There are lots of archetypal fans in the world of football. There are the “plastic fans”, the “proper fans”, the “johnny come latelys” – it can almost feel like Mean Girls out there working out who is who and where you belong…
But of all the groups, none receive more anger than “the prawn sandwich brigade”. Fans of all colours unite in their disdain for this uppity bunch: watching from their ivory towers; failing to come out for the second half because they are still scoffing some corporate meal; clapping politely at both teams. In many ways “the prawn sandwich brigade” sums up everything many supporters hate most about the modern game (quite how an innocent fish got so caught in the crossfire, I’m not sure.)
In my view, these caricatures are a tad unfair. You are allowed to be a johnny come lately – how else is a team supposed to get new fans? You are allowed to be quiet in the ground and just watch the game if you don’t enjoy the chanting, and you are allowed to go as a corporate or wealthy enjoyer of the sport, even if you aren’t a ‘die hard’.
But it is still important to remember that these factions exist within football and be wary of how they can affect the culture of a club. That is where the Riverside Stand comes in, and the way Shahid and Tony Khan have been promoting it. From day one, most fans knew that the Riverside was going to be on the higher end of the price scale, but the extent of it has been quite shocking. As was widely publicised, the most expensive Season Ticket in the country is now at Fulham. Not Chelsea, not Arsenal – Fulham. If you would like to sit in the Platinum Upper portion of our new Riverside Stand, it will cost you £3,000 for the privilege. In other words, that is £157.89 per game.
Now, it is important to clarify that having the most expensive single season ticket is not the same thing as having the highest average season ticket price. We certainly do not have that, although prices in the rest of the ground have gone up this year too. Shahid Khan wrote an article in the Times defending our season ticket pricing structure, and he was quite candid about the reasons behind it. Khan stated: ‘it’s about striking a balance in modern football where you get the revenue to invest in the squad and still have tickets for the hardcore fans that are more affordable. But there is a market for premium, we’re calling it platinum, tickets.’ There is a logic to this approach. If you are going to get lots more money into a club, you can see how it makes sense to milk the very wealthiest for their cash, and keep prices a bit more reasonable for the rest of us. In other words, I’d rather a system where some season tickets are £3000 and some are £650, than one where all are £1500. You price out fewer people overall if you have a wider range.
So there’s my bit of being nice to them out of the way. Now, onto the issues…
First of all, as I touched upon earlier, tickets have gone up for ordinary fans too. It is hard to feel like these new mega rich seats are helping subsidise the rest of us, when tickets across the board are getting more expensive. Yes, I know we have rampant inflation and everything is getting pricier right now, but is that a fair excuse in the case of football? Has the cost base gone up so much to necessitate this? I feel confident that the ownership could have kept prices down in the rest of the ground if they wanted to, and that doing so would have made us a little more accepting of what is going on in the Riverside.
But there is another problem with this approach; one I worry the Khans do not understand, and which brings me full circle back to fan architypes. A football club needs to feel like a united community, even a family. The fans at any game are 25,000 individuals, but on a great day, like the playoff semi-final against Derby, or those magical nights in the Europa League, we felt like one. That is one of the beautiful things about being a football fan, and one of the reasons why being at the ground is such a different experience to watching on TV. The community. The other fans you share your experience with.
The Khans are unashamedly and consciously emphasising that we are not one fanbase. They are speaking openly in terms of the ‘hardcore’ and the tourists. Us and them. There has been no effort to incorporate the Riverside Stand into the rest of Craven Cottage. It is made to feel like a completely different entity, and – in what I think is a particularly telling move, you are not even allowed to walk onto the river now unless you have a Riverside ticket. Not a Fulham ticket. A Riverside ticket. It used to feel like once you were inside Craven Cottage you were with your brethren. Now there are checkpoints depending on which standard of fan you are.
Football fans will always be factional. However, the Khan’s had handled the Riverside Development, we would still talk about the Prawn Sandwich Brigade, the Plastic Fans, the Johnny Come Latelys. All clubs have that to an extent. But an owner’s aim should be to minimise that side of things and bring people together, not actively make it worse by so flagrantly marketing ‘the rich stand’. I worry there is a lack of understanding about how important ‘the feel’ of a ground is. How priceless it is to feel as one.
Whoever you are, whatever stand you sit in, however wealthy you may be, you have every right to be at Fulham and I have no issue with you. My view is not an endorsement of factionalism, just a recognition that it exists, and can damage the identity of a club. And I worry that if the feel of the Riverside doesn’t evolve in a better direction, fans in the Hammersmith end may end up giving the people to their right as many dirty looks as the away fans at the other end of the pitch.