Cashless is the future, but there must be flexibility

MY LOCAL non-league club, among others, has adopted a scheme that has not gone down well with everyone – pre-booking of match tickets online and no cash admittance on the day. Now if you’ve got a season ticket, it doesn’t really affect you until there’s a cup game, but various “legacy fans” find it an intrusion and some older supporters haven’t bought into the cashless society that’s inevitably creeping upon us year-by-year.

The covid pandemic accelerated some of these practices in the name of health and safety, but I am among those that feel it is an inappropriate process for non-league football where stadiums are only 20% filled. Attending games at some big-time clubs has long become a chore, from the scarcity of tickets to the high-vis security and narrow, electronic turnstiles that feel like pig-breeding cages at times. Non-league football was supposed to be the people’s game, an event that allowed you to stroll up and make an ad-hoc decision.

The introduction of cashless admission – no other choice than go online outside the ground to obtain entry if you do decide to attend at the last minute – is not only excluding some people, but it is deterring those that feel uncomfortable buying online on a smart phone. It is excluding a generation, if you like, in an era where clubs very visibly champion diversity and inclusiveness. A weak link in the diversity agenda has always been age.

There is another more legitimate reason why the club has taken this approach, it is because there’s a lack of volunteers, which is strange given the club’s popularity has increased and crowds are at their best level for years.

In some ways, you could argue that the cashless strategy has not harmed attendances, but as a rough guess, I would say they are missing a trick because the additional fans they could be gaining may be substantial. On the plus side, cashless also means greater accountability and less scope for fraud and gate manipulation.

That’s not to say cashless is a bad idea, because it can be very convenient when you’re travelling and judging by the number of card companies springing up that allow you to hold multiple currency accounts (I have one and it is brilliant), shows you there is a big appetite for tools that make cross-border travelling easier. Moreover, I am very happy to go out for an evening and not have to worry if I have enough cash in my wallet. In fact, I rarely use cash these days.

But many non-league clubs are always pleading poverty even though some pay players money they can ill-afford, so it seems crazy there are hurdles to gaining admission at some clubs. Can they be so choosy and dogmatic when it comes to enticing new fans to their stadium?

And new fans is exactly what clubs need if they are to hand the baton on for the next generation. At the same time, those legacy followers also need to be catered for and not dismissed with throwaway (tongue in cheek) comments like “ok, boomer”. Neither should the reluctance to accept a new system, or at least question its validity, should not be greeted with ambivalence. Change is generally good, but not all change is definitely positive. At times, it has to be asked who the changes are being designed and implemented for and whether they are suitable for the situation and the audience. Step 3 or 4 non-league certainly doesn’t need the sort of intense practices of a Premier League outfit.

Quite simply, there needs to be flexibility and clubs can actually make a little more money out of a more fluid system. In the spirit of progress, clubs wants to move people to the digital format, but one way to persuade folk to adopt it would be to offer a discount for online purchases, so maybe £ 10 online and £ 12 on the day. People might moan, but there’s good reason to support this, such as the costs of manning turnstiles. The convenience of online means that it should be cheaper, but if you want to turn-up on the day, you can. It will just cost a little more.

Non-league football is a sector of the game that should be relatively simple to navigate, that should also benefit from days when big-time football is having a day off or when postponements decimate the programme. In order to do that, it needs to make accessibility easier and more welcoming for those that are unused to its culture. It is supposed to be the ultimate fan-friendly experience, not an exercise in bureaucracy.

Football Read Review: Are these Britain’s greatest football grounds?

MIKE Bayly is an excellent photographer, of that there can be no doubt. His book, British Football’s Greatest Grounds, is packed with marvellous shots of scenic stadiums set in very evocative backdrops. 

Sadly, Mike’s book may also end up becoming a record of what used to be – how many of the stadiums will exist when the effects of the covid-19 pandemic really take hold?

This may be an excellent work, but how can Lewes, St. Albans and Hitchin Town really be among the top five grounds in the country? Around 25% of the 100 are Premier/EFL club grounds while non-league dominates the list. How come? Mike is a well-known figure in non-league circles and the list has been compiled by voting fans. One can only assume the audience was predominantly non-league fans, particularly groundhopper category or nostalgists. I know all three of the aforementioned grounds well and although I have enjoyed them all, they wouldn’t feature among the best. That’s football, though, 30,000 different opinions in one stadium.

Do the rankings really matter? Absolutely not. The book is full of the quirky, the shabby and the vaguely eccentric. Victorian grandeur, corrugated metal (the default material for non-league grounds), rolling hills, chimney pots and industrial architecture all feature in Mike’s colourful and splendid offering.

Two photos really caught my eye. Belper Town’s Christchurch Meadow (number 49) is overshadowed by East Mill, all red brick and self-importance, built by the English Sewing Company in 1912. A really imposing site.

The other photo that captured my imagination was Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium (which until Tottenham built their new ground was the best in the country). A steam train passes by the ground on the nearby Kings Cross line, forming a tableaux that suggests old meets new. A brilliant picture taken by a very skilled and patient photographer.

There’s something for everyone in this book and whether you agree with the rankings or not (Luton – number 8?), Mike Bayly should be applauded and thanked for his book, a snapshot of the very essence of British football – the game of the people.

The book shows that fans like old fashioned grounds and appreciate the heritage of the game, obscure locations or otherwise. Regardless, this is a must-have book for any student of the game and it has already reminded me of one or two places I have yet to visit.

British Football’s Greatest Grounds by Mike Bayly is published by Pitch Publishing.