A STADIUM packed to the gunnels. Unbridled excitement in the build-up and a raucous atmosphere throughout the 90 minutes. Pride and passion emanating from every corner. And all for a game between two teams in the bottom half of the SPL on a freezing mid-November day.
Hearts fans deserve nothing but credit for answering their crisis-hit club’s call to arms and packing out Tynecastle for Saturday’s 1-0 win over St Mirren, but the depressing question demanding to be asked in the aftermath is: why couldn’t it be like this every week? Why have we got to the stage where it takes a club to find itself at death’s door to sell out their stadium?
Aside from derbies, European nights or the odd occasion when a non-Old Firm side enjoys a particularly bright spell of form, rousing atmospheres and full houses are rarely seen in Scottish football these days.
Aberdeen’s fans are usually the quickest to come out and embrace the slightest hint of success, and Pittodrie welcomed an impressive 18,000 crowd for the weekend clash with Celtic. By contrast, however, Inverness, one of the form teams in Scotland, couldn’t muster 3000 for their game against Motherwell, while the previous week barely 10,000 people turned out to see Hibs hit the top of the league. There’s a fair chance Hearts would have had to settle for a similar crowd against St Mirren on Saturday had they not issued their rallying call. Fans thrive on a siege mentality. Look at how Rangers fans united following their demise. The big crowds, the sense of defiance and the passion for the club, which perhaps wasn’t as evident before, has now come to the fore.
Likewise, Dundee fans rallied in the aftermath of their most recent brush with financial turmoil. If only the fans would turn up every week and help create such a raucous occasion on a match-day, perhaps our clubs wouldn’t find themselves in such a dire financial state.
That is not to shift the blame on to the paying punter, however. Quite the opposite, in fact. The general mismanagement of Scottish football over the past 20 years or so has helped turn its customer base away. Prices have increased as the quality of football and sense of occasion has deteriorated. Clubs have taken their supporters for granted, and it’s no surprise that many fans have responded by taking their clubs for granted.
Of those at Tynecastle on Saturday, for example, probably two-thirds can be counted among the hardcore who turn up every second week because it’s what they’ve done all their lives. Teams won’t prosper, however, if they continue to rely heavily on the unconditional loyalty of the diehard minority who will turn up whatever the weather. Every club has a wider fan base; the guys who still love their club, but don’t go every week for whatever reason.
It might be cost or apathy that has driven them away or it may just be that they have other commitments on a Saturday. It may be too late to coax these people back, given that there are so many better value alternatives to watching football these days. But, while we can lament half-emty stadiums all day long, those who do turn up routinely can still play a part in making the match-day experience more of an occasion.
Too often in Scottish football, it is only the away support who make a real effort to sing. Perhaps it is time for home fans to start treating a bread-and-butter league game with the same intensity and gusto as a European game or a derby match.
Saturday’s occasions at Tynecastle and Pittodrie should set the benchmark for all clubs and fans who care about breathing some much-needed life back into Scottish football.