Tottenham's Wembley attendance woes won't go away this season
Midway through the first half of Tottenham's Carabao Cup match against Barnsley, the chants of "Wem-ber-lee, Wem-ber-lee" began from the away end. The Spurs fans, who still do not really think of themselves as the "home" end, didn't join in. For Barnsley's travelling mob, a third trip to Wembley in three seasons was something to celebrate. For Tottenham's fans, a third trip to Wembley in six days was a drag, and most stayed away on a blustery Tuesday night.
The official attendance for the match, a tense 1-0 win for Tottenham, was 23,926, less than a third of the national stadium's 90,000 capacity and a smaller crowd than the preseason friendly against Juventus, which attracted 26,251. There have been at least 16 smaller attendances since Wembley reopened in 2007, but only in the FA Vase and FA Trophy finals, the National League play-offs and the odd League Two play-off.
Spurs did everything possible to sell tickets, offering them for as little as £10 for adults and £5 for concessions, but they were never going to attract a crowd big enough to sufficiently fill Wembley's cavernous spaces, and there was an eerie emptiness to the national stadium, something acknowledged by midfielder Harry Winks.
"It's just the size of the stadium. It's difficult to really get that same atmosphere that you got at White Hart Lane or if you have a full stadium here," said Winks. "But the fans are always excellent, and they were brilliant in getting us over the line."
Winks played at the same stage of last year's competition, when only a marginally bigger crowd of 26,244 watched a 5-0 win over League One Gillingham on a Wednesday evening. But White Hart Lane was nearly two-thirds full. While Tuesday's low attendance is not uncommon for a League Cup third-round match against lower-league opposition, Wembley's size, its sense of occasion and even the swathes of red seats made it uncomfortable for Tottenham.
The club's decision to not include the match as part of this year's season-ticket package -- as they did with Gillingham and one other cup match last year -- was a factor, and an 8 p.m. kick-off on a weeknight will always affect crowds, particularly at a stadium that is difficult to get to and even harder to get away from. The club would have had more joy, with children's tickets in particular, for the same fixture on a weekend.
"I understand [the attendance]," said manager Mauricio Pochettino after Tuesday's match. "I'd like to say thank you to all the fans that were here. Maybe it wasn't possible for others to come. I understand that it's so difficult for the fans sometimes to come to every single game. I know they are behind us and translate their support. There's more nothing to say."
Pochettino probably didn't help matters. Before the match, the manager named the domestic cups as his lowest priorities and suggested that clubs of Tottenham's size should focus on winning the Premier League and Champions League instead. "If we try to win the Carabao Cup or FA Cup and forget the Premier League or Champions League, it's a big mistake," he said.
Although Pochettino named a strong team against Barnsley, including Dele Alli and Mousa Dembele, fans would have expected the likes of Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen not to start -- enough to keep some people at home. One supporter wrote on Twitter, "I brought [sic] ticket can't be bothered to travel across London after work. Poch gone public saying game not priority therefore y [sic] should fans," while another asked: "If the manager a day before says he can't be bothered by the competition, then why should the fans?"
Even some of those who agree with Pochettino about the diminishing status of the League Cup were put off by the Wembley factor, though. Spurs supporter Jack Harvey said: "I couldn't care less about the League Cup. I don't even think the tournament should exist anymore, so that was definitely a factor in not going. But that said, I'd probably have gone at White Hart Lane! Ten quid a ticket ... familiar surroundings. Why not?"
Herein lies the crux of the problem for Tottenham. Wembley is not home, and after five games there this season, many supporters are already suffering from Wembley-itis, which is exacerbated by the poor results.
One prominent Spurs fan, who asked not to be named, said: "We all know it's not home. It's just that the match-day experience is not good. It's a crap journey. It's a soulless environment. There's a big shopping centre outside. Everything feels very contrived: the big LEDs on the side of the stadium, the Spurs badges.
"Chants don't carry at the ground. It is hard to generate noise, but the alternative, having a drum machine pump over the PA, is equally ridiculous. The lack of pubs or a community that you have any involvement with, as you had at Tottenham, doesn't help at all. It's an alien place. The routine, the familiarity, everything you associate with the Spurs match day, goes beyond the 90 minutes.... It's missing."
Spurs attracted more than 67,000 for last week's landmark win over Borussia Dortmund and more than 65,000 for the subsequent draw with Swansea, and they hold the record "home" attendance for an English club -- 85,512 -- from last year's Champions League match against Bayer Leverkusen.
Big games, big players and big competitions will continue to draw the Tottenham faithful to Wembley, but with the League Cup fourth round to come and the FA Cup beginning in January, there are likely to be more subdued occasions where the Spurs fans feel less at home than their guests.
Dan is ESPN FC's Tottenham correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Dan_KP.