Stranger in a strange land: Sheffield Wednesday

ALTHOUGH a battle would rage between Leeds and Sheffield if you ever suggested it, the club with the most gongs in Yorkshire is actually the Wednesday. Sheffield Wednesday have won eight major honours to Leeds United’s seven, although most of those trophies were lifted before the second world war. Sheffield United, their neighbours and red half of the steel city, have won five. Leeds, without doubt, are the closest the county has got to modern success, although their last piece of silverware was won in 1992.

Hillsborough has become a word that sends a chill up the spine of every football fan who remembers the days of precarious overcrowded terracing. There is a kind of horrific irony in the fact that the 1989 disaster took place at a time when football was staring into the abyss. 

The average attendance for the top flight in 1988-89 was 20,500 and Wednesday’s gates were just over 20,000. The most horrific and far-reaching catastrophe of the modern football era took place at a time when football grounds had never been less appealing. Not that Hillsborough was one of the worst stadiums, for it was always considered for FA Cup semi-finals and it hosted several games during Euro 96, but times were very different.

Hillsborough today remains a decent and capable arena and Wednesday still have the potential to be a very sizeable club. Sadly, they fall into the category of big also-rans, a status they have endured often over the past 50 years. The list of clubs in this bracket is extensive and seems to be getting more lengthy with time: Birmingham City, Nottingham Forest, Derby County, Stoke City, Newcastle United, Sunderland, Middlesbrough and so on.

Sheffield is a city that should host Premier League football on a regular basis. With a population of 530,000 people and two big clubs in Wednesday and United, it is not unreasonable to think that some modicum of success should come the city’s way. The last trophy to land up in Sheffield was the Football League Cup in 1991, won by Wednesday. That’s 30 long years ago. The last league title was won by Wednesday in 1930 and the last FA Cup triumph was also theirs in 1935. United’s last prize was the FA Cup in 1925 and their only title was won in 1898.

This season, Wednesday find themselves in league one thanks to a 12 point deduction that was later reduced to six. The penalty was punishment for breaching the EFL’s profitability and sustainability rules. Understandably, there is some bitterness and resentment, but Wednesday are too big to stay at this level for too long – at least that’s what the optimists believe.

While United were rubbing shoulders with the elite in 2020-21, Wednesday were last in the Premier League in 2000, so they have been in exile for over 20 years. The club’s finances have clearly suffered and in 2019-20, they made a pre-tax loss of £ 24.1 million. Their income totalled £ 21 million, but their wage bill was £ 33.5 million, a very worrying figure.

They haven’t uprooted any trees in 2021-22, so the mood at the recent home game with Gillingham was a little sombre and flat. Admittedly, it was Remembrance Weekend, but with the team just above mid-table and a little shot-shy (20 goals in 16), it was no surprise that Darren Moore’s side had drawn half of their games. They had only lost three league games and had gone seven games unbeaten, but those stalemates can be very damaging. Wednesday’s top scorer, Lee Gregory, had netted six goals before the Gillingham game, but he was unable to play in the game due to a calf injury. Gregory joined the club in the summer from Stoke City and has already become vital to Wednesday’s cause. They could have done with him.

The game itself was a reminder that this was the third tier of the English game. Gillingham took the lead after 22 minutes through Vadaine Oliver, a neat finish permitted by a generous Wednesday defence. Earlier, the home side went close when Callum Paterson’s close range effort bounced off the post. It wasn’t until the 75thminute when Wednesday equalised, Barry Bannan’s shot rebounding to Florian Kamberi, who shot home from inside the area. That was it as far as entertainment went, it was not a classic game by any means. But Wednesday are not far away from being a reasonable side, they have lost just three times, after all. With a few more goals, they can be promotion contenders. A crowd of 20,000 helps support the narrative of a long lost status.

Perthaps this is why the locals seeed perpetually discontented, judging by the banter on the journey back to the centre of town. A trip from Hillsborough can include a tram journey, a highly civilised way to travel even if the carriages were full of supporters singing anti-United songs and gagging for their pre-match refreshments. They’re all the same, really, football fans.

Sheffield – an underperforming city

RUN YOUR finger along the list of Premier League towns and cities and there’s a glaring omission – Sheffield. Not just because the city has a rich football heritage is the absence of a team from “steel city” notable, but also because the only place with a bigger population than Sheffield in the current list of 20 clubs is none other than London. Sheffield has a population of around 558,000 and its total metropolitan area is 1.6 million, making it the third largest English district by the number of people.

When you consider that statistic, Sheffield, as a football city, has certainly underachieved, with just 13 major trophies won by its two significant professional clubs – United and Wednesday.

Sheffield’s links to football date back to 1857, when Sheffield FC was formed, a club that today claims to be the oldest existing club still playing the game. The formulation of the Sheffield Rules took place in 1860, giving Association Football the basis for the code that has stood the test of time.

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Who are the most recognised non-league clubs?

TO ME, there’s nothing more enjoyable than a North v South tussle in non-league football. Last weekend, I returned to one of my favourite locations, Stamford, to see the Daniels play Blyth Spartans. There’s a 200-mile gap between the two clubs, which does make you wonder about league allocations, but nobody was complaining too much.

Quite often, I feel that when a club has had to come some distance, the spirit among the fans is that little bit stronger. My experience of supporters from the North-East is that they love to have a chat about the game and they are generally passionate about their clubs.

On the journey home, I got involved in a conversation with some Blyth fans and they proudly told me they were the most well-known non-league club in the world. “Is that right?”, I asked. Surely, there are others more deserving of that title?

Certainly, the Blyth name is somewhat unique and they’ve had a FA Cup run or two to bring their name to the attention of people around the world, but so, too, have other clubs. So on my own trip back to Hertfordshire, I attempted to come up with half a dozen that might currently contest – for various reasons – Blyth’s “title”.

Sheffield FC The world’s first football club. They have been trading on that in recent years, and fair play to them. Sheffield receive visitors from all over the world and also act as ambassadors for the game in other countries. Sheffield may have to live in the shadows of United and Wednesday, but some people believe that the humble non-leaguers have more global profile than the two Football league clubs!

FC United of Manchester As a by-product of disillusioned Manchester United fans, FC United, naturally, benefit from world-wide recognition of their “parent” name. Hence, they are very well known.

Bradford Park Avenue When Bradford PA were voted out of the Football League in 1970, it was almost the end of the road, but a handful of folk kept the flame burning and they returned. Their history and name is enough to guarantee them public awareness, at least among middle-aged football fans and Yorkshire folk.

Salford City Again, the links with Manchester United make them newsworthy, which isn’t always appreciated by their rivals. The TV show and the involvement of the Class of ’92 have given the club visibility they could only have dreamed of in the past.

Grimsby Town Now six years a non-league club, Grimsby’s Football League history  – they played in the very top flight of the game in the 1930s and 40s – means there are Mariners fans all over the place – including Histon in Cambridgeshire where the Red Lion pub claims to be the home of exiled Grimsby fans!

Corinthian Casuals No longer the force they were, but still paragons of a bygone age and their name lives on. The club’s links with Brazil ensure their name receives some global breadth.

Of course, you could add Tranmere Rovers, Wrexham, Lincoln City, Halifax, Chester, Southport, Stockport County, Hereford and Aldershot to the list of former Football League clubs (and their successors) that are now playing at a lower level. And if you wanted to trawl back through history, clubs like Bishop Auckland, Enfield, Crook, Dulwich Hamlet, Altrincham, Woking, Wimbledon and Yeovil Town have all benefitted from national eminence at some point.

The presence of former Football League clubs, which has made the National League so competitive and hard to get out of, doesn’t necessarily embrace the “romantic” aspect of being renowned for being “non-league”, and that’s where our friends from Blyth Spartans come in. And in that context, we should not forget two other names from the past – Pegasus and West Auckland Town. Pegasus was the team of Oxbridge undergrads who demonstrated that football wasn’t just the property of the cloth-capped working man. They won the FA Amateur Cup when the competition received strong media coverage.

West Auckland Town lifted the Thomas Lipton Trophy in 1909 and 1911, a competition that saw them come face-to-face with none other than Juventus. This was tagged the first “World Cup”, so for a while, West Auckland were probably seen as the top team in England!

Blyth Spartans are certainly one of the instantly recognisable names in non-league and from a regional perspective, they could bring some much-needed joy to the North-East at a time when the old “hotbed” is struggling at the highest level. But they are currently under pressure from another outfit from the area, Darlington, a club that was born out of the demise of a former Football League member. They’re probably pretty well known, too!

This article appeared in the Non-League Paper on Sunday April 3, 2016
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