Friday, April 04, 2014

SPFL Premiership: Buddies need help from their friends

As St Mirren prepare to host Motherwell on Saturday they need to start picking up points and hoping results elsewhere go their way.

With only Hearts, still stubbornly refusing to be officially relegated, below them in the league St Mirren's 28 points leave them two points adrift in the play-off game. They remain favourites with Betfair to be in the play-off match against the second placed side from the Scottish Championship.

With the Premiership's annual split about to kick in, a win against Motherwell might give them a bit of momentum going into the final five games. That won't be easy with Motherwell tied with Aberdeen on 60 points in second place. The Steelmen will start the game as heavy favourites with Betfair.

Partick Thistle hover two points above St Mirren after taking a point on the road against St Johnstone. On Saturday they become the latest side to try and relegate Hearts as the Edinburgh side travel to Firhill with four points from their last two games.

Ross County will look to take inspiration from their 1-1 draw at Celtic Park, a point against the champions of the division which proved to be a big upset among Betfair punters. They'll be looking for a similar result in tonight's derby with a stuttering Inverness to keep the pressure on Kilmarnock and a badly out of sorts Hibs above them.

St Mirren manager Danny Lennon will be hoping his side’s home advantage this weekend will help his team gain maximum points and ensure they are in as strong a position as possible to face the crucial final five games of the season. They will be second favourites to get the better of Motherwell and need other results to be favourable to move off ninth place.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Just the ticket?

"All the lads really felt for the fans at the end of Saturday’s game, with most of them facing something like a six-hour drive home. Hopefully this will help them with the cost of travelling to our next away game at Fulham."
Norwich captain Russell Martin announcing that the players would refund the ticket costs of all 899 fans who made the lengthy trip to see their side lose 3-0 at Swansea.

A nice gesture from the Norwich squad.

I've tried to avoid the usual social media pessimism that it might have unleashed - and I'll concede that a club with Norwich's away record might consider any grand gesture worthwhile to keep the fans on side for the crucial home games to come.

But still.

It's not often you see anyone in football actually do something - however small - to address the sheer cost of being a football fan.

Last month Hibs told me and everyone else on their ticketing database that season ticket prices were being frozen.

Frozen but beginning to thaw out - last year a season ticket plus a cup top up cost me £405. This year it will cost £430 or £455 depending on when I buy.

"Frozen" is either a lie or a touch of badly transparent marketing gobbledegook.

Either way season ticket for me (an adult) and my dad (a senior) will come to £630 with cup top ups piling on an additional £40 or £80.

Hibs released these prices with chat of a top six finish hanging in the air. Since then they've lost five games, conceded 13 goals, scored five, secured a single point and dragged themselves into a battle to avoid the play-off spot.

So they've actually increased prices without guaranteeing that I won't be watching them in a lower division.

The tyranny of habit means I'd follow Rod Petrie to Lidl. But I'd object to paying Waitrose prices when I got there.

Later this month I'll be visiting St James' Park and Old Trafford for league games that can reasonably be described as bog standard.

Two adults and a senior going to Newcastle and two adults going to Manchester United rack up a fairly sizable bill.

I'm lucky enough to be able to afford it and unlucky enough to be stupid enough to pay it.

But being daft and able to squander my cash doesn't make football's treatment of supporters right.

Cheaper options are available. Lower division games with lower admission prices cry out for bigger attendances.

But if your lifetime allegiance lies elsewhere then it's a difficult bond to break.

The risk for club is that prices do break those bonds - and once broken they're exceedingly hard to rebuild.

While they remain, however, emotional attachments make football an easier product to sell.

There are variables. Kick off times, lifestyle changes, the success of your club and, for the aesthetes among us, the style of football among them.

Sorting out your team on the pitch might be difficult but I've felt for a while that coming up with a ticketing structure that does more than take the piss out of loyalty should be possible.

So far I've been disappointed.

Maybe the traditional season ticket model is actually outdated, an income stream that depends on blind faith that has no place in a game that embraces ever changing kick off times and ignores how lifestyles have changes over the last 50 years.

Thankfully brains more potent than mine are being applied to the problem.

Including two MBA students at the University of Strathclyde who are researching the attractive - but in Scotland unproved - issue of dynamic pricing:

  1. Do current football ticket pricing methods meet the needs of fans (in terms of value and ticket options) and clubs (in terms of revenue and ensuring a stable and loyal fan base)?
  2. How effective can dynamic pricing be for UK football matches (individual matches) when there is a "floor" set by the "season ticket average cost per game" beneath which you cannot drop prices without the risk of affecting season ticket sales (primary source of ticket income)?
  3. What could the impact of dynamic pricing be on supporter (customer) relations/goodwill?

They want to find out if dynamic pricing might be the answer to some of football's pricing issues.

And they want help.

They've set up an online survey to allow football fans to inform their research:

Complete the survey

The idea that Scottish football's business model has long since gone to the dogs is nothing new. But maybe, with the right people asking the right questions, we might just be closer to a solution than we think.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Malaise on Leith

New ways to suffer derby defeats: traversing the elongated series of roadworks that make up the road from Edinburgh to Stratford-upon-Avon relying on Twitter, text and Roddy Forsyth's sporadic updates among the cricket, Formula One and English football chat on Five Live.

The end result is pretty much the same though.

The Hibs fans arrive for the game in good heart and full of enthusiasm for what lies ahead (even if the deeper "meaning" of Sunday's game had a slightly engineered feel to it.)

The Hibs players arrive looking like perfect strangers and not the sort of strangers minded to take up arms and form a temporary band of brothers.

Do Hearts wish they could play Hibs every week? Bloody right. One third of their league wins, a sixth of their league points and a seventh of their league goals have come against Hibs.

It's possible to enjoy a decent season while being hapless in derbies. The loss of what every commentator is contracted to call "local bragging rights" niggles but the team's form elsewhere compensates.

Unfortunately Hibs have mainly been hapless against Hearts and hapless against everyone else.

And with a derby defeat comes despondency. A despondency that means glancing at the league table suddenly brings thoughts of Hibs having a horrendous run in the bottom six, a disastrous experience in the play offs and then, just like that, playing Championship football next season.

It all seemed so unlikely.

As December slipped into January, Hibs held their nerve to beat Hearts at Easter Road. That was a third straight win and the penultimate game in a sequence of nine matches that saw Hibs lose only to Celtic. So springy was the Terry Butcher bounce that even Lewis Stevenson scored a goal.

And then things started to go wrong. Defeats to Aberdeen, St Mirren, Celtic and Raith Rovers ended the feelgood factor - with the loss of 11 goals.

A home win against Ross County and a point at Kilmarnock promised to stop the rot but seven games have since slipped by without a win.

Dundee United, Motherwell and Partick Thistle have each scored three goals against a pallid Hibs defence. St Johnstone and Hearts have managed two each. In seven games Hibs have scored just five goals while conceding 14. Only Inverness failed to breach the defence in a 0-0 draw.

It's wretched. Butcher has cajoled, cuddled, berated, bemoaned. Whatever worked when he first arrived has stopped working. Now he looks and sounds like a man who can't believe any club would embark on a league campaign with this group of players. And who can't quite believe it's his job to now see them through to the end of the season.

Seven games without a win. And six games left of the Premiership season.

Hibs have still to play Aberdeen, Kilmarnock, Ross County, Partick Thistle, St Mirren and Hearts.

They lost their most recent games against Aberdeen, Partick Thistle, St Mirren and Hearts, drew with Kilmarnock and beat only Ross County.

These are not heartening statistics.

What has perhaps been missed in the gnashing of teeth since the derby is that Hibs are six points clear of St Mirren in eleventh place and have a superior goal difference compared to the rest of the bottom six.

Current form might make them the worst of the worst but points on the board - always the best place for points to be - make them, for now, the best of the worst.

Given that the other five teams have to take points off each other it's likely that Hibs won't need to add massively to their current points total to stay up.

I'm normally optimistic only when gauging how much alcohol I can consume without risking a hangover but I'm actually still sort of, kinda, a little bit confident that Hibs will avoid the play off.

But it's become far too close for comfort.

Not for the first time, of course. This is a fourth straight season in the bottom six.

Two seasons ago - when Pat Fenlon replaced Colin Calderwood at much the same stage of the year that Butcher replaced Fenlon this season - it took until the penultimate game to guarantee safety.

(For what it's worth I calculate that Butcher has taken six more points from his first 19 league games than Fenlon managed. But that might be a case of two bald men wrestling over a comb. Neither record would concern a Manager of the Year jury.)

The most pressing thing for everyone at Hibs to focus on is getting the points (three or four might be enough) to avoid the play off.

Then they have to analyse what on earth is happening at Easter Road.

This is a club that should be able to compete financially, a club with a much vaunted infrastructure and a crowd that averages higher than most even in the bad times.

What leaves a club like that with such a propensity towards weakness in games that really matter for the fans?

What leaves a club like that with Alan Maybury, signed as emergency cover, as the only natural full back in the senior squad?

What leaves a club like that with a number of apparently impressive individual players who consistently look less than the sum of their parts?

What leaves a club like that with a signing policy so addled that two of your summer recruits are ditched in January?

What leaves a club like that in the bottom six four years running while at the same time losing two cup finals with an aggregate loss of eight goals, running up a record European defeat and losing to, among others, Raith Rovers and Queen of the South?

John Hughes, Colin Calderwood, Pat Fenlon and now Terry Butcher have been blamed.

Players - and recruitment has been plentiful but underwhelming, so many have come and gone that there are names I can barely remember - have been blamed.

But the pattern repeats itself and repeats itself.

I hope Terry Butcher has the ability and drive to find answers to these questions.

I fear, however, that he'll be powerless to change the one constant in all of this.

If anyone ever asks you to give a lecture on the dangers of staying in a position too long just stick the last four league tables and a picture of Rod Petrie on the screen. Job done.

We're told that everything Petrie has done, from the fantastic training centre to the new East Stand to the cost cutting and the managerial madness, has been for the good of Hibs.

If his shareholding and relationship with Sir Tom Farmer mean he can't or won't walk away he at least needs to relinquish as much control as possible.

Appoint a chief executive who can sell the club to potential players, who will take the odd three figure risk on a player's salary and who will rebuild the relationship with fans who are reaching breaking point.

These chief executives exist. Some of them might even be working in Scottish football right now. They'd love the opportunity that Rod Petrie is currently failing to make the most of.

Nobody would argue the case for financial mismanagement.

But what if prudence mixed with bad decision making means another flirtation with relegation?

What if prudence mixed with bad decision making means failing to find the right managers and having to constantly overhaul the playing squad?

What if prudence mixed with bad decision making means plummeting season ticket sales?

What if prudence mixed with bad decision making means your club is one that agents tell their players is best avoided?

Does your prudent decision maker not then become guilty of financial mismanagement himself?

And if your greatest asset becomes the liability that's harming your club isn't it time to move on?

I only hope that Rod Petrie can make that decision this summer with Hibs preparing for another season of Premiership football.

Because forget the talk of an exciting Championship next season - I don't fancy it at all. And I'd fancy it even less with Rod Petrie's influence remaining as powerful at Easter Road.