Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Smallest Crowd

Attendances, everyone keeps telling us, are up. Of course, this is impossible to prove or disprove, because, unique in the civilised world, we do not publish attendance figures, so we have no gauge to measure crowd increases on. Attendance figures usually come from a journalist hazarding a guess, or asking the person next to him. The difficulty in estimating the size of a crowd is well demonstrated on various clubs MBs after a big game, where the discrepancy between guesses can run into thousands.

However, word of mouth and the evidence of our eyes tell us that crowds are indeed on the increase, which is very encouraging, given the complete absence of marketing. [Incidentally, did you know that there are only eight leagues in Europe where the average attendance in the top division is over 10,000? Okay, we still have a long way to go to achieve this figure, but, unlike the Poles, Rumanians, Bulgars etc, we’re heading in the right direction.]

Given the absence of worthwhile statistics regarding crowd attendances, it is impossible to know which club holds the record for the highest attendance at a league match. In the modern era, anyway, I would suggest that some of Cork City’s crowds this season must come pretty close.

However, I would like to put forward my nomination for the most poorly attended league match in recent history. This is, of course, entirely subjective, and if anybody can better it, I’d be delighted to hear from him or her.

Naturally enough, the game involved Home Farm. Home Farm were famous in the eighties for only having one supporter. You’d arrive in Tolka Park – the Farm’s home ground in those days – to be confronted by this one blue-and-white bedecked fan. The butt of many a joke, he nevertheless has to be a strong contender for Supporter of the Century in my eyes. In those days, there was only one division, with no relegation, and Home Farm usually finished bottom, with UCD just above them. So to be a Home Farm supporter entailed a fair degree of masochism.

But this particular game was not played at Tolka, but at that cold-bed of Irish soccer, Harold’s Cross. Older fans will remember how impossible it was to generate any atmosphere at the Cross. No fans ever stood behind the goals, or on the far side of the pitch. Everybody congregated on the steps of the stand, with a fence and a greyhound track between them and the pitch. For those of us who were shortsighted, it was often impossible to make out the action on the far side of the pitch.

There were also large run-off areas behind the goal, and ne’er a ballboy in sight. So whenever a shot went wide, the goalie used to have walk a hundred yards to retrieve the ball. This would have been great if we were winning 1-0 with minutes to go, but unfortunately such scorelines were few and far between, and it was often our goalie, Freddie Davies, who would have to do a sprint to retrieve the ball, rather than a leisurely jog.

Advanced senility on my part means that unfortunately I cannot be 100% certain as to the year that this particular match took place. I know it was the final match of the season between Shels and Home Farm and it was probably 1983-1984, though it could have been the season previous. Hopefully some stato out there can put my mind at rest.

The season had officially finished the weekend before and Shels and Home Farm were merely fulfilling an outstanding [I use the word humorously] fixture. Shels had finished third from bottom, and Home Farm as usual had been the strongest team in the league. The result was not going to alter any positions.

In order to maximise the crowd potential, it had been decided to play the game at 4.30pm on a Thursday afternoon, always a great time for pulling in the armchair supporter. I can’t think why more teams don’t go for that time slot these days. To make things more enticing, Ireland were playing a friendly international on the telly at the same time.

I arrived at the ground a good quarter of an hour early to avoid the mad rush. As I recall, there was nobody on the turnstile, and the gate was open, so I saved £2 immediately. I joined the massed throngs on the terraces and awaited the start of the match. People were streaming in all the time, and by kick-off, the numbers had swelled to nine.

As I recall, a couple of lads arrived during the match, but some more buggered off to the Greyhound to watch the international, so the size of the crowd remained pretty constant throughout. It’s not often in the top division of a country, that the players outnumber the crowd, but this was definitely one for the record books.

The game actually did have an interesting edge to it. Kieran McCabe, the Shels midfielder, was in line for the League’s Golden Boot award. Basically, whoever scored twenty goals in a season won a trophy and a packet of Tayto, or something. Kieran came into this game having scored seventeen goals, not bad for a midfielder in a struggling team.

The Shelbourne players were naturally aware of this and spent the game trying to set Kieran up. It reached farcical proportions when Paddy Joyce rounded the Home Farm keeper and held the ball up on the line waiting for Kieran to run up and tap it in [he didn’t, and the ball was cleared!]

Midway through the second half a ball was played out of Shels half and Kieran, running on to it was through on goal with the keeper to beat. The ref [I think it was Carpenter] promptly blew up for offside. When Kieran protested that he had run from his own half, Carpenter realised his error, put his head in his hands and apologised profusely! [This has to be some kind of first in itself.]

As it transpired, Shels won 3-1, but Kieran only scored the once, which was a huge disappointment to the enthralled masses on the terraces. I think he was just pipped for the Top Scorer award by a single goal – probably Alan Campbell or Brendan Bradley.

So I put it up to you – how low can you go? Which team is the proud holder of the record for the poorest attendance at a league match in this country? [Friendlies don’t count, by the way] Were there ever more on the bench than on the terraces? Did you ever sing, “I am the Limerick, the Limerick FC” or “I’ll Support you Evermore”? No prizes, just instant immortality to the winner.

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