Should we be more Reserved?
It was a cold night back in November 2014 and I debated with myself the wisdom of trekking to Goodison to see the Under-21s in a Premier League International Cup game against Glasgow Celtic. When it became obvious my other half would prefer that I went, I drove for 25 minutes, parked 2 minutes walk from the stadium, paid my £3.00 Pensioner's entrance fee, joined the other couple-of-hundred Everton fans dotted about the Upper Bullens Road Stand and, just as the game kicked off, sat in the seat I most fancied (and which offered the most legroom), proud of the effort and the sacrifices I'd made that night to support my team.
I'm not sure when they started but the travelling Celtic fans were already singing their anthems from the minute I sat down to the time I left the ground at the end of a fairly turgid game in which we escaped with an undeserved 1–1 draw. They were a band of Green and White brothers tightly gathered together at the Stanley Park End of the Upper Bullens Road Stand to pay homage to their young players and probably causing the few Everton stewards present to fear how the night may unfold. But they were just there to support their team and support it they did. They provided as much entertainment for the rest of we spectators as the football game we watched. It seemed that hundreds of them had taken the day off (the game started at 7:00 pm) to travel near 200 miles to attend a game which barely raised any interest in Liverpool and was far easier and cheaper for the home fans to attend.
I have no idea whether Celtic fans support their team so well or in even more numbers for their local equivalent of the Barclays Under-21 Premier League but I do know that their travelling support is much greater than that following Everton Under-21s... and that caused me to wonder how we fared against our more local rivals.
The last away game I attended was the recent game on 11 January against Manchester City at the City Football Academy, the newly built showcase for City to present their Under-21 and Women's football teams, situated just over the road from The Etihad Stadium. The game was very well attended, largely by City fans, and although I can find no reference to the number of spectators who did attend, there seemed to me to be at least 2,000. The ground facilities were as good as you could wish for although the automatic ticket machines were beyond my ken and I had to be rescued by a kindly Manchester City steward who gave me a free ticket, treating me in much the same genial way I nod at people I suspect of having Alzheimer's Disease. The pitch was in excellent condition and was lit up like a Christmas tree. Talking to a steward and a couple of City fans, they were proud as punch of that stadium. Admission price for non-season ticket holders was £3.00 (£1.00 for concessions).
Manchester United hold their Under-21 games at Leigh Sports Village and, on the night I went, I thought I was caught up in a traffic jam for a Wigan Rugby League game until all the cars ended up at Leigh's ground. Again, it is a fairly new stadium and Manchester United had made entry free for all spectators as long as you applied on line beforehand and I guessed that about 3,000 had.
The recent derby game with Liverpool's Under-21s was another fantastic night for all right-thinking football fans as we 'blue them away' in marvellous style. But the St Helens Rugby League ground at which the game was played was built just 4 years ago and is built to a high standard. It was a sizeable crowd but, as it was being shown live on LFC's TV station and there were no pickled herrings on sale at the food concession, I think they were all Everton fans. But a very nice stadium.
Everton play most of their home Under-21 fixtures at Haig Avenue in Southport and it does not compare favourably with any of these grounds. The pitch for the recent Newcastle International Cup game was very heavy and not conducive to playing the style of football espoused by Roberto MMartinez, and the facilities are also not inviting. The difference in stadium quality reminded me of the superiority I felt on my first away game in 1962-63 when we travelled to watch Everton v Blackpool and I was taken aback to see that Blackpool's main stand looked like a chicken hut and its roof had adverts painted on it.
There seems clear differences in the way Manchester United and Manchester City see their Under-21 teams compared to the impression given by Everton. Despite the guaranteed worldwide fanbase attaching itself to any club that spends enough to compete in all competitions in every year, these clubs are anxious both to encourage younger, locally resident fans to attend any of the club's games and reward their other fans by providing excellent facilities and charging little or no admission prices. This is a surprising development, in Manchester United's case, given the expected attitude of the new American owners during the rancorous purchase of the club; City's new owners, by comparison, seem to have got their Public Relations sorted from Day One.
Despite being a club that prides itself on its inspiring history and its community standing, Everton's management don't seem to have the vision of the benefits that accrue from a thriving young fanbase. Surely there are venues that better reflect Everton's status in the game? We used to play games at Widnes and their new ground would be a substantial improvement on Haig Avenue as well as being much nearer where I live. What would be the trifling cost of encouraging younger fans with free entry?
I may be forgiven for thinking the club management doesn't care about its Under-21 fanbase, that it is complacent and lazy. I suggested to them in 2014 that the quality of their Under-21 match information, both by Twitter and website match reports, was not as good as it could or should be and perhaps they may want to compare their output with that of nearly every other club I have checked (albeit fleetingly). They told me that their output compared very favourably, thank you very much, and they had no lessons to learn. That's Okay, then.
But they wouldn't have to incur much expense to make the club much more accessible. The club does provide a Twitter feed but you'd die of boredom waiting for it to update you on match developments. The TV highlights are restricted to shots of the players shaking hands before the game and the goals scored during the game. Is it not possible for the person who put those highlights together to also include other game footage? We wouldn't expect a commentary, just 20 minutes of highlights to give us a reasonable impression of how we played. Perhaps there are restrictions on what can be shown or maybe the Premier League charge for extended highlights?
All that said, I am disappointed that more Evertonians don't go to watch the Under-21s as I know they would enjoy them. There's far less hassle getting to the games and getting into them. The atmosphere is always good and even defeats are more palatable as we see them as part of a learning curve all players need to go through. The commitment from all the players (with the possible exception of recovering first-team squad members) is a joy to behold and we all get to pick the wrong ones as probable future stars; I still can't believe Gary Jones didn't make the 1974 World Cup Squad. And every now and again, you get to see a game like the Newcastle game.
So... are you going to the (Under-21) game?