Sunday 26th December 2021 – National League – Hayes Lane, Bromley
The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. That’s the definition of serendipity. It’s also a beautiful summary of Boxing Day football in normal times. In years gone by football was a staple part of the Christmas period, with relatives making a once a year pilgrimage to watch their local team.
Today it’s a different world. Let’s try to forget COVID for one moment and the ongoing impact that’s having on sport. The plethora of live sport beamed into our front rooms, and devices in the palms of our hands, has been a bonus for many but has impacted clubs up and down the land. Add in the lack of public transport in many regions on Boxing Day, especially in Greater London and you can start to get the feeling that festive football is losing its special feel.
Or is it? Whilst there were thousands of empty seats at the normally sold out London Stadium and the Amex, crowds in the games at Steps 1 and 2 were hitting record levels. Almost 9,000 watched Stockport County vs Altrincham, a best ever 2,000+ at Dorking Wanderers to witness their 8-0 win and nearly 2,500 for the North East derby between Spennymoor Town and Darlington.
Price is only an issue in the absence of value, I’m often accused of over-saying. But it’s a major factor in the attendance at a game, especially lower down the football pyramid where there tends to be more supply (seats/space on the terrace) than demand. With BT Sports choosing the game between high-flying Bromley and troubled Southend United as their Live game and moving it to 5:20pm, you may have thought it would have a negative impact on the crowd. No trains running to/from Bromley, Premier League games on Sky and perhaps just a bit too late in the day/early in the evening for some who were entertaining.
But reducing ticket prices to just £5 for adults was a master stroke and consequently Bromley saw over 3,700 people at the game, one of their biggest attendances in decades although still 7,000 short of the record attendance from 1948 when the bare-footed Nigerian XI arrived for a friendly.
We took advantage of the ticket offer, although in truth with no other games on my Boxing Day agenda I would have still come anyway, and nine of us made the journey by bus and foot to Hayes Lane. For some it was their first visit to a ground that continues to evolve into one ready to host a Football League side. Impressive facilities for spectators, decent bar and food areas as well as one of the best old terraces in English football make Hayes Lane special.
One of the main catalysts for their on-field success and off-field improvements is their 3G pitch, which is used by two other senior sides (Cray Wanderers and Crystal Palace Women) and a host of their own junior and pathway teams. It also is hired by community sides 7 days a week, generating revenue in all weathers, yet it will have to be removed if they gain promotion in a similar way to the last two winners of the National League, Harrogate Town and Sutton United. Artificial pitches are good enough for FIFA and UEFA to host internationals and Champions League games on, as well as our own FA Cup but not for a step 4 English league game. It’s as if the existing 72 clubs don’t want new teams coming up who are financially stable and profit generating!
Clubs in the National League may be allowed 3G pitches but they still can’t serve or fans can’t consume alcohol in sight of the pitch. Another crazy rule that harms clubs finances. If both of these clubs were relegated then it’s possible (subject to local licensing) that fans could watch the game having a beer. At Lewes our bar takings are often as much, if not more, than our gate revenue. Effectively, if we were promoted to Step 1 our match day income would be significantly reduced as our bar capacity is 100 max.
The impact here was at half-time the bar area was at capacity – five of us were outside unable to get in to consume the drinks that the other four had gone in early to queue, and not able to take them outside. If alcohol was allowed outside, even if it was in a set area, the problems would have been alleviated.
On the pitch Bromley pressed forward from the first minute. Former Rook Jude Arthurs pulled some of the midfield strings and had one of the best chances of the first period when his goal-bound shot was blocked by a Southend defender. At the other end it took a desperate last-ditch header by Sowunmi to avoid a Southend opener.
The second half saw the impressive contingent of away fans try to make their feelings known about Chairman Ron Martin by unfurling a number of banners that were swift,y removed by the stewards. It seems unreal that a club who played in the Championship not that long ago has suffered so badly on and off the pitch with little end in sight of their current troubles.
Bromley finally opened the scoring in the 64th minute when the prolific Michael Cheek headed home but their lead lasted just 90 seconds before Matthew Dennis took advantage of a slip at the back and looped the ball over the Bromley keeper’s head.
The result meant that there are now four sides at the top of the table separated by a single point. In the grand scheme of a 44 game season, this may well be viewed as a valuable point gained for Bromley but most fans will rue the missed opportunity to top the table for the first time. But football has a way of presenting opportunities when you least expect them and with two more games over the festive period, there’s still a chance to end the year in top spot.
Football was the winner here though with a bumper crowd enjoying some festive football. The pricing strategy worked, so much so that Southend also set the same pricing for the return fixture on the 2nd January. The key for any club who utilise pricing promotions is getting people to return and that’s key to Bromley as they look to build a fan base that could help them break into the Football League.