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.

Harrogate – the happy town waiting for league football

HARROGATE is synonymous with tea, relaxation and rising house prices. It’s rated as one of the happiest places in Britain and has a gentle, refined air about it, thanks to its heritage as a spa resort. Such a setting seems an unlikely backdrop for the latest new club to join the English Football League (EFL), but it will be no great surprise if the Yorkshire town becomes visiting fans’ favourite away day destination – when the world returns to somewhere near normality, that is.

Harrogate Town, founded in 1914, secured their place in League Two by beating Notts County 3-1 at Wembley in the play-off final on the weekend of “Yorkshire Day”. How ironic that the “Sulphurites”, a reference to a bygone age, have become the latest and 144th club to play in the Football League, beating one of the founder members to get there.

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The 2019-20 season was only Harrogate’s second in the National League’s top division, creating another romantic tale of non-league club made good. But the victory at deserted Wembley triggered frenetic activity at the club for their 3G artificial pitch, permitted in the National but ridiculously forbidden in the EFL, had to be taken-up to allow the club to use their CNG Stadium for league games. It is likely they will have to spend some time away from a ground that has been transformed in recent years when 2020-21 eventually gets underway.

Harrogate actually has two football clubs – Harrogate Railway Athletic (founded 1935) play at Station View, a 20-minute walk from the CNG Stadium. The two clubs will be six steps apart in 2020-21 as “The Rail” are members of the Northern Counties East League Division One. In a town of 75,000 people, with a Football League club as a neighbour, a smaller club faces a big challenge to keep in the public eye.

Like many towns, Harrogate is facing the economic pressure of changing consumer behaviour and the CV-19 pandemic. The arrival of league football may provide the town with some fresh impetus, although it will be interesting to see how they cope with a fortnightly influx of fans. Still, Harrogate’s history has been built around welcoming visitors, thanks to the popularity of “the English spa” in Georgian times. Tourism contributes around £ 150 million to the local economy and the town also welcomes some 350,000 business people every year. More dubiously, Harrogate gave the world Crimplene, the “wash and wear” fabric synonymous with the 1960s.

Harrogate Town will surely expect bigger crowds than they have traditionally drawn to Wetherby Road. Before the lockdown, Harrogate were averaging 1,300 at their home games, a figure that would undoubtedly have increased as the club chased promotion. Their best seasonal average was 1,576 in 2018-19 when they finished sixth in the National League. It’s a low figure, but this is a club that has come a long way in a relatively short space of time. Ten years ago, crowds at Harrogate Town were around 300 and as recently as 2015 they were still at the 500 mark.

Harrogate are not the first club to gain promotion to the Football League with a sub-2,000 average crowd.  Forest Green Rovers (1,753), Morecambe (1,598), Dagenham & Redbridge (1,756), Accrington Stanley (1,895), Macclesfield (1,407) and Maidstone (1,037) have all enjoyed success as non-league clubs playing before modest attendances.

Portents

The last 20 new entrants have recorded an average increase of 32% in their crowds during their debut Football League season. That translates to an average gate of 3,500 which is around 2,000 more than Harrogate’s average in 2019-20. If Harrogate increased by 32%, they would be just over 1,700. But the teams that have averaged less than 2,000 on gaining promotion have generally seen a rise of more than 50% with Macclesfield climbing by 107% and Morecambe by 76%. Morecambe, with a growth rate of 55%, would breach the 2,000 mark.

Such figures underline the scale of the achievement at Harrogate. They are certainly one of the smallest clubs to win promotion to the Football League. They became full-time in 2017 and according to the financial statements for 2018-19, wages and salaries at the club (including payments to directors) were in excess of £ 1 million.

Manager Simon Weaver, the son of club chairman, Irving Weaver, will be only too aware that some of his 19-man squad may not make the transition to league football. Striker Jon Stead, for example, is 37 but played 28 league games and scored seven goals, coming on as substitute against his old club at Wembley. Doubtless Weaver would like to keep the likes of on-loan Sunderland winger Jack Diamond, who has been very impressive.

Weaver will also be encouraged by the fact that over the past decade, new boys Stevenage, Crawley and Fleetwood, not to mention Tranmere, have all won promotion in their first or second seasons.

The Weavers took over at Harrogate in 2011 when they were at something of a low ebb. Irving Weaver is Chairman of the club’s shirt sponsor, Strata Homes, who have put around £ 1.2 million into Harrogate Town. In 2010, they were reprieved from relegation from the National League North after finishing in 21st place, but eight years later, they won promotion via the play-offs and did it again in 2020.

Their success is a shot in the arm for the English game’s 92-club format and the concept of promotion through the system, which means the humblest of clubs can dream of reaching a much higher level. The National League’s top division has no less than 13 clubs with Football League history or heritage and the NL North has a further nine. It’s a tough league to get out of.

Harrogate Town, needless to say, are unlikely heroes, but deserving of plaudits they surely are – they may even raise a cup of Taylor’s best Darjeeling in the local tea shops to the boys in yellow and black who have put this much-loved and prosperous Yorkshire town on the football map. Now they’ve arrived, the task is to stay there.

@GameofthePeople