Fenlon hopes successful Rovers side can get crowds back through gates
Where have all the fans gone?
It's certainly a question that's been on the mind of Pat Fenlon as he gears up for what could be a big season for Shamrock Rovers in 2016.
Statistics can be misleading: as Homer Simpson said to Kent Brockman, "you can come up with statistics to prove anything, 40 percent of all people know that".
But the tallies show that the Rovers support dropped off by 50% between their first home league game of 2015 (when they had 4,483 paying punters) and the last one (a reported gate of 2,120).
Admittedly, that healthy gate on the opening night was for a Dublin derby (against St Pats) while by the end of the season, when the Hoops hosted Drogheda United, the season was effectively over, Rovers out of the title race but already assured of a place in Europe.
A new season breeds new hope and Rovers aim to have sold over 1,000 season tickets by the time they hold their first home league game tonight, against Wexford Youths. But Fenlon feels that having a winning side on the park is the best way of getting Rovers back to the days of the 2010-11 seasons when gates of over 4,000 were more common at Tallaght Stadium.
"It's results, isn't it? People will come and watch you if you are winning, it's as simple as that," says Fenlon when asked how to tempt back those who have stayed away.
"We had a huge crowd there [in Sligo] on Saturday, for an away support it was fantastic. We have had a couple of meetings with supporters groups in the off-season and they were very good, they are trying to build that relationship and get the place rocking again, to where it was four or five years ago, but it's all about results and we have to contribute to that as well as supporters," added the Rovers boss ahead of Wexford's first top-flight away game.
"We're looking for our supporters to come out. I don't know what way Wexford will travel, they seem to have a decent enough crowd themselves at the weekend. Whatever they bring will be great but we need our own supporters coming in big numbers.
"Hopefully, with the start and us winning, the people that were there obviously and maybe some of the people that couldn't travel, they all turn up tonight and get a decent crowd here. It's important for us that we get a crowd here and get them behind us as well," added Fenlon, aware that gates around the country on the opening weekend of the league were impressive.
"I always find at the start of the season, the games, strategically, are good games, the computer obviously threw up some good fixtures. From our end of it if you are winning, people will stay and watch."
Yet the way this league is arranged is a puzzle for many, including Fenlon: after a five-month break for the longest off-season in Europe, clubs now face into a double header with a full programme of games tonight and again on Monday, an away game against Finn Harps on Monday night a real test of stamina (and budgets) for many Hoops.
"Three games in a week, it's difficult for the punters to keep paying out the money so it's a matter of getting the balance right and people pick and choose the games they go to. There is a good product there but it's how we make it better and we all have to do better," says Fenlon.
"Of our first five games, we're in Sligo, Ballybofey and Cork. That's a lot of money for supporters travelling, with two home games in the middle of that as well, it's difficult for people to get to all those games, it's pricey and something we can all look at."
All wider issues that need to be addressed but for Fenlon, the challenge is to improve on last season, where his side were 13 points off the pace in the title race and they need to give Dundalk and City more of a battle.
"Our squad is probably not as big as both of them. But we feel if we can get them fit enough, we'll have a chance and that's what we have to try and do," he says. "We know we've got to challenge for the league, that's what the club is about. Last year, we probably drew too many games. If we win half of them, we're in with a good shout ."