Our 12th man
We all know that making our home stadium a ‘fortress’ can go a long way to achieving our objectives for the season. A part of that is having supporters who will get behind the team to both motivate our own players and intimidate opponents.
The impact our fans can have is hard to quantify, and while research points to an increased winning of fouls and opponent cards, this is largely irrelevant if it doesn’t directly lead to more wins. Fortunately, the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Youth League provides us with a neat natural experiment. During the group stages, these competitions are mirror images: the same teams, the same groups, the same fixtures, the same travel distances. Home sides in both competitions have familiarity with their stadiums, too. The key difference however – besides the age of the players of course – is the size of the crowd, which is over 50 times larger on average in the senior competition.
This difference is seemingly reflected in results, with home wins less likely and away wins significantly more likely in the sedate environment of the UEFA Youth League. If applied to a league season, this difference between virtually no supporters and average-sized crowd equates to more than 2 extra points over a whole campaign (note that other factors may too help explain this difference, but crowd size is clearly a large part).
Why should we care as a club? While it’s sometimes useful to take lessons from ‘consumer’ behaviour in other industries, there is no equating it to the impact fervent support can have on a football club’s results.
Therefore it’s imperative to truly understand – through data from surveys, and fan forums, for example – what motivates our fans and gets them excited to support the team, beyond just winning matches. Do they want to see possession football, or do they enjoy attritional battles? Will they get behind the local teenager or do they want a marquee signing?
In the same way we train and look after our players in the squad, we should do the same for our 12th man. They really can make all the difference.