Local supporters' forum: Empty Anfield seats and LFC's community work

Liverpool have outlined their work in the local community and underlined their desire to eradicate empty seats at Anfield during the first meeting of the local supporters' forum which took place ahead of the Manchester City game on Sunday.

Attended by nine forum members and five representatives from the club, including chief executive Peter Moore, the meeting focused on two key issues – the ability of local supporters to attend home games at Anfield and the work that Liverpool does in the area.

Although the intention is for discussions about ticket availability and ticket pricing to take place in the relevant forums, it was deemed appropriate that given the crossover on those issues with those affecting local supporters that the matter should be given further consideration at this forum.

One of the prime concerns of the forum members was the number of seats which are not used on a matchday, a situation which Phil Dutton, Liverpool’s head of ticketing and hospitality, admitted is one that the club is determined to tackle in the coming months in an attempt to bring about a drastic reduction in the number of unused tickets.

“Our fill rate (ie the number of seats that are used on a matchday) is around 94 per cent but our sales rate (ie the number of seats sold) is around 99.6 per cent with the 0.4 per cent being unsold visitor tickets or changes to segregation etc. Every available home seat is sold,” Phil Dutton said. “This is an obvious problem and, like everyone else, I get incredibly frustrated when I see seats left empty at Anfield because I know there are so many people who would readily fill them.

“We need to improve the platform for supporters to use in relation to this matter but we also need people to talk to us. If someone knows in advance of a game that they aren’t going to make it then if they let us know we can do something about it. If they don’t tell us then the problem doesn’t go away because we can’t give a supporter’s seat to someone else if they’re not in it by 10 past three because there’s a risk that the original ticket holder could turn up at quarter past three.”

Estimating that on average over 2,000 seats can be unused at some home games, Phil Dutton then fielded a series of suggestions from forum members about ways of dealing with the problem. Among them were ideas that local children could turn up at Anfield on a matchday and taken to the seats that are unfilled or that local schools could be placed on a rota that would allow their pupils to fill empty seats.

On both counts, Phil Dutton said that while the ideas are well meaning they are not practical. In terms of children, he said it would be neither pragmatic nor safe to have hundreds of children waiting outside a stadium in the hope that they might get a ticket at an unspecified time. He also said that because the problem involves individual seats being left empty, it would not be suitable for schools who require tickets in groups to allow teachers and pupils to attend together.

Ian Byrne, the Spirit Of Shankly (SOS) delegate, suggested that the club should become more flexible in its approach to ticketing and should be willing to offer fan groups such as SOS and Spion Kop 1906 the opportunity to identify supporters who could take advantage of short notice. Phil Dutton said that while that is an option we would be willing to look at, he would be concern that the risks associated with ticketing would be passed on to those groups and he was not convinced that would be fair on them or the club. 

“We need to work with supporters but the ultimate responsibility for the use of any spare tickets needs to sit with the club,” Phil Dutton said. “Next season we want the fill rate to be 99.9 per cent. But for that to happen we need supporters to talk to us and then we need to find a way to use any tickets that are going spare. This place (Anfield) should be full for every single game.”

Challenged on the local element by forum member Ste Martin who asked whether the club takes it for granted that it could sell out every home game, Phil Dutton insisted that is not the case. “The reality is that we could put tickets on sale globally and they would sell out,” he said. “That is how wide demand is but we cannot lose sight of local fans. This club needs its local core element and I’m not just saying that because I am a local fan.

“In terms of numbers, 84 per cent of our season ticket holders are from the North West and 46 per cent of our members are from the same region and we need to look at what we can do to make that latter figure higher because, as I’ve said, local supporters are absolutely vital to everything we do as a club.”

Among the ideas that Phil Dutton said are currently being considered in order to make ticketing more effective, he indicated that a season ticket amnesty is one option.

On the possibility of an amnesty, Ste Martin said his concern with that approach would be that it could lead to supporters losing season tickets that have been passed on to them by a family member. Phil Dutton said that should the club choose to go down that route, such supporters would not be at risk of losing their season tickets with the prime motivation of such an approach being to ascertain exactly who is in possession of the season ticket and who attends Anfield on matchdays, the latter being a particular concern for health and safety reasons.

Ian Byrne urged the club to do everything in its power to free up tickets for supporters, particularly local youngsters, stressing “Atmosphere is one of our greatest weapons and we need to do everything we can to make the most of it. That’s something that I’m sure everyone would agree is in the club’s best interests.”

A presentation followed from LFC Foundation marketing manager Janine Ross and Red Neighbours manager Forbes Duff in which Liverpool’s work in the community was summarised. Focusing on the LFC Foundation, Janine Ross said the club’s official charity had been relaunched in February 2017 as research indicated fans were unclear about what the Foundation stood for and what its aims and objectives were.

“In simple terms, our primary aim is to help children and young people,” Janine Ross said. “Last season we worked with 11,500 children and young people and we provided 125,000 places on various programmes including Kicks, Football Plus, Respect 4 All and Primary Stars. We also ran free holiday camps in Anfield which were supported by the James Milner Foundation.

“In March this year, we will be starting an open spaces sports programme in local parks which will also be free of charge and we are also working on a new project with Merseyside Police which will help children who are at risk of being dragged into gang culture.

“We target areas of high deprivation across Liverpool City Region and one of the initiatives that we are most excited is the new IntoUniversity North Liverpool programme which will see us support children in North Liverpool and surrounding areas who do not have the support needed to get into higher education.”

Explaining the philosophy behind Red Neighbours, Forbes Duff said the initiative focuses on the L4, L5 and L6 postcodes with the aim of supporting residents who live in the vicinity of Anfield. “We support the elderly community, we support food banks, we encourage people to be more physically active and we look to create memorable experiences for children,” he said. “Those are our four key areas and the idea is that we are a good neighbour to those around us.”

Praising the work of Red Neighbours, Ian Byrne said: “It is a delight working with Forbes. Previously, the club had a terrible reputation in the area but through Forbes and Red Neighbours we can see that they are being a lot more constructive in the local community. It is about working positively and when that happens I will happily shout it from the rooftops as was the case after we got magnificent support for the food banks from Adam Lallana and Jordan Henderson.

“If you were to ask me what my gripes are I’d say that Red Neighbours is under-staffed and I would also like to see the pilot scheme which allowed local kids to come to Anfield to watch away games happen more often. That was a brilliant idea and it worked really well but since then the screenings have been sold to supporters and I don’t think that’s the best way forward.”

Forum member Peter Carney then urged the club to do more to support local charities rather than just focusing on their own. “These are small charities which just want a small token from the club,” he said. “They’re not asking for a great deal.” Tony Barrett informed Peter that a high-level meeting regarding that issue had taken place three days earlier and it was hoped that progress would be made imminently.

“The club should also look into the fans’ goodwill,” said forum member Gareth Roberts. “We would all like Liverpool Football Club to have a good name and a good reputation but at times it feels like it goes its own way without consulting us or asking if we would like to get involved and support the work you are doing. And it would be good if we heard more about the kind of work that has been discussed today. We don’t want the club to go too far on the PR front because that would be cynical but there is a balance to be struck.”

“Once again, this was another excellent forum,” Tony Barrett, Liverpool’s head of club and supporter liaison, said. “The input from all of the forum members was constructive and challenging and a number of ideas have been put forward which the club will now consider. Most importantly, all involved engaged with one another even on difficult issues that were never going to be straightforward and found ways of making progress.”