world; a worrying obsession with wrestling on the TV; and, well, there probably wasn’t a third thing come to think of it. Nobody told me that I could watchBarcelonaevery week on my phone. For an obvious reason. The potential Thistle fan today might just have a third thing to keep him away.
You look around Firhill these days and it is in this context that you see a microcosm of Scottish football’s future. It is not merely that crowds are dropping off – ten years ago when we were on our way to winning the Scottish First Division we averaged over four thousand; this season rarely above two thousand – but more the sense of inevitability. The over-sized stadium we were coerced into constructing a decade ago as a necessity of SPL entry – incidentally, a rule that was ignored when it suited; but that’s another weary tale – lies empty on two, sometimes three, sides every week. The singing has died. The hope gone with it. Recent discussions over league reconstruction perhaps suggest why.
What seemed to be missing from the talks was any discussion about the fans. Those people who have always paid their money to go to games. Unquestioning, for the most part; loyal beyond reason. However, for those who are making these decisions, this fan is becoming increasingly a museum piece, a thing of the past. Dwindling numbers through the gates – a result of poor product, dreadful value for money, difficult times – suggests that a message about the structure of the game is being missed or ignored. At a time when encouraging young fans to games must be the key focus of clubs, it seems that discussions of Sky TV and the clubs’ share of the pot misses the point entirely. Four games a season against the same team does not encourage a good product. It is not what the people want.
A couple of years or so back, we at Partick Thistle made the bold, some said dangerous, decision to allow under sixteens in for free. The intention was fairly transparent. Encouraging a love of all things Thistle, hopefully, would see these ‘hooked’ kids come back for the rest of their lives. Just like many of us did in different times and under different circumstances. I’m not sure if and when the success of the scheme can be judged but I am very proud of Thistle for attempting such a bold move. I look around the country and don’t see anyone succeeding in any other way.
The young people we are trying to encourage to come along to a cold, open stadium to watch fairly uninspiring football for, at the moment for adults, sixteen, seventeen quid a week, don’t want or need to pay that to get their fix of football. They can get better quality football on their phones for much, much cheaper and for less personal discomfort. If we don’t get out of the past and realise that, we may not have teams to go out there and watch. Those making the decisions we’ve been hearing about recently are seemingly unaware of this and the financial gains they say will be reaped will be short term only. It is too late to keep talking about dragging football out of the twentieth century. Many of the kids we want to encourage along have only known this century.
And, while the aging fans like me have no real choice over their football team – that bridge was burned long, long ago – it is becoming increasingly difficult to see why anyone would want to watch lower league football at all. Top quality football is readily available almost every night on TV. It costs a ridiculous amount of money to enter a First Division game. Why should I waste my money? The only real selling point we have is the alternative to the Old Firm. Maybe marching thousands of young intelligent people throughGlasgowon an Old Firm Sunday might swing them our way – it certainly convinced me I’d made the right choice. Our very survival in the future depends on getting the next generation through the gates.
We simply cannot solve the problems we face by reverting to old solutions; and if that upsets the Old Firm then I’m afraid we have to put up with that. The argument that we must look after these lumbering giants hardly stands up any more. I could understand if they were still successful inEuropebut they are not and have not been for some time. We need people with a vision to make some dramatic, even dangerous choices for our future. The same old, same old ain’t going to work anymore.
I want to have a Partick Thistle to come and watch. In an ideal world, that would be a successful Partick Thistle competing at the top level. What I don’t want is for my team to die chasing a ludicrous dream. There is the very real danger that teams like Thistle may disappear altogether unless something dramatic happens. If not, then we aging fans will be a ridiculous anachronism, sitting about in the cold and rain in increasingly smaller numbers watching nothing. So please, those in charge, think about the long term future rather than the next Sky contract. Too much is riding on this.