FLIPPANT question first: Which skinflint took advantage of the ‘pay what you like’ offer to watch Mansfield play Gateshead in the Blue Square Premier on Saturday by shelling out three pence to get in? Shame on you.
OK, now the more serious stuff: Praise to the others in a crowd of 7,261 – more than double the average at Field Mill these days – who gave a clear demonstration of their support for their local team.
And extra praise for club owners Andrew Perry, Andrew Saunders and Steve Middleton, who were brave enough to go through with the revolutionary admission pricing idea – knowing they risked both public ridicule and ending up out of pocket – and were rewarded for their faith in the local public.
Mansfield have been through a rough few years, with their fans placing much of the blame on former chairman Keith Haslam. On top of being the first Mansfield chairman ever to draw a salary, Haslam also took out (and later paid back) more than £500,000 in interest-free loans. It wasn’t as if the club were exactly awash with cash at the time, either. (Some reports suggest that Haslam still owes Mansfield a sizeable chunk of cash.)
Two years ago, it looked as if Haslam was about to sell the club to Cheshire businessman John Batchelor – former racing driver, toilet roll salesman and York City owner (not necessarily in that order). Batchelor immediately ensured his unpopularity in Mansfield by proposing to change the club’s name to Harchester United, after the fictional side portrayed in Sky One’s football soap Dream Team.
As Batchelor’s antics made headlines, Mansfield lost their Football League status, dropping into the Blue Square Premier in 2008.
That summer, Perry, Saunders and Middleton – three businessmen who are also lifelong Mansfield fans – did buy the club from Haslam, who still owns the ground.
A season-and-a-half on, the club have a chance of winning back their Football League place. They sit fourth in the Blue Square Premier, 10 points behind leaders Oxford, battling it out for a play-off spot with fellow former Football Leaguers York and Luton plus, thrillingly, the reconstituted AFC Wimbledon.
To thank the people of Mansfield for supporting them since the takeover, chairman Perry and co-owners Saunders and Middleton decided to allow fans to pay whatever they liked to gain admission for Saturday’s home game against Gateshead.
(I wonder if they are fans of Radiohead, who came up with a similar ‘pay what you like’ pricing strategy for their 2007 album In Rainbows. Just a thought.)
It was a story which quickly captured the public imagination far beyond Nottinghamshire, with the BBC Sport website and the Daily Mail both running articles promoting the plan. Laudably, Mansfield also extended the scheme to the travelling Gateshead fans.
And despite the odd person taking the mickey – the equivalent of chucking a couple of buttons into a charity collection box – the scheme looks to have paid off. So many fans turned up that the kick off had to be delayed by 10 minutes, while a fair few supporters shelled out more than the usual £16 admission fee. According to the BBC, one fan chipped in with £50. Fair play to you, sir/madam, whoever you are.
Indeed, the only real let-down for the home fans was Mansfield’s performance. By all accounts, it was their worst of the season. Despite the 0-2 defeat, they remain in the play-off places.
Mansfield’s board will carry out a considered review of how the day went before deciding whether to repeat the experiment.
But the early signs are that it worked financially and socially. As club spokesman Mark Stevenson told BBC Sport: “We hope that people, despite the result, had an enjoyable day and will return. We are becoming a hub of the community again.”