You will have heard about the 900 tickets Manchester City have returned to Arsenal for the Premier League match on Sunday because they were considered overpriced at £62, and how this is supposed to be a watershed moment or tipping point in the madly inflationary English game.
You will have heard less about the 2,000 or so City fans who stumped up £62 each quite happily – well, perhaps not happily, but they bought the tickets – and that Arsenal are unlikely to lose out because their own supporters will willingly take up the shortfall, £62 being around the going rate for a Category A game at the Emirates. In most cases, especially for big games, big clubs can readily find buyers for unwanted tickets in the away end, so is this really a significant protest about seat prices or is it a step on the road to reduced allocation for visiting supporters?
One thing is clear: clubs are concerned only about selling tickets. They don't really mind who buys them and, given the extra stewarding costs and segregation issues that come with away supporters, it would not be an enormous surprise to see clubs pitching the price of away seats sky high to keep the numbers of travelling fans as low as possible. Some would argue they are already doing that. Certainly the premium that away supporters generally have to pay is an unfair burden on people who also have increased transport and subsistence costs.
If you think of where Newcastle, say, site the away contingent it is easy to suppose clubs with plenty of home support are going out of their way to make visitors uncomfortable. Against that there are clubs such as Wigan who are grateful for all the paying support they can get and will happily allow away fans to fill an entire end behind a goal.
The point of all this is not only to show that away fans often get a raw deal but that clubs can pretty much treat them how they wish. There are no hard and fast rules and perhaps there should be. One Manchester City spokesman, commenting on the refusal to pay the £62 Arsenal were asking, said plenty of fans could have afforded it but felt the London club were taking the mickey and refused on principle to fork out so much. Fair enough, though Arsenal fans would point out that while the average price for an Emirates seat over the course of a season works out at around £37, a Category A game such as one against the champions would cost them in the region of £60 too.
The top London clubs are notoriously expensive and Arsenal are the dearest of the lot now the wage bill is so high, as a result of having to pay players exorbitant amounts to prevent them leaving for, er, Manchester City. It would be wrong to pin the blame for high ticket prices elsewhere on City supporters – the club did not stop to check with its fanbase before doing its bit to contribute to the inflationary rise by throwing stupid money at players such as Robinho and Emmanuel Adebayor – but what City have to come to terms with is that since winning the title they are Category A, top drawer, and will be priced accordingly.
Broadly speaking, if significant numbers of Arsenal fans are paying £60 for Sunday's game then City cannot put up too many objections. They are not exactly impoverished country cousins, coming down from the frozen north. A more interesting question is how happy Arsenal fans feel about paying so much to watch a game. All too clearly they do not feel they are getting value for money at the most expensive stadium in the league and now a new television deal has been signed that will inject even more into the collective coffers from next season, they are at the front of those clubs petitioning to reduce prices across the board to give supporters a fairer deal.
The point has been made that Premier League clubs could make every seat price around £20 cheaper (or knock about a third off in the case of less expensive tickets) and still make a profit from the extra TV revenue. This would help return the game to the supporters, promote happiness and goodwill all around and do much to embrace the spirt of Lord Justice Taylor's post-Hillsborough recommendations when he said that all-seat stadiums need not involve huge price hikes being passed on to the spectator. It isn't going to happen, of course. Football clubs would far rather pour most of their new-found income into the pockets of players and their agents rather than think of the future and invest a little in their continued support.
But I digress. Away ticket prices became a bone of contention long before Arsenal began charging £62 for them. We are only halfway through this season and I have lost count of the number of complaints I have heard from away fans about iniquitous prices. We let them in for £20 and they charge us £35, for example. Or they put the prices up for us and not for themselves. City's return of 900 overpriced tickets may not matter too much in itself if Arsenal can easily sell them elsewhere – thus proving, in the daft way that supply and demand operates, that they were not all that overpriced after all – though someone soon should stop and think. Nine hundred tickets at £62 equates to around £56,000 of revenue. That might be chicken feed to Arsenal, or City for that matter, but most football clubs could put £56,000 to very good use indeed. Just think how good Bradford City, allegedly put together for a mere £7,500, could become with seven times as much to spend.
Leading clubs do not appear to be blase only about the revenue away fans can contribute, they underestimate their contribution to the match-day atmosphere as well. If you don't have two sets of supporters you don't have a proper football match and the increasingly token presence of away fans in the Premier League compares unfavourably with the greater numbers and enhanced atmosphere at cup games.
West Ham have already sold out their allocation for next week's FA Cup replay at Old Trafford – £45 a pop, since you ask – and while that may seem at odds with City's reluctance to pay high prices for a similar trip in the opposite direction, remember that Irons fans are keen to be in on a potentially historic I-was-there moment, certainly something to boast about in future, and are more than willing to provide their own input into the occasion.
That is the quality away supporters find missing from too many Premier League games, where they are fast becoming almost passive observers. They are often treated appallingly and overcharged for it, and in the interests of preserving what is, or used to be, unique about football, some sort of financial fair play for away support should come into operation. The cost of an away ticket for a Premier League game should be no more than the cheapest price for a home supporter. The two prices should always be set at the same rate. Away fans get the cheapest seats and the worst views but they often find themselves having to pay over the odds for the privilege. Away fans are necessary, desirable, and mostly well-behaved these days. The Premier League can afford to treat them better.