Baggy Trousers

My Primary 3 class picture unexpectedly appeared in the Courier’s Craigie column last week. Given that Craigie is effectively a Werthers Originals advert committed to print, this was a blow to someone about to turn 40 and pondering the significance of that milestone. Aside from that, the photograph proved two things:

  1. My head was visible from space from a tender age; and
  2. It is extremely hard for Dundee, or any other team for that matter, to hold on to fans into adulthood.

Hillside

One Step Beyond

Of the 36 kids in my class, the footballing allegiances can (from memory) be broken down as follows: 9 Dundee (yaaaas!), 7 United (fucking boooooo!), 2 Rangers (boooooo!) and 1 St Johnstone (meh).

Within a year of the picture being taken, one of our number had moved to Edinburgh and the last time I saw him was when we were both lifted onto the track to relieve crushing during the League Cup semi-final v Aberdeen at Tannadice. Given the club’s travails in the intervening three decades I fear his support won’t have endured the physical separation. Junior football claimed a classmate of mine in his late teens while another simply drifted away a few years later. Another couple who followed the righteous path have lived away from Dundee for most of their lives now. Facebook suggests that one guy remains an occasional attendee at Dens while a girl from our class takes her kids up from time to time.

That leaves my best mate and I as the only week in, week out regulars from the nine of us. The calculation is crude and you will always pick up a few followers along the way but I don’t think four-and-a-half child supporters being needed to produce one adult season ticket-holder is far of the mark. My class at Hillside Primary (RIP) was possibly an outlier as far as Derry representation goes as well – a mate reckons there were only five or six Dundee supporters in his entire year at Lawside. Twenty years on, he is probably the only season ticket holder out of the 150 or so kids.

The high rate of attrition between childhood and adulthood is hardly surprising given the many and varied challenges to holding on to supporters. Aside from factors such as performances, prices and scheduling that clubs have at least some control over, personal circumstances also conspire against them. The extent to which attending football matches is a priority varies from individual to individual, but for almost all of us work, finances or family commitments will come first at some point. I’ve got Dundee-supporting family and friends scattered across four continents as well as ones without two buttons to rub together. Several fans of my vintage have sadly passed away while others have been lost to drink, drugs or HMP.

Tomorrow’s Just Another Day

It is notoriously difficult to re-engage football fans once they get out of the way of attending matches regularly but the bigger challenge is to capture their attention in the first place. The choice of alternative ways for children to spend their time has never been wider so the need for clubs to work proactively to recruit young supporters has never been higher. It isn’t enough to sit back and wait for kids to demand their parents take them on a pilgrimage to Dens having heard about the exploits of Jack Hamilton and Craig Curran in the playground.

The three seasons we just spent in the league above United represent a massive missed opportunity to cement our place as the city’s top team, and our failure to capture the local youth market in the face of a much diminished opposition is as galling as our on-field shortcomings. Look at pictures of kids training camps, community groups etc in the Tully and you still largely see more tangerine than dark blue (though Liverpool and Real Madrid would appear to be the biggest two clubs in the city these days). Just last week my son’s nursery sent out a letter saying an outfit called the ‘Tiny Tangerines’, who ironically boast oversized political hack Brian Taylor as a patron, will be coming to do some coaching each week. Groups associated with United are represented at every community festival in Dundee while we are nowhere to be seen. The wee man has been registered as a Junior Dee since his first season ticket was bought when he was 11 hours old. Dundee have managed to get a card to him on time about four times out of the nine birthdays and Christmases that have followed.

How have United managed to be so much better at engaging with kids than us at a time when they have been facing severe budgetary pressure post-relegation? Now that we have also surrendered our Premiership status the situation seems unlikely to improve from our perspective. There are people within Dens working incredibly hard with meagre resources but, from the outside, there would appear to be little strategic vision as to how the club, Community Trust, Supporters’ Association and other organisations can work collaboratively to improve the offering to potential supporters and ultimately grow our fanbase.

At a time when we face a fairly catastrophic drop in season ticket holders it’s worth remembering that for each of those stumping up, many others have fallen by the wayside for one reason or another. Then think about how under-investment might impact on the amount of four-and-a-halves to draw from in the future and you very quickly conclude that a demographic timebomb could be around the corner.

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