City set to finish top of one table

CHRIS WISE Norwich City passed a notable milestone at the weekend as they took another giant step towards lifting an unofficial Coca Cola Championship title. Nigel Worthington's side may be staring at a disappointing mid-table finish this season - but that hasn't stopped fans coming along to watch them in numbers not seen since the early 1970s.


Norwich City passed a notable milestone at the weekend as they took another giant step towards lifting an unofficial Coca Cola Championship title.

Nigel Worthington's side may be staring at a disappointing mid-table finish this season after failing to produce the goods on a consistent basis - but that hasn't stopped fans coming along to watch them in numbers not seen since the early 1970s.

With Saturday's fixture against Leicester City being another complete sell-out for home supporters over half a million people have now attended matches at Carrow Road this term - and, with two matches left to play, Norwich will almost certainly be the best supported team in the league.

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Their current average of 24,853 is almost 400 better than their nearest challengers Sheffield Wednesday, while their only other realistic rivals Ipswich Town are a further 100 back, so it would take a remarkable turnaround between now and the end of the season for the Canaries to be knocked off their lofty perch.

With City expecting 25,000-plus gates in each of their final two home fixtures against QPR and Wolves the sides just behind them in the attendance table would need a couple of massive turn-outs to make up the deficit - and with both currently struggling to fill their ground that is highly unlikely to happen.

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The Canaries also look certain to top the table based on the percentage of seats they have managed to fill over the course of the campaign.

With the sold out signs going up for home fans all season Carrow Road has been filled to 97.9 percent of its capacity, with only occasional gaps in the away section preventing a near perfect figure. Brighton (96.8) and Luton (91.2) are City's closest challengers in that section, although both of them have much smaller grounds to fill, with the Withdean Stadium accommodating less than 7000 fans and Kenilworth Road around 10,000.

It's only fair to point here that City follow the generally accepted practice of including all season ticket holders in their official crowds, whether they turn up or not. But their attendances this season are still hugely impressive, with a final of tally of just under 25,000 set to be the highest since 1972-73 when an average of 28,420 fans turned up to watch the Canaries in their first season of top-flight football.

Director of sales and marketing Andrew Cullen is understandably proud of the statistics, and paid tribute to the loyalty of the club's supporters as he reflected on one title that will be going City's way this season.

“I think it's unprecedented for a club to increase their average crowd for the season after they have been relegated,” he said.

“We have not been playing the Arsenals, Manchester Uniteds and Chelseas of this world - we have been playing the likes of Crewe, Brighton and Hull.

“We have suffered from lower numbers of away fans - but that has meant the number of Norwich fans in the ground is a good deal higher now than it was in the Premiership.

“We have obviously had the advantage of the extra capacity from the Norwich Union Community Stand, but we have still had to go out there and sell those seats.

“I never cease to be impressed by the loyalty of our supporters - and it goes without saying that I am delighted that we will almost certainly have the highest average crowd in the Championship this season. It's highly unlikely that anyone will be able to overtake us now.”

Cullen accepted that the actual number of fans attending games was lower than the official figure given out, but was quick to deny any accusation that the club were cooking the books to gain an advantage over their rivals.

“We have sold seats to season ticket holders for 23 games and, like most other clubs, that is reflected in the attendance figures we give out. Generally speaking around 95 per cent of them will turn up, but the ones who can't make it are also included.

“We try and be as transparent as possible on that. That's why we announce two figures on match days, an official attendance and a percentage turn-out. We did think at one stage of putting two different figures out, but I think that would just have confused everybody.”

In a nutshell almost every available seat at Carrow Road is accounted for in every game and that, says Cullen, is good news for the football club. As far as he is concerned it's vital for clubs like Norwich to be able to utilise their maximum capacity even when things are not going well on the pitch, which has been the case for much of the current campaign.

“It is very commercially important to us,” he said. “Once you take VAT away and take concessions into account each seat is worth roughly £246 a season to us. So if our average had been just 1000 less you would have been talking about a shortfall of around a £250,000 - and that's a lot of money.

“It's a very strong story to tell to potential sponsors - that the support here is loyal and resilient. It's a very different picture to Leeds where the number of season tickets holders has gone down from around 22,000 to just 11,000 since they were relegated from the Premiership.

“Football clubs are always going to be running a risk if they rely purely on what happens on the pitch to sell their tickets. We have got to look at ways to attract customers when things aren't going so well.

“With the family tickets, youngsters' prices, interest free payments for season ticket holders, our work in the community and such like, a lot of work has gone on behind the scenes to build up the level of support we now have. The team's success on the pitch in recent years has obviously played the major part in that, but those sort things have helped too.

“These days you just can't afford to sit back and say if the team does well, so do we, and if the team does badly we will suffer as a result. Football can be a volatile business and we have got to strive to create stability by the things we do. We are here to generate as much income as we can for the club.”

The Canaries may have struggled to match the expectations of their fans this season, but there is still a very good chance that the sold out signs will be going up again when a new campaign gets under way in August. The club currently have 20,096 season ticket holders - and, with a second deadline looming, less than 4000 have yet to commit themselves for the 2006-7 campaign.

With 1670 supporters on the waiting list there's every chance that casual tickets will once again be in short supply and that crowds of 24,000-plus will be commonplace.

“We had an excellent response to the first deadline,” said Cullen. “To have 15,600 season tickets holders renew was a remarkable achievement given that another year in the Championship was already looking likely at that stage. It's now up to well over 16,000 and there is another deadline coming up after the QPR game on Easter Monday so we are expecting to be busy before that.

“I wouldn't want to predict how many season tickets holders we will have next season - but the early signs are certainly very encouraging.”

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