Sunday, 6 January 2013

Driving the Fans Away?

There was a touch of controversy mixed in the dying embers of 2012. As a truly memorable year for everyone associated with Heart of Midlothian took its final gasps of air, the Maroons’ fixture at Ross County was postponed barely an hour before kick off. It’s great to see Scotland’s most northerly league club in the top flight of Scottish football. When one considers Ross County were a mid table Highland League side just a few short years ago, it’s been a remarkable achievement from non-league obscurity to the Clydesdale Bank Scottish Premier League. However, a trip to Dingwall means the best part of a day away from Scotland’s capital city and isn’t one which is taken on a whim. So frustrating is one of the more gentile words I use to describe the feelings of those Hearts supporters who made the long trip north just four days after Christmas and at a time when Hearts have been appealing for those same supporters to make a financial contribution to save the club.

To Ross County’s great credit, they have offered to pay for Hearts supporters buses to take the fans to the rescheduled fixture that, at the time of penning this article, may be 2 February. Given the Highland club lost money because of the late postponement, this is a tremendous gesture and one certainly appreciated by Hearts supporters. One can only hope that when the re-arranged fixture does take place the weather is a tad kinder than it was on the last Saturday of 2012. A second late postponement would test the patience of even those Hearts fans of a saintly disposition.

I didn’t make the journey north last month. Family commitments and the cost of Christmas meant I had neither the time nor the financial wherewithal to make the trip to what admittedly is a beautiful part of Scotland. I suspect I wasn’t alone in making this decision, particularly as just three days earlier Hearts had made another long trip this time in the opposite direction to Kilmarnock. When, like most other Hearts supporters, I studied the Clydesdale Bank SPL fixture list when it was published last summer I was already marking these two fixtures as ones I would probably be giving a miss. Having spent a small fortune on Christmas presents for my partner and family, the prospect of incurring the not inconsiderable cost of going to both Rugby Park and Victoria Park was just not financially viable.

It made me think that perhaps the SPL might wish to consider looking at a new computer programme when compiling next season’s fixtures. Two away trips at the festive period are difficult enough. Therefore, it might have been an idea for at least one of these fixtures to be, if not at Tynecastle, then venues that are within relatively easy commuting distance. For example, a trip to Motherwell, Perth or even Dundee would have been better and if the inclement weather took its toll then the inconvenience cause to the supporters who gallantly follow their team all over the land would have been lessened considerably.

There’s a tradition in Scotland of having local derbies for the New Year fixtures as witnessed by Hearts playing Hibs at Tynecastle (the day after the festive holiday ended to suit the needs of satellite television, but that’s another story), Aberdeen entertaining Dundee United and St. Johnstone playing Dundee. It makes perfect sense not to have fans travelling great distances at New Year and invokes a feeling of ‘first-footing’ (even if this tradition is sadly dying out) Therefore, I would ask the SPL chiefs to look closely at the fixture list for future league campaigns. Travelling to the likes of the Highlands and Aberdeen can be a great adventure and there are some fans who make a weekend of it. If one can plan ahead then a great time can be had. However, with the greatest respect, it doesn’t make much sense to me to have supporters travelling 70 miles the day after Christmas and then another 170 miles two days before Hogmanay - particularly at a time of the year when the weather may have an impact. It’s not unheard of for police to advise people not to travel in the depths of winter unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Even alternating home and away fixtures would be a step in the right direction. At a time when Scottish football needs to attract people to games more than ever before, decisions such as having one set of supporters travel huge distances within days of each other is more likely to drive them away.

And we must surely agree that Scottish football can ill afford to do that.