I’ve been having a few verbal sparring sessions with Scunthorpe United fans in the wake of my Alex Woodyard article yesterday. Most of the exchanges seem to bounce around a common theme, which is the bigger club?
Bob Dorrian planted the seed in my mind during the Gateshead match in April. He commented something along the lines of ‘if Scunthorpe can get to the Championship, so can we as we’re a bigger club’. I don’t recall the specifics, but that more or less sums it up. Of course, as a City fan I assume it is common knowledge we’re a bigger club than Scunthorpe, despite their significant on-field success shadowing our own decade of struggles and woe.
So what does make a big club? Higher up the league I think it is obvious, bigger stadiums, much larger fan bases, worldwide appeal and bulging bank balances. Nobody could argue Lincoln or Scunthorpe are bigger than Arsenal or Manchester United, but what about Bournemouth?
This isn’t going to be a definite account of what makes a big club, only my own perception, but I think once you’ve had a season or two in the top flight, the ‘size’ of your club is increased. The extra revenue helps, but money isn’t everything, certainly not in League Two. However, that exposure in the top flight, those big matches and increased attendances surely go some way to creating a ‘big club’ feel. In some respects I feel by being in the top flight you create a legacy that can go on for years. Despite their recent troubles I think Blackpool are a bigger club than Lincoln, Coventry certainly are, and even though it was a while ago they were top flight, I think Notts County are also a big club at this level.
The Championship is a different story, I don’t think a presence in the second tier is enough to give you bragging rights. I say this as a fan of a club that hasn’t been there in over fifty years, so perhaps it suits my argument too conveniently. Would you consider Yeovil to be a bigger club than say, Tranmere? If Yeovil had cracked the Premier League it would give them elevated kudos, but they didn’t. Playing in the Championship is an honour and for clubs such as Scunthorpe and Burton it is a superb achievement as well, but it is not enough to elevate you above better supported clubs of similar size.
Ah, we arrive at the pertinent point, the safe place of all former Football League clubs, the ‘go to’ argument whenever we feel we’re beginning to lose a debate: fan numbers. We heard it with Tranmere last season, having average attendances better than some League One clubs means they’re a bigger club. For the first time in years we are able to pull the same card, average attendances of 6,000 in 2017 gave us something else to use against our opponents. We’ve sold 5300 season tickets, that is a higher number than Scunthorpe’s average attendance last season. Surely this is a measure of club size isn’t it? Surely filling a stadium every week gives you some stature as a club?
I think it does and I do think fan numbers help contribute to being a bigger club than some rivals, certainly more than simple league position. You’d be hard pushed to find anyone who truly believes Accrington Stanley are a bigger club than Tranmere, yet they’re a league above. That isn’t a criticism of Stanley, but when you see their ground and their fan numbers they are not a big club. Tranmere are, but they’re also under achieving given their size. I think this is where some people get mixed up. Bigger club doesn’t mean better club.
The definition of better is; more desirable, satisfactory, or effective. Having been to Scunthorpe I couldn’t possibly agree with it being desirable, but their performance over the past decade has definitely been satisfactory and effective. I’m not going to try to argue we are the better club, because we have a great system of finding out who is better: the Football League. They finished 3rd in League One, we won the National League. At present, they are the better club.
Bigger is defined as; larger as in amount, size, height and width. In the context of club size and not literal player size, that can mean a number of things. Financial state or bank balance certainly comes into consideration, as does fan base and stadium capacity. Glanford Park holds 9088, Sincil Bank holds 10,120. The Iron’s average attendance last season was 4536 whilst Lincoln City boasted an average attendance of 5161. Bear in mind those figures include travelling support, so whereas we got fifteen or so Forest Green fans coming to matches, the Scunthorpe numbers are boosted by Sheffield United, Bolton and Bradford. We were competing with part-time teams, Scunthorpe were in a division littered with big clubs.
Both sides were fighting at the top of their respective leagues too, surely if Scunthorpe were truly a bigger club, they would have much higher attendances? They took just over 400 fans to Millwall in the play-off semi-final, a number I’ve been told was ‘impressive given the distance in midweek’. 400 fans impressive for a crucial match that could see you take a step towards promotion to the second tier? 400 fans?
We took 600 to Boreham Wood on a Tuesday night in mid-March, and we took another 600 to Maidstone even after we’d wrapped up the league. 400 is not a good effort for a team chasing Championship football, and if you believe it is I’m afraid you are deluded.
This all came about because of the rumoured interest in Alex Woodyard. Scunthorpe fans believe he may well move to the ‘bigger’ club whilst City fans insist he’s already at the bigger club. One thing is for certain, Sincil Bank is going to be far busier and far noisier on match days than Glumford Park, and often players are motivated by playing in front of big crowds. Ollie Palmer insisted the lure of 9,000+ most weeks at Sincil Bank was one of the reasons he signed for us, I can’t see Alex going to Scunthorpe and claiming he came because noise puts him off during games.
Money is an object though and thanks to a series of wealthy benefactors, Scunthorpe have always had the upper hand there. Both Steve Wharton and Peter Swann have not been backwards in putting money into the club, and Scunthorpe were considered one of the few debt free clubs for many years, although recently that has been proven to be a fallacy, thanks to a loan from Wharton sitting in the accounts (sources here). That said they’ve done well, they have been managed strongly by the likes of Nigel Adkins, and they also bought and sold prudently, the likes of Gary Hooper and Billy Sharp in particular. I’m not arguing we are a better club than they are, I wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.
Is money a big factor in club size though? I think it depends on the type of money we’re talking about. There are two types of money in football, money bestowed upon you by a rich owner who lavishes his love with all the finery he can afford, and money earned via FA Cup runs, bloody hard work and having an awful lot of fans. Any money we spend this summer will be earned, whether it is those 5300 season tickets, the FA Cup run or the increased attendances last season. What about Scunthorpe? If they’ve got £400k in the bank to throw at Alex Woodyard, has it come from a cup run? Has it come from packed stadiums and queues for season tickets? Or has it come from personal wealth of a man playing god with a football club?
I refused to be swayed by any argument that has Scunthorpe United as a bigger club than us, they’re not. They’re a better club, but they are not bigger. I know I’ll get the arguments about town sizes when talking about attendances, but I feel that argument is irrelevant. So what if Nailsworth has a population of 5,000 and FGR get 1,200 for matches? So what if the town of Scunthorpe has 30,000 less people in it than Lincoln? If you are a football club competing at a certain level I believe people should come and watch, no matter how far they travel. Lots of people I know in Lincoln travel out of the City to watch football because they support other clubs, and many I know come into Lincoln from further afield too. In my mind, if you are challenging at the top of League One and you only take 400 away in the play-off semi-final, you’re not a big club and that has nothing to do with the population of your town.
Ultimately all of this boils down to Alex Woodyard and the phantom transfer bid. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that a move to Scunthorpe would be a sidestep at best. We know he’s better than that, we know he can play Championship football in the future and I don’t mean with a Championship yo-yo team like Scunthorpe or Rotherham. If rumours of Aston Villa or Bolton are to be believed I’m afraid we’re going to have a fight on our hands to keep him, but Scunthorpe United? Whether they like it or not they won’t be able to offer him anything better than he has already, bar a few quid. You know and I know the boy isn’t for being bought, he wants to earn his stripes and develop his career, and that renders the one thing Scunthorpe have over us obsolete.
Money alone can’t buy you Alex Woodyard, and as we’re seeing at Field Mill it can’t buy you class and quite simply it can’t make you a bigger club either. To be a big club you need sustained success which will attract that vital ingredient, fans. They might not win you matches, they might not win you titles but I’m afraid they do change the dynamic of a football club. Our fans have been out there, lingering and waiting for the club to show green shoots of recovery. They might be labelled plastics, they might be labelled glory hunters, but when we start to achieve success our fans have come out in numbers and show what a proper football club this is. Our city is growing at an astounding rate and I believe we will never see crowds of under 3,000 at Sincil Bank again. We’ve been awoken and we’re now beginning to realise our potential, not by spending someone else’s money, but by being a well-supported and sustainable football club in our own right. I guarantee you if we ever get to a play-off semi final in League One we’re going to need a bigger allocation than 400, perhaps even more than 4,000 and it wouldn’t matter if we got 24 hours notice to travel to Truro and back, our fans would be there.
You might be the better club now Scunthorpe, but get ready to pass the title ‘Pride of Lincolnshire’ back to us, because with Danny and Nicky at the helm, the Lincoln Loco is coming for you, sooner or later.