I am a proud fan of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club. But I don’t go to the matches any more.
Football has always been a part of my life. From playing with a crumbling old ‘casey’ ball in the streets in the seventies, trying out and failing to get into the school team, playing Sunday League for pub teams, playing in the park with my son, and later watching him captain his school’s football team, watching him score a goal which I still say would have won any professional goal of the season competition… And then of course watching TV football; Match of the Day, Sky, BT, Eurosport. Reading books about tactics, and autobiographies of players and managers. And even living the dream on a computer, playing Football Manager. But best of all, an afternoon or evening at Hillsborough, watching my beloved Sheffield Wednesday Football Club.
As a schoolkid, playing fourteen-a-side kickabouts with whoever wanted to turn up, the match was always an FA Cup Final between Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United. Those were the days.
With the names of those two football clubs in mind, I want to throw a few other football clubs into a list of kinds. What do the following football clubs have in common?
Here’s a clue: Port Vale is one of a few football clubs that could never make it onto this list. I’ll let you have a think about it, while I move on. We’ll come back to it shortly.
There was a time when my club, Sheffield Wednesday, was considered to be one of the biggest football clubs in England. In the early 90’s, after finishing 3rd in the top flight, and missing out on winning the league by little more than a whisker, we went on to be regular visitors to Wembley. Chelsea were an easy six points, and a plus-six goal difference, for us in a season. Alex Ferguson described us as Man United’s bogey team. In fact, when Man United waved a cheque book in the direction of Wednesday’s legendary striker David Hirst, they were sent packing. Top players came to the club; Chris Waddle, Des Walker, Roland Nilsson, John Sheridan, Carlton Palmer, Mark Bright… Hot property Andy Sinton famously turned down Arsenal to join SWFC. The list just went on. They were good times, and attendances at Hillsborough were high, as you’d expect when things on the pitch were so awesome.
But the good times didn’t last. Wednesday suffered relegations, and for a while were back in the third tier. I’m not a rich man - I’ve always had to work for a living, and my job meant I worked most Saturdays. I had to fight tooth and nail to get the time off - and the money - to see Wednesday play. And I still kept fighting, and shelling out my meagre wages, when the club was relegated… and relegated again. Even when Alan ‘badges’ Irvine instilled tactics which were based around SWFC players standing still while the opposition, quite literally, ran rings around them, I was at Hillsborough regularly, cheering and groaning in equal measure.
Why did I put myself through that? Well, the answer is that football is about more than football. A football club is a hub in the community. People talk about football so passioantely with their friends, family, and colleagues, congratulating on good results, commiserating - or taking the piss - when things aren’t so good. It’s a well-known phenomenon that when England lose an important match, there is an increase in work absence the next day; it makes people feel that bad. Football fans live and breathe the game, and feel every turn of a match in their hearts. Football clubs have become increasingly aware of their place in, and responsibility to, the community. It is a regular thing for professional footballers to visit children’s hospitals, and get involved in charity projects. I repeat; football is not just about football. It’s about tribalism, about pride, about belonging.
Now, keeping those values in mind: Tribalism, pride, and belonging, have a look back at the list of clubs above. The thing they have in common - the thing almost all football clubs have in common, with a few notable exceptions - is that they are named after places. The supporters of these football clubs recognise this geo-cultural aspect of their passion. It plays a part in local pride, and this is why derby matches - matches between local rival teams - are generally the most heated and passionate sporting spectacles around.
There have been occasions when the decision-makers at the top of a football club have lost sight of the vital importance of this geo-cultural aspect. The effect when this happens can be quite startling. A legendary example is that of Wimbledon FC. This club was formed in 1889, and so accrued a certain amount of history and geo-cultural loyalty over the years. A small club that spent a lot of time in the lower leagues of the game, they suddenly hit the big time with a surge of promotions through the divisions, and a famous FA Cup Final win over the mighty Liverpool in 1988. Wimbledon, for a while, became an established top-flight team. Due to league restrictions, they were forced play their top flight home games at Selhurst Park; home of Crystal Palace FC, but the fans were prepared to put up with that - they were still in their patch - South London - and they were playing week in, week out, against the best teams in the country. It all went wrong after relegation in 2000. The Wimbledon hierarchy decided to up sticks, and move the club 56 miles away to Milton Keynes. They even changed the club name to MK Dons. What did the Wimbledon fans do in response? They refused to accept that their club had moved and changed its name. The club belonged to the fans and to the geographical location; the southwest London district of Wimbledon. And so was born, in 2002, the ‘phoenix’ club, AFC Wimbledon. This club currently plays at Kingston Upon Thames - in southwest London - in League 2. The club has worked its way up through the non-leagues into the football league, just like Wimbledon FC originally did. There can be no more powerful illustration of the way in which a football club belongs to its fans and to its geographical location than this.
What does this have to do with Sheffield Wednesday? To start with, I want to remind you that I stuck with my football club through some pretty dark times, seasons played in the lower divisions, with poor players and tactics. I wasn’t a fair-weather fan. Toward the end of those horrible times, the club was bought up by footballing legend Milan Mandaric. Mr Mandaric is an extremely wealthy, heavily Westernised, Serb who became a US citizen, and made his fortune in the states. SWFC is a northern English football club with a largely working-class fan base. The city of Sheffield, despite being one of the greenest and most beautiful (formerly) industrial cities around, has an unfair reputation of being as grim as it gets when people trot out the old phrase, It’s grim up north. Sheffield, and Sheffield Wednesday FC, are quintessentially English. The club is rooted in the city; in northern English tradition. So, it hardly seemed - to many - that Mandaric and SWFC was a marriage made in heaven. But Milan Mandaric is a man steeped in football. After football dealings in the USA and France, he came to England, and is widely regarded as the driving force behind success that came to clubs such as Portsmouth and Leicester. Importantly, Mandaric embraced English culture. He spoke good English, and understood both what English football fans wanted, and the importance of the geo-cultural considerations of a football club. The SWFC fans welcomed Mandaric with open arms, and the whole thing had the feel of a kind of mutual admiration verging on a love affair.
Under Mandaric, SWFC returned to the second flight of English football with a sense of stability and optimism that had been absent for years. The fans wanted more. SWFC fans believe that the club’s rightful place is in the top tier, rubbing shoulders on an equal footing with the biggest of big clubs; the way we did it in the early 90’s. Mandaric appeared to feel that he couldn’t make those dreams come true himself. Having purchased the club on the brink of a winding-up order for £1, he now sold it on (for a modest profit) to equally wealthy Thai businessman Dejphon Chansiri. The price: £37.5 million. I was sorry to see Mandaric sell the club after the good work he’d done, but at the same time, I felt we’d been used. A £37.5 million profit (all but a single quid)? Come on! All the love I felt for Mandaric kind of evaporated on the back of that. There’s still gratitude for the way he turned around a club on the brink of folding entirely, but coupled with an understanding that Mandaric was, in the end, a hard-nosed businessman, with his own interests at the top of his priorities (which is fine), and who could never fully and completely immerse himself in, and be part of, the culture of SWFC. At the end of the day, he was a Serbian-American, with his own life and priorities, and his association with SWFC was just one pleasant chapter in his busy and complex life.
The purchase of the club by a new, rich and seemingly ambitious owner sparked excitement among many SWFC fans, who were put in mind of the way other clubs had been transformed by wealthy owners; Chelsea by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, for example. For me, the optimism was mixed with a slightly hollow feeling. A Thai businessman? What did he know about England - or more to the point - northern England, and Sheffield? What did he know about Sheffield Wednesday that didn’t come from reports put together by advisers? There were stories - I don’t know how true - that the idea of Chansiri buying a football club in England came from his young son, a fan of English football, who perhaps had played the Football Manager computer game, and fancied a go in real life. Chansiri had had no previous involvement in football. It didn’t feel right to me.
It got worse.
The popular Stuart Gray, head coach of SWFC, was sacked. Gray had originally joined the club as an assistant to manager Dave Jones. After a good start, Jones faltered and lost his job. Gray stepped up to fill the void, and with little or no funds, guided the club to their highest league finish for six years, along with equalling the club record for clean sheets. A lot of SWFC fans were wondering what Gray would be capable of with cash to spend in the transfer market. But he was never given the chance by this new, foreign owner from the other side of the world. But hey, the club was now Chansiri's train set now, and maybe he was going to bring in some high-profile manager to turn the club around. Some of the names that were speculated upon were hilarious… Sam Allardyce? Kevin Keegan? Harry Redknapp? But no. The new manager appointed by Chansiri was someone pretty much no English football fan had ever heard of; one Carlos Carvalhal, a Portuguese coach with a chequered background, whose one claim to fame what the he was mates with Jose Mourinho.
My traditional English football club, soaked in footballing history, now had a foreign owner from the other side of the planet, a foreign manager, and a number of foreign coaches. Next: Boom! The ticket price controversy...
The club announced a new structure for ticket prices that had many SWFC fans shaking their heads in disbelief. Many football fans around Europe are now familiar with Uli Hoeness’s damning summary of the way English fans are milked over ticket prices. He was referring to the Premier League, but here we had the same thing happening at a second-tier club. Hoeness made himself very clear on the subject of ticket prices:
"We could charge more than €130 (£104). Let's say we charged €380 (£300). We'd get €2.5m (£2m) more in income, but what's €2.5m to us? … In a transfer discussion you argue about the sum for five minutes. But the difference between €130 and €380 is huge for the fans. … We do not think fans are like cows, who you milk. Football has got to be for everybody."
In English football, ticket prices are, whilst not exactly a drop in the ocean, secondary to the funds that are generated by TV coverage and sponsorship. And yet the whole house of cards that is football economics crumbles if the fans lose interest. Which makes you wonder what can be gained by charging fans high ticket prices. Incidentally, it’s not only SWFC fans who are concerned, as can be seen from the recent demonstration at Liverpool, in which supporters walked out of the stadium on 77 minutes after the announcement of a £77 ticket prices. Maybe football hierarchies have a secret plan to drive most fans out of stadiums, forcing them to watch TV at home, increasing demand for TV coverage, and therefore driving up the prices… and the revenue for clubs. Who knows?
So where are we now? SWFC are currently in a playoff position, and have a realistic chance of promotion to the top flight. Carvalhal has managed to get some decent results and performances out of his players. But here’s the thing. It doesn’t fee like my football club any more. They might as well have moved the club to Milton Keynes. SWFC feels like the puppet of a foreign millionaire who just doesn’t get it. I’m a working class family man, and I cannot justify paying the current ticket prices. I want the club to be under English ownership, because I believe in the geo-cultural tradition of football. Remember that list of clubs? Remember my point that football clubs are tied to their geographic location, and to their communities? Dejphon Chansiri and Carlos Carvalhal may understand the concepts of tradition and community - all human beings do - but do they really get SWFC? Ideally, I’d like the club to be owned by a Sheffielder - or better still, by a consortium of fans! Just now, I’m not even excited by the prospect of promotion - that would only lead to higher ticket prices anyway.
Will Chansiri own SWFC forever? Or will he sell the club for an even bigger profit than Mandaric? Do I want to be paying over the odds to help fund that kind of parasitic profiteering?
If SWFC get promoted back to the top flight, or if they win some silverware, I will be delighted for all the fans that still attend the matches. But until two things happen, I won’t be attending any more. Those two things are: Fair ticket prices, and a club ownership that understands, participates in, and originates from the community that SWFC represents.
© Darren R. Scothern 2016