Oh Where's The Atmosphere?

Following Mansfield Towns defeat away at bottom of the league Hartlepool on Saturday, the call on fans forums has been for a tumultuous atmosphere to be created for the upcoming fixture against relegation rivals York City. Whilst the Stags remain 8 points above the drop zone following the weekend setback, The Minstermen find themselves perched perilously in 21st position, with 1 point currently keeping them above the dotted line.

Unfortunately, the prospect of a boisterous, partisan home crowd seems unlikely when reflecting on the volume of previous weeks support. The prime reason for the muted atmosphere is unclear, but I hope to explore some of the factors which seem to be contributing to the lack of noise. With the Stags playing in a division which does not include a fierce local rival, the closest being Burton Albion, Mansfield have not really experienced a bumper crowd this season which could skew attendance figures. The biggest number of home fans at a game this season has been around 3500 at the Exeter and Northampton games, when the admission price was reduced to £7 for adults. During my lifetime as a Stags fan, the crowd has been at its most vociferous when witnessing attacking football backed up by winning results (01/02, 04/05).

The most obvious starting point is the style of football on show coupled with the Stags lowly league position. It is well documented that the brand of football played under previous manager Paul Cox was not exactly easy on the eye, however Cox's reign entailed a play-off semi final defeat, winning the conference and the Stags first season back in the Football League since 2008. During his first three seasons, average attendances actually increased year on year, suggesting that achievement rather than entertainment puts bums on seats.

Some fans claim the style of, let us say 'direct football', served up during his three and a half year reign led to the disillusionment of 'floating fans', supporters who attended due to a love of watching good football rather than a commitment to Mansfield Town, or groups of people who had spent the afternoon in the pub and decided at 2:30pm that they fancied going to the game. The new all ticket system has also contributed to the discouragement of the latter. The argument of the hardcore Stags fan may be that the club is better of without supporters who are half interested in the football, half interested in a good day out, but like it or not, they are often the type of supporter who make the most noise (not always constructively, it must be said).

Whilst the Stags have shown improvements in their style of play since Adam Murray took charge in December, there was never going to be a complete sea change overnight and remnants of the Cox era remain in place. It is unlikely that the shackles will be removed until the Stags safety is guaranteed. The vicious circle with regards to support is that fans will typically be more noisy when witnessing something entertaining and exciting, whilst players and management would say that positive crowd noise increases the chances of witnessing said football. Despite the Stags dropping into the relegation zone in late January, a time when you feel the team most needed its supporters, the volume levels never really elevated at the One Call. In fact, I would say that currently, noise levels around me increase in the form of negative reaction when the team is under pressure in a game because of their uncertain future in the league, yet when the team is in front, there are occasional cries of 'Yellows' or 'Come on You Stags', but nothing that could be described as raucous. During the Stags relegation season of 07/08, although the average end of the season attendance was lower than the one currently being achieved at the One Call, I recall the sound created by fewer fans to be louder than present. Perhaps this was because the danger of the trap door was more prominent and although the Stags are still not safe this season, their lowest league position coincided with a run of four unbeaten home games.

Another reason for the lack of noise I believe is the apathy of younger supporters who the Stags seemingly are unable to attract. When I look around me at the One Call, with the exception of a group that sit behind the goal in the Quarry Lane End, there seems to be a distinct lack of people aged I would say 16-45. No disrespect to fans who fall outside of this limit and of course there are exceptions, but these are typically the age group you would expect to create an atmosphere inside a football stadium, judging by images you see on the television of more vocal sections of a crowd. When I speak to people of a similar age to myself (23), it becomes evident that they are more interested in teams that they have never seen play live than popping down to watch their local team in action. Do not get me wrong, I follow and enjoy Premier League Football as much as anyone else, but it does not beat the feeling of actually attending a game in the flesh. The clubs inability to attract this kind of age group is worrying, and can perhaps be attributed to teenagers growing up with Mansfield in the Conference rather than the Football League, or the lack of a discount for young adults that divisional rivals seem to offer. It could be that the upper echelons of the limit, say 25-45 year olds, have become disenchanted with the clubs lack of success and simply given up, feeling their money would be better spent on the families they may have or keeping their house running in the current financial climate where people are struggling to make ends meet.

It is also my belief that the layout of the One Call Stadium and of the supporters within it is not conducive with creating an atmosphere. The capacity of the stadium is 9186, meaning that currently the ground most weeks is between 25-35% full with home supporters. Those supporters are spread over two stands, three tiers and twenty one blocks in total. Whilst it may inconvenience fans who have purchased season tickets for a particular area of the ground, the club may be best served by attempting to concentrate fans together. In my opinion, this would make fans more likely to join in or start singing with the belief that they will not be a lone voice of maybe 100 fans sat in a block which could house 300-400. It would also reduce the number of stewards required to supervise supporters.

The final reason is the over-zealous stewarding reported by some. During our title winning season, a great atmosphere was created courtesy of a number of fans gathering in the Quarry Lane End spurred on by a lad with a drum. The numbers of this crowd appear to have dwindled, reportedly sick of being reprimanded by stewards for not sitting down. I am not sure what prevents fans from opening their mouths with their gluteus maximus in contact with a seat, but for whatever reason they prefer to stand. Obviously, rules are rules and I understand that the One Call is an all seater stadium, so as such the stewards are just doing their job. However, these fans tend to congregate towards the back of the stand so as not to block anybodies view. The hypocrisy of not allowing home fans to stand when away fans seem to be allowed to do otherwise compounds the matter.

I think ultimately, if the Stags manage to survive this season, the club need to investigate more ways in getting people down to the One Call Stadium. It seems the club are intent on doing this, as supporters groups have been invited to suggest proposals for next season. The '£7 games' this season did elevate the numbers through the gate, but unfortunately the team did not produce a victory in any of them and two of the three games were not particularly entertaining, giving fans an excuse not to return. Despite the increased numbers, there was not an increase in atmosphere. As above, perhaps the club could introduce a cash turnstile to attract floating fans or cut price tickets for the 17-25 year olds.

Alternatively, perhaps we as supporters just need to up our game, as we are asking the players on the pitch to do the same. Even though they are paid to play, and we pay to watch, a positive, resounding atmosphere is achievable, as you experience by being part of or witnessing an oppositions away following. Away fans are almost always smaller than home crowds but invariably out-sing their hosts. An intimidating home support can often lead to a turn in results on the pitch, so lets look at York as local rivals, which this season they are one of the closest, and push our players on to creating a ten point gap over our opposition on Saturday afternoon.