Should Stoke Gesture Be So Rare?

We all stopped to applaud Stoke's decision to give fans free away travel to Premier League games next season but why are they the only ones? They all have the TV money...

Last Updated: 23/07/13 at 16:27 Post Comment

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It is a time of great change at the Britannia Stadium. After several years of Premier League consolidation, Stoke City have chosen to twist rather than stick, instigating a change in ethos to rid the club of the conformity to a physical, long-ball stereotype. Whilst there was sympathy for Tony Pulis, who had certainly done an admirable job in establishing Stoke's place at the top table, there was almost a sense that it was now or never - this was the club's opportunity to avoid stagnation.

The club's initial transfer policy under Mark Hughes reflects on this sizeable shift. Last season Stoke had the second oldest squad in the Premier League, but have this summer signed 24-year-old Dutch international Erik Pieters and 21-year-old Marc Muniesa, released by Barcelona. Pieters is significant because it means that Stoke finally have a genuine full-back to utilise, whilst there is also talk of an £8m move for Mame Biram Diouf from Hannover, and another player from the Nou Camp, young midfielder Fernando Quesada, is on trial. Hughes has a task on his hands but seems committed to altering our perceptions.

However, the most important decision of the close season does not involve player recruitment or the appointment of a new manager. Last week, chairman Peter Coates and chief executive Tony Scholes announced that Stoke had made the decision to offer all supporters free travel to Premier League away games on the club's official supporters' coaches. The club's reasoning was expressed by Coates explicitly, the chairman speaking of a "very attractive new television deal" that allowed the club to hand something back to supporters rather than simply investing all the profits in the club itself, or lining the pockets of those in charge. "We think that the cost of travel is very expensive these days, so we think it will be appreciated by our supporters," Coates said. It's fair to say that that's a safe prediction.

The figures themselves are substantial. With each journey currently costing a supporter up to £15, if Stoke took 4,000 fans to every away game it would cost the club around £1m during the season. Add in the cost of running and fuelling the extra coaches and this is revealed to be a very generous gesture indeed. £1m may not seem a huge amount in the grand scheme of a football club's finances but the fact remains that free away travel on anything other than an individual match basis is an unprecedented move from a Premier League club.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that Stoke are the first to make such a move. After all, this is a club that has not increased its ticket prices since being promoted in 2008, one of only a few clubs in England to have such an extensive freeze, despite their offers of European and Premier League football at the Britannia. They also use elements of the club's official website to canvass the opinion of fans before making relevant business decisions, and make monthly grant donations to a range of community initiatives.

Whilst Stoke's initiative is groundbreaking in the Premier league, it is also crucial given the club's other business this summer. There is an undoubted synthesis between the Premier League and greed that shows little sign of abating, so Stoke's fans would be forgiven for being wary about talk of ethos change at the Britannia. It would have been very easy for the new television deal to coincide with personnel changes at the club and a widening vacuum between itself and supporters. 'Change' is a process with increasingly negative connotations in football, and all too often have owners allowed their eyes to light up at the prospect of increasingly bulging wallets. The announcement from Coates and Scholes determines that whilst things may be different on the field next season at Stoke City, off the field little will change. Given the club's continued commitment to their fanbase and community, that will be music to the ears of supporters.

The hope for fans of other clubs is that this can act as a line in the sand. The free away travel idea from Stoke came after discussions with other Premier League clubs after a recent downturn in away attendance, with the campaign over ticket prices for away fans reaching something of a crescendo last season. However, given Coates' admission that their action had not been met with widespread approval by other parties, it appears that the greed of other clubs outweighs their concerns over ticket sales.

"I have always been of the view that everyone in the community should be able to go to football. It's traditionally a working-class sport and we want people on modest incomes to be able to come." Coates' view may be both conscientious and considerate, but is now sadly seen as outdated by other Premier League clubs far too consumed with their own self-interest to genuinely consider supporters. Away from the Britannia, owners seem unwilling to give an inch, let alone hundreds of free miles.

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