English football is built on tradition and the first Saturday in January has iconic significance. For generations it has been the date of the third round of the FA Cup, the day when improbable dreams are fulfilled and the mighty are humiliated.
We all know that the glint of the famous trophy and excited roar of the occasional spectators who flocked to football grounds under its spell has long been eclipsed by the flashing lights and never-ending disco beat of the Premier League.
A plum tie can still mean a winter windfall for the many clubs excluded from the party, but it is the bread and butter income of league matches that keeps clubs in business and managers in their jobs.
So the declining interest of the elite has long since filtered down to lower levels. Championship bosses, in particular, are reluctant to risk key players in the effort to overcome lower division opposition so soon after the busy Christmas and New Year programme.
As a fledgling Third Division South club in 1923, Charlton made their name in the FA Cup, defeating First Division Manchester City, Preston North End and West Bromwich Albion, before losing 1-0 to top-flight Bolton Wanderers. It was a run that captured the nation’s imagination, as well as attracting then record crowds to The Valley.
April 26th, 1947, was Charlton’s proudest day. That afternoon they won their only serious trophy and carved the club’s name forever alongside the legends of English football.
Nine years later, the Addicks could still draw almost 30,000 to The Valley - 5,000 more than their First Division average - to see them trounce non-League Burton Albion 7-0 on third-round day and then attracted an almost inconceivable 71,767 to see them go out to Arsenal in the fifth round.
But in the ensuing 57 years they have done little to inspire belief that they can repeat their solitary Wembley win in the competition, never subsequently appearing in the semi-finals and reaching even the sixth round just three times.
Regardless, the magic of this cup was still strong enough to summon tens of thousands of travelling supporters to make their way to Bristol City and Manchester United in 1994, Bolton in 2000 and Middlesbrough in 2006, and again for relatively glamorous third-round ties at Spurs and Fulham in 2011 and 2012. The trophy may be tarnished, but it still sparkles when darkness has fallen around it.
All of which brings us to the impending visit of Oxford United on third round day in 2014, assuming the weather and the all-too-evident inadequacy of the Valley playing surface allow the game to go ahead some time soon.
Despite chief financial officer David Joyes exhorting “as many of you as possible” to attend the opening fixture in the Valley Review because the “addiitional revenue could be in the region of £1.5m” if Charlton are successful in the competition, the club has taken the unprecedented step of closing the east stand for the game, as well as the upper north, quadrants and upper west, effectively limiting home attendance to around 7,500.
The club went on to claim in the Boxing Day programme: “By only opening the lower west and lower north stands we are not only able to significantly reduce costs, but also ensure a higher proportion of fans in more concentrated areas of the ground, creating a better atmosphere than if we had opened the whole stadium.”
Now there’s no disputing there is some truth in this, but if this logic was applied to its logical end it would also be true of Championship matches at The Valley, where opening the east stand has not strictly been required to accommodate the crowd for any fixture this season except Football for a Fiver against Wigan.
The upper west could probably still have remained shut even for that game, because the actual home support was under 20,000. In fact, we could make do without the upper west as well as the east for most home league games.
The reason the club doesn’t do this, as is well known, is that season-ticket holders would object and beyond any doubt at all some would punish the club financially by not renewing when the time came. It is, therefore, the right decision to open all stands, even if there is a cost saving to be made by closing some of them.
Yet apparently the assumption is that if you do the same thing for a cup game it has no effect on the number of people buying tickets. This is simply not the case. The cost saving will be offset to a greater or lesser extent by a reduction in revenue.
What’s more the cost saving to Charlton for a league match is substantially more than it is for a cup match, because most matchday costs are shared for a cup match. This means, in the case of the Oxford fixture, that the Addicks only save 45 per cent of those expenses that are deductible from the receipts under the rules.
Similar logic applies to lost revenue, but it all means we are discussing smaller amounts.
From experience going back to 1985, I would also very much question whether a ground with an empty east side results in a better atmosphere. This was the case at The Valley at the start of 1985/86 and again in 1992-1994. It detracted from the event, not added to it.
But why make so much fuss about the east stand, as opposed to the upper north and upper west, which have routinely been shut for cup games in recent years. I’ll freely declare that as an east stand season ticket holder since it opened in 1994, I have a particular interest. But I also know something about the economics and practicalities.
The only competition for which the east stand has been closed in recent years is the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy against Barnet in 2009 when just under 4,000 home fans were squeezed into the lower west stand and against Dagenham & Redbridge in 2010 when it was just over 4,000 in the same area.
This caused considerable operational problems and an unusual volume of complaints, because of difficulties sitting people together in a stand near capacity and the unwillingness of some ticket holders to sit in their allocated seats.
In short, it was more trouble than it was worth and we didn’t repeat the exercise in 2011. But nobody, including the club, cared less about the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and everyone knew it was as far as possible under the rules to be regarded as a reserve exercise until and unless the team reached the final.
That is still very different from the FA Cup and very different from the precedents set in that competition, where as recently as three seasons ago there were 6,000 home supporters for a second round tie against non-League Luton Town and 6,150 last season for the third round against Huddersfield Town, when ticket prices were £15 adults, £10 concessions and £5 U18s. This time they are £10 and £5, i.e. 33 per cent cheaper for adults and 50 per cent cheaper for over 60s.
Indeed, the club is effectively contradicting its own position for the match against Oxford back in August, when it opened all three sides for the first round Capital One cup tie.
The crowd then was 4,935, with 772 Oxford fans, but again a midweek League Cup first round match is not the FA Cup third round and all precedent and experience suggests a Saturday FA crowd should be significantly higher.
So what is the saving the club is chasing? It takes about 30 casual staff to open the east stand, so assuming they work six hours at £12 an hour, which is probably generous, they cost £72 plus on-costs. If you factor them in at £85 per head that is roughly £2,500.
Also allow about £800 for cleaning the stand and for argument’s sake £500 for catering staff on the assumption that they don’t need to be redeployed to deal with higher demand elsewhere. In total then it might cost a bit under £4,000.
The catering receipts are not shared so it is fairly obvious the related costs are not shared, but the other matchday staffing costs are shared. Competition rules don’t refer to cleaning the stand afterwards, so I have assumed they are not shared, although they may be.
Allowing that 55 per cent of the stewarding cost comes out of the money that would be paid to the opposition or go into the pool, that makes Charlton’s share of the costs for opening the stand about £2,500 at most.
At ticket prices of £10 and £5, with just under half of all sales to juniors and concessions, the club can expect to receive an average of about £3 per ticket sold net of VAT. They might also expect to make £1 profit per spectator from other sales, including refreshments and programmes.
Crucially, however, this rises and falls depending on the occupancy of a stand, because in a crowded stand congestion comes into play and vice versa.
Let’s say then that excluding all other considerations, there would have been 2,000 people in the east stand on Saturday and out of that 300 (15 per cent) decide not to bother simply because of the closure. That’s £1,200 net revenue lost to Charlton.
If there are 5,000 people who do attend in the remaining home stands and the club loses 25p per head in ancillary profit because of the congestion issue, the saving will have been been wiped out completely.
Now no one can realistically say whether the figure of 300 people not attending is right or wrong, but I do know for a fact that some people have decided not to attend because the club has said it is planning to shut the east stand.
Those who normally sit in lower west will be aware that they are likely to be displaced by the high occupancy and may decide to give it a miss too.
And there’s a more general point that the club has sent another clear signal that it is not taking the competition seriously, which is bound to resonate.
People make decisions for complex reasons, but whether it’s 100, 300 or 500, it will be a factor. And whatever is saved, if anything is, it will be trivial in the context of the club’s wider cost base and the prize money at stake in the game. It will also have had the effect of irritating some loyal supporters who still attend.
Since the club cannot accurately anticipate the walk-up on the day, it also introduces an element of risk to the arrangements, which may well need to be offset by contingency, which itself potentially incurs cost.
Do most of these arguments apply to other closed areas? Yes they do, especially the upper north. It’s why the club backtracked on opening the north for Luton in 2010/11, a decision in which I was involved.
But this is a tightening of the screw, on the most prestigious day of the cup calendar, and I think it is a mistake. Not disastrous, a betrayal or the end of football as we know it, not even likely to be a board decision. Many fans won't care or will accuse those of us who do of being misguided. In my view it is an unfortunate error of judgement that will make Charlton look small and from experience may cause a few issues on the day.
In practice the club will probably get away with it, because it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tell people they are not expected to come and they are likely to take you up on the suggestion.
However, the message it sends is directly at odds with Joyes’ exhorting “as many people as possible to attend” in the programme.
And it’s another kick in the teeth for those who believe that the FA Cup has a value and a continuing part to play in the rich tradition of English football, based on a business case that quite possibly doesn’t stack up in the first place.