Earlier this week, it was announced that Aston Villa will offer travelling fans free coach travel to ten of the remaining Premier League away fixtures this season, beginning with the trip to the KC Stadium, home of Hull City Tigers, on October 5th.
The welcome move was inspired by a four million pound Premier League initiative this season that requires all twenty clubs to assign at least £200,000 to improving the experiences of fans attending away fixtures. The initiative was launched in the wake of protests at the Premier League headquarters in London in June, which the Liverpool supporters’ group ‘Spirit of Shankly’ organised, to show “that the problem of escalating ticket prices is a cross-club issue and that we, as supporters, are no longer willing to subsidise football’s unsustainable financial bubble.”
Last season, we also saw the Football Supporters’ Federation launch its ‘Twenty’s Plenty’ campaign, with the aim of getting football clubs at all levels of the game to recognise the contribution of away fans, and the spiralling costs they face, by collectively agreeing a price cap on away match tickets of £20 and £15 for concessions.
In the first week of the new season, eight clubs, including Aston Villa, sold their full away allocation and the 3,000 who made the trip to London were duly rewarded with a priceless victory.
The Villans’ amazing away support is well-known. As the song says, “I would walk 500 miles and I would walk 500 more” to see my beloved team play. Well, truth be told, I’d take a train – and therein lies one problem with Villa’s gesture: not all Villa fans are based in Birmingham. Based in London and travelling to games, both home and away, by train for a long time now, I have come to know other season ticket holders making the same (often very expensive) journeys. Many members of various Lions’ Clubs also travel regularly to away games, which is costly. Therefore, I feel it is a shame that some of the club’s most faithful supporters will reap no reward from this latest initiative. Indeed, Lions’ Clubs close to Birmingham whose members organise transport for fans may even suffer financially as fans understandably choose to avail of the free official travel.
Of course, people can argue that those trekking across the country on a weekly basis to support Villa can afford to do so, which is largely true. If the £200,000 were to be spent on ensuring loyal fans who are struggling financially were able to attend more away games, which may even happen for some as a result of the free travel offer, I personally would not have a problem with this but I cannot see means-testing being introduced at the Aston Villa ticket office any time soon.
Another issue that club officials need to consider is the impact the free travel will have on ticket sales. I imagined that the games with free travel attached to them would prove more popular than those that fans will need to travel to at their own expense – and early indications suggest that my thinking was correct. A call to the ticket office this morning confirmed that in twenty-four hours, with tickets still only available to season ticket holders who have attended five or more Premier League games in 2012-13 and 2013-14 combined, just under 1500 tickets for Hull have been sold. As more supporters learn of the scheme, the sales criteria may need to be revised for those games involving free travel to ensure that the most loyal away supporters continue to have priority access to tickets.
I will continue to support Aston Villa at grounds across the country, regardless of financial incentives to do so, for as long as I am able to but feel the club must recognise the contribution of fans from beyond Birmingham. The powers that be at Liverpool Football Club have decided to use the money allocated to them to offer fans a slight reduction on the cost of all away tickets, which strikes me as fairer, and a way to spread the money further, than paying coach fares.
What are your thoughts on the new initiative? Will you be able to take advantage of the free travel on offer or will you, like me, be left behind?