Football: Unravelling the myth of the ‘big club’

Life as a Sheffield Wednesday fan incorporates a fair amount of trial and tribulation.

Life as a Sheffield Wednesday fan incorporates a fair amount of trial and tribulation. From the moment that my six year old self first wandered through the gates at the Leppings Lane end of Hillsborough in 1998, I fell in love with everything and anything blue and white. If you want the proof, ask my mum to delve into the loft and fetch photos of my old room – which more closely resembled the club shop than it did a real bedroom. I think I still have the curtains somewhere.

When I first visited Hillsborough, my beloved Owls were sitting pretty as a well established Premier League club. We were better than Chelsea, could hold our own with Spurs, and Manchester City were a small team with a handful of followers. To put it simply, Sheffield Wednesday were a big club with a good stadium, huge fan base and some brilliant players. To this day, Paulo Di Canio remains one of the best players I have ever seen pull on the blue and white shirt, referee barging put to one side of course.

Fast forward to the present day and the picture is vastly different – not just with Wednesday but with many teams up and down the country. Since the millennium, the likes of Leeds, Bradford, Charlton, Birmingham, Bolton, Middlesbrough, Blackburn and Wolves have all enjoyed time in the top flight but now find themselves battling in the lower leagues.

However if you ask the fans of many of these clubs, they are still bigger than many of the current Premier League clubs – so much so that the other day, a Leeds fan tried to convince me that his club were bigger than Manchester City because they have a better history. Go figure.

There was a time when the status of a club mattered, not just in terms of fans but also the relative stature of the club itself. Fans of Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday are still waiting for their clubs to take a ‘rightful’ place in English football’s top flight, yet Wednesday haven’t been there for 12 years and look unlikely to make a return any time soon.

Just this week, we have seen two managers lose their jobs for failing to fulfil the ambitions of ‘big club’ owners. Henning Berg was relieved of his duties at Blackburn after just 57 days in charge because they are currently in the middle of the Championship, and Sean O’Driscoll was sent packing from Nottingham Forest despite the club sitting just one point outside the play-offs. Moreover, O’Driscoll’s departure came just hours after watching his side demolish Leeds 4-2 in a pulsating Boxing Day fixture. And to think, this is supposed to be the season of good will.

Fundamentally, the pressure applied by ‘big club’ status is too much. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that teams such as Wigan and Swansea are flourishing in the Premier League. Expectations have already been surpassed and therefore the players and staff can relax and concentrate on enjoying  life in the top flight without pressure.

Perhaps if the pressure of being a ‘big club’ was removed from teams like Sheffield Wednesday, Leeds and Blackburn then they would in fact return to the Premier League a lot quicker. We should judge clubs on relative success and learn to be realistic when setting expectations. It might make for a better game after all.