A salient tale that proves that giants can indeed fall from favour.
On a quiet news day at the end of July, there was an item at the end of a radio broadcast that virtually passed by unnoticed. I stopped in my tracks, in slight disbelief, as if I’d be able to hear it again. A throwaway one sentence update at the end of the sports bulletin informed listeners that a last minute loan from a bank had rescued Sheffield Wednesday from going into administration.
I immediately logged onto the internet, amazed and slightly ashamed that I hadn’t known that one of the world’s oldest football clubs was close to extinction. A rudimentary search gave the details – a £550,000 debt to HM Revenue & Customs had been covered at the eleventh hour by a loan from the Co-Operative Bank.
The surprise remained though, and for me marked a tipping point in the current state of English football. Sheffield Wednesday, formed in 1867, were founder members of The Alliance League (and its first champions), later The Football League, and even members of the inaugural Premier League. A club steeped in both footballing and social history had almost disappeared without most people noticing. Of course, it’s not just Sheffield Wednesday.
The question, for me, is why doesn’t anyone care? My first thought was that most people don’t view clubs like Wednesday as any more than just football clubs. Without getting too pretentious, the oldest football clubs in England are inextricably linked to everything that defines our nation: industry, class, war and wealth. There’s a reason that the north-west has a greater concentration of football clubs than any other part of the nation. There’s a reason also that the West Midlands has several of the oldest clubs in existence. There’s a reason that whilst London has many of the countries biggest clubs, none have ever won the European Cup. Football clubs provide a rich tapestry of the evolution of England – to chart football’s history is to chart the history of the working classes, industrialisation and the shifting of power and wealth between evolving cities.
Yet, to the general public, the perception of football is as a noveau riche industry flooded with undeserved millions. An uncouth thugs game that titillates the masses. In my mind, there is undoubtedly still a snobbery about football amongst those with old money and real power. If any other institution that was over 140-years old was this close to failure, there would be uproar. Imagine the uproar if the Royal Ballet (a sprightly 79-years old) or a similar institution were on the verge of collapse. In fact, there was more public outcry over the abolition of the UK Film Council, an entirely worthy organisation but one with only a 10-year history of contributing to society.
But to point fingers at snobbery and the wider public is unfair. Football has steadily increased wealth for those at the top of the pyramid system in England, and ruthlessly punished those towards the bottom. In a sport swimming in cash, the volatility and uncertainty for clubs outside the top flight has never been so high. Since the formation of the Premier League in 1992, at least 45 of the 92 Football League clubs have entered administration, many more than once. That list includes Barnsley, Derby County, Leeds United and Notts County, the oldest professional football club in the world. Yet most fans and the ‘custodians’ of the professional game couldn’t give a stuff. When football itself does not care about its rich heritage, why should anyone else?
With apologies to fans who support clubs outside the Premier League, we have been stupefied by ‘the greatest league in the world’, whilst the rest of our great sporting and national history is left to flounder. We’ve been distracted by the shiny and glossy variety of top flight football, like a child with a new toy gadget who unwittingly but callously discards his faithful dog-eared teddy.
I don’t know how, but we should not let our oldest and most distinguished clubs slip away so silently. Football clubs are not an expendable part of British history. One day, perhaps when the sheikhs, Americans and oligarchs have abandoned the Premier League for a bloated European super league or taken their money home in boredom, we might find time to survey the wider landscape of English football and rue the fact that we let some of the greatest and oldest institutions of the sport go to the wall without so much as a decent protest or a respectable farewell.