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There used to be... Accurate Attendance Figures

Colin Payne looks back fondly at a time when attendances were actual attendances


As the teams came out onto the brightly illuminated pitch, I scanned across the stands. The away end was quite well populated for a night game with the TV cameras in attendance, the Ann Stand had far more empty seats than eager kids, whilst the SEJ was a patchwork, around 50/50, of human forms and plastic voids. Both the Rookery and GT had more than their share of spaces too. Yeah, 13,000, if that, I calculated. 

Attendances used to matter. They mattered a lot. I recall it was almost an unofficial sport on the terraces, guess the crowd before Adam Cummings would come over the tannoy, around two-thirds of the way into the second half, and announce the magical figure. I would be able to get it within 300 or so almost every game. I got good at it. Like reading the Matrix I could eliminate the always-sparsely populated sections of the ground, and not be swayed by the overly crowded areas behind the goals. I could scan the crowd as a whole, calculating as I went, using the basic knowledge that a full Vicarage Road end was 10,000, a packed Rookery 7,000, the Main Stand took 3,000 plus… and from there you could subtract the spaces. 

If it was a large gate Adam’s “And today’s attendance is 17,135. Ladies and gentlemen thank you all for coming…” would be greeted with a hearty cheer, perhaps followed by the scoreboard bursting into ‘Loyal Supporters (clap-clap-cla-cla-clap), Loyal Supporters (clap-clap-cla-cla-clap)’. On the other hand, if it was “And today’s attendance is 6,101…” then it would be the away fans cheering and jeering. Yet you need those single-figure gates, they are the games where we should be boasting how loyal we are, the ones that really mark those present down as supporters. For back then the attendances were accurate. They reflected the actual physical number of people present, and not the number of people who should have been present. They meant something they reflected your standing in the football world. They could fluctuate wildly, on occasions doubling or halving week by week. They were a barometer, a measure far more accurate of what your club were doing than mere league standings.  

Now, as evidenced at the Norwich game and my generous appraisal of the actual gate, they are meaningless. A 20,000 crowd – as persistently recorded, but seldom achieved, during the ‘Premier Days’ – is as reliable a figure as 30, 40 or 50 thousand. It means nothing. Like transfer fees and debt calculations, they’re just figures implanted in records purely for the sake of presenting a figure. Those empty seats, and there are often a lot of them, don’t lie. The figures given do. Let’s get back to recording actual numbers, this is fooling no one.

All I want is a bit of honesty… and to play guess the crowd again.