A City Apart
Wednesday, United and the strange case of football in Sheffield
The redeeming feature of my 54 years as a Sheffield Wednesday fan is that I have spent much of the time abroad, working as a correspondent, often in Latin America.
Whether the Owls have been bidding for glory at the top of the Premier League – as they did briefly in the early 1990s – or – more often – struggling in the lower reaches of what I still prefer to call the second and third divisions, I have tended to witness the team’s plight at a comfortable distance. It doesn’t mean, though, that I have been any less anxious about the results.
Pre-internet there were endless struggles to find the barely audible shortwave reception for the BBC World Service. I remember in 1981 during the bloodshed in Central America hunting the signal up the hills of San Salvador or Tegucigalpa on Saturday mornings. The reward for these efforts was invariably depressing: a 1-1 with Charlton or a 2-1 home defeat to Grimsby.
Later there were those times when you could dial in – usually with excruciating delays – from a hotel room. I can clearly recall the balcony in Georgetown in the Cayman Islands where, during our Premier League relegation season of 1999-2000, I stared at the BBC website and watched in horror as the 1 in a 3-1 90th-minute lead at Derby slowly changed into a 3.
Or, in December 2003 as we continued our slide down the league, sitting in a room overlooking Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach and listening to Radio Sheffield’s Praise and Grumble phone-in show in the aftermath of what must have been a desperately dull 0-0 home draw against Chesterfield. One gloom-ridden grumbler had been hoping for a little boost before visiting his wife in the cancer ward at the Hallamshire hospital. It made me want to weep.
But then again many of these moments must have been fairly intense, I suppose, because I can still recall them quite vividly. In fact they still help me remember where and what I was doing at a particular time. Without Wednesday’s scores as an emotional aide memoire it would be much more difficult. The scores – all listed in a heavy hardback with tiny print called The Complete History of Sheffield Wednesday that I keep close at hand – help me make chronological sense of it all. It’s like a blue and white ribbon that pulls everything together.
And although being so far away has made it easier to forget the disappointments, it hasn’t lessened the fervour I initially acquired growing up in a terraced house in Hillsborough in the 1950s and the early 60s, less than a mile from the ground where Wednesday still play. In fact, as I get older my affection for and obsession about Wednesday has grown stronger.
Of late this has all gone into overdrive because I’ve been seeing a lot more of the team. Partly encouraged by an improvement on the pitch, I’ve had a season ticket for the last three years and now attend most away games as well. And at the back of my mind, of course, there is always the hope that the glory days of the early 1930s – the decade when we last won the league championship and FA Cup – might eventually come back. I have had a lot of time to think about these matters recently because just over a year ago I retired from the newspaper where I had worked for the last quarter of a century. And this piece – looking at the reasons for Wednesday’s underachievement (and to some extent Sheffield’s broader underperformance, though I know far less about the affairs of our city rivals) – sums up some of my thinking.
You have to go back to the first decades of the 20th century to find Sheffield football in its pomp. Between 1896, when Wednesday brought the Cup back to Sheffield for the first time, and 1915, when United won the only English cup final held in the middle of a world war, the city’s two teams won the league championship three times (Wednesday in 1903 and 1904, United in 1898), and the cup five times (Wednesday in 1896 and 1907, United in 1899, 1902 and 1915), achievements that ranked them at least on a par with the other northern and midland teams that dominated in that era.
When I was growing up in the 1960s one or two older relatives could still remember when United had last won the Cup in 1925. And many more could tell me about Wednesday’s last triumph. In the house of one of my grandmas I remember coming across an ageing copy of the Green ‘Un, the Sheffield Star’s football special, from 27 April 1935. My mum claims not to know how football works but still talks about how hoarse her uncles were when they came back from Wembley later on that night. And she recalls the delight on the face of her father, an unemployed railwayman who had been unable to afford the trip.
Since then there have been one or two moments when success has seemed tantalisingly close. Shortly before Wednesday won my eight-year-old affections, the team had experienced their most successful seasons since the Second World War: achieving a second place finish to the double-winning Spurs side in 1961 with a points tally that in many seasons would have been enough to win the championship. Three successive campaigns of sixth-placed finishes followed. That side included Ron Springett, the England goalkeeper, John Fantham, an under-rated goal scorer, and my early favourite, Colin Dobson, a flying red-headed winger. I’ve still got all their autographs secured for me by my mum’s Uncle Bill Riley, a burly and jovial man who – after he had nearly died as a prisoner of the Japanese on the Burma railway during the Second World War – worked as a commissionaire at the ground. Then there was our Wembley Cup final performance in 1966, when a couple of months before England’s World Cup victory we sacrificed a 2-0 lead to Everton. I watched this happen on a black-and-white television in our front room, in disbelief. A friend went home disconsolate clutching the uneaten cake with blue and white icing that he had brought to celebrate the occasion.
And then there were the early 1990s when the swashbuckling side assembled by Ron Atkinson and Trevor Francis – the team of Chris Waddle, David Hirst and John Sheridan – won the League Cup and then lost two cup finals to a dull machine-like Arsenal.
United haven’t quite matched Wednesday’s successes of the early 60s and 90s but have had a few moments – some battling cup performances in the 1990s and 2000s and a one-season return to the Premier League in 2006 – but on the whole given the size of the city and the strength of local support the achievements have been very limited.
In a way it is a bit odd. Sheffield’s early strength and prominence was not at all surprising to contemporaries. During the second half of the 19th century – when many of my ancestors came to the city to work in its steel mills and tool and cutlery plants – the city was one of the most dynamic in the country.
Between 1850 and 1900 its population trebled in size, topping 300,000 by the end of the century. South Yorkshire’s footballers had had a head start as well. During the Napoleonic Wars in the late 1700s and early 1800s governments took measures to outlaw football, partly because games sometime led to mass brawling, social disorder and attacks on property. Possibly because the area was geographically relatively isolated, the tradition of football survived in the hill country around the villages of Penistone, Thurlstone and Holmsfirth to the north-west of Sheffield. By the late 1850s and early 1860s when former public schoolboys started to talk about reconciling the very many different football codes by which the game had been played among Britain’s elites, dozens of teams were competing in the Sheffield area, with games played according to a common set of rules. Britain’s first formalised football club – Sheffield FC – was formed in 1857, which makes it the oldest in the world. Sheffield’s own association was the only one from outside London represented at meetings called to form the national association in 1863. And over the following nine years the codes of association football were discussed and finally agreed upon, many of the rules that had been adopted first in Sheffield were integrated into the game. Corners and goal-kicks and a less restrictive offside rule were all Sheffield proposals and throughout the 1860s Sheffield campaigned against the use of hands. While all the public schools tended to defend their own idiosyncratic rules, the Sheffield association was more pragmatic and flexible. Adrian Harvey, a football historian, says that as members of the association debated a common set of rules in the 1860s adherents of handling and running codes were winning the arguments and that had it not been for the strength of Sheffield the national association might have been disbanded altogether. Sheffield wasn’t entirely unique. At the grass roots the kicking game prospered in lowland Scotland and the mill towns of east Lancashire. Even so, one contemporary observer still described the city as the “greatest stronghold of football in England”.
Sheffield was a pioneer in another sense as well.
With games regularly attracting crowds of up to 3,000 people, a local businessman spotted commercial possibilities. In 1867 a Sheffield theatre owner, Thomas Youdan, sponsored a local cup competition, the first ever in the UK. The city saw some of the first experiments in professionalism. Sheffield players formed a team called the Zulus in 1879 in order to raise money for the families of soldiers killed and wounded at the battles of Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana in South Africa, turning out for matches in head-dresses and war paint. In 1882 the Sheffield-born Jack Hunter was a prominent player for Blackburn Olympic, the first professional side to win the FA Cup. Hunter was an early advocate of training and following a specific diet, both of which habits were considered unnecessary and unsporting by public school amateurs. That early success then was not too surprising.
But what went wrong? Conventional accounts like Percy M Young’s Football in Sheffield, written in 1964, put it all down to the inexorable ebb and flow of sporting success. In other words, you win some and then you lose some and if you wait long enough success will come back. Sheffielders have been waiting a long time, though. Surely, there must be a deeper explanation of underachievement in a sport it helped found?
Sometimes I think there is a hint of the supernatural. When I asked him why we hadn’t won anything for so long, my Uncle Joe assured me that there was a gypsy’s curse. [Joe, who took me to Hillsborough in April 1962, to watch a 3-2 win over Wolves, was a lifelong United fan]. Wednesday have certainly seemed to have been struck by severe misfortune a couple of times since I’ve been watching them. First, there was the bribery scandal of 1964, when Peter Swan, David Layne and Tony Kay – by then playing with Everton – served prison terms after being convicted of trying to fix a match. 25 years later, there was the Hillsborough Disaster, when 96 fans were crushed to death at the Leppings Lane end of the ground, a tragedy caused by an unforgivable combination of awful organisation and grossly negligent policing – and a ground that wasn’t fit for purpose.
I’ve long thought too that it had something to do with economics and business. Margaret Thatcher had quite a bit to do with that. After loss-making steel plants were sold to the private sector in the early 1980s tens of thousands were laid off and dozens of plants closed, accelerating the city’s economic decline. But long before that the steel industry and the city’s specialist tool-making and cutlery businesses were in trouble.
One of the most incisive writers about the city’s business history, Geoffrey Tweedale, writes about how the pioneering cutlery masters and tool-makers were already losing their way in the late 19th century, being too small and too technologically backward to compete with the US and Germany. My mum’s paternal grandad was still cutting steel files by hand at the beginning of the 20th century, long after mechanisation had swept through the industry elsewhere. As late as 1945 her maternal grandfather was one of the so-called ‘little mesters’ of the cutlery trade. Operating from a dirty, noisy and dangerous workshop in a building that now houses students from the city’s two universities, Bill Stacey ran a team that assembled butchers’ knives. But like the dozens of other cutlers, file-cutters and saw-makers he was unable to build up his capital beyond an immediate inventory and lived in conditions every bit as bad as his outworkers.
Steelmakers were heavily dependent on government contracts. By the end of the 19th century many had made fortunes but the industry was already losing ground to international rivals. At times government orders for the reinforced steel alloys used in battleships and tanks, and the shells needed to penetrate them, helped profitability but prosperity proved sporadic and was not sustained.
Why should this matter for football?
I think it might. Sheffield never produced the kind of dynamic business leaders that might have helped finance and direct the team’s football clubs. During the 20th century backing from local business was a crucial ingredient for success on the field for a number of clubs. Leslie Silver at Leeds United is one example; John Moores, the founder of the Littlewoods pools empire, at Everton another. Sheffield has always lacked that kind of local support. Mary Walton, who wrote a history of the city in the 1950s, said the local steel masters were wealthy but did little to back the city or the broader civic culture of which football is part. She describes an isolated and slightly mean-spirited business elite that “did less for their own than the corresponding citizens of other places. The conclusion cannot be avoided that all Sheffield’s efforts towards artistic or cultural ends were fatally hampered by the isolated position of the town, the people’s preoccupation with practical affairs, and their reluctance to do anything on a sufficiently large scale1.”
Dave Richards, chairman of the Owls during the 1990s, was a partial exception. But his company was swept away in the restructuring at the turn of the century. Public efforts to provide some leadership have also foundered, most notably the investments by Sheffield Council in the World Student Games of 1991. The Don Valley Stadium built at the time – and home to Rotherham United between 2008 and 2012 – was closed and demolished two years ago. In any event, both Sheffield clubs have lacked the financial resources that might have allowed them to compete more effectively. Certainly at crucial times Wednesday’s board has seemed to show a lack of business acumen.
But there was another element to this story of underperformance: the enduring influence of amateurism. Although Sheffield was in the vanguard of professional and commercial trends in football, the local association launched a bitter rearguard action to protect the amateur ethos. Dominated by middle-class professionals and a few public schoolboys, the Sheffield association banned players who had joined the Zulus in 1880. Although the national association bowed to the inevitability of professionalism in 1885, Sheffield resisted. Two of the city’s most prominent amateur players, William and Charles Clegg – both of whom had represented England – exercised huge sway within the local association and over the local clubs. Both were firm opponents of professionalism. Both too were devoutly Christian teetotallers, convinced that sport could help raise the moral standards of the city. Charles, who became chairman of United and Wednesday, dominated football administration in the city until the 1930s.
These divisions in fact shaped the emergence of both Wednesday and United. Formed in 1867, Wednesday remained amateur though the 1870s and early 1880s at a time when professionalism was advancing elsewhere in the country, most notably in the mill towns of Lancashire. In 1885 a group of Wednesday players decided they too wanted to become professional and at a meeting in April 1885 voted to quit Wednesday, to form a professional team – Sheffield Rovers. Faced with the loss of their players, Wednesday’s board backed down and accepted that players could be paid. The victory, however, came at a heavy cost. Wednesday were expelled from the local association and denied the right to play matches at Bramall Lane, then the city’s best equipped sports ground that had served as a venue for all the most popular football, cricket and athletics events.
There is even some suggestion that the local association then tried to undermine Wednesday when in 1889 they sponsored the formation of a separate team in a bid to combine the best of the amateur and professional traditions. The move was hugely controversial at the time. The newly formed Sheffield United tempted away some Wednesday players and enjoyed the advantage of playing at Bramall Lane. Keith Farnsworth, a local journalist who has carefully documented the histories of both clubs, wrote that Wednesday club officials “greeted the news with dismay, alarm even: and United met with a good deal of opposition within the town.”
Wednesday survived. But only narrowly so after the local council controversially decided to sell the land upon which a new ground – at Olive Grove – had been built and in which Wednesday’s board had made considerable investment2.
It’s impossible to be sure but reading newspaper reports on the council meetings from the time it is easy come away with the impression that the association was using political influence to undermine Wednesday. A year after United won the first division championship for the first – and only – time in 1898, Wednesday were relegated, groundless and facing the threat of extinction. In February 1899 the club’s committee denied reports that the club would cease to exist at the end of the season. As Richard Spurling, author in 1926 of the first history of Wednesday, put it: “Never in the whole history of Wednesday has the club been in such a melancholy plight as in the season 1898-99. Troubles came not singly but in battalions.”
In the end Wednesday endured courtesy of support from George Senior, a conservative politician and owner of a steel mill, and in the summer of 1899 the club moved to another site, at Owlerton in the north of Sheffield, eventually as a result being known as the Owls. (A curious aside is that at some point during this process the newer club became known as the Blades. Hitherto the nickname had been Wednesday’s with United in their earliest years of existence being known as the Cutlers.) Years later, reflecting on these turbulent times, Senior, by then president of the club, said he thought it “would [have been] bad policy to allow one of the Sheffield teams to go under, and that was why, when he was approached in times of adversity, he gave them his aid.”
These differences faded as Sheffield and professionalism prospered in the early 20th century. But the influence of amateurism persisted and held back Sheffield’s teams. In accepting professionalism, the national football authorities had sought to limit commercial influence. As well as capping wages (a policy that persisted through to the early 1960s), limits were placed on the amount of dividends clubs could pay to shareholders. Many of the country’s bigger clubs played fast and loose with these rules, but Sheffield’s stuck rigidly to the letter of the law.
In London and the Midlands, local brewers provided significant financial support for clubs. That was unlikely to happen in Sheffield where the temperance movement was strong and where sports administrators were enthusiastic advocates of restraint.
Sheffield’s clubs pursued conservative financial habits well into the 1980s. In the late 40s when Wednesday were dicing with relegation to the third tier for the first time the players were the only ones in the country outside the players’ union. In the 1950s, Wednesday relied upon a gifted administrator – Eric Taylor – to double up as team manager, even though he had never played professionally. At Wednesday boards regularly came under fire from rebel shareholders for failing to provide any financial backing to successful managers. Critics at Hillsborough launched unsuccessful campaigns in the late 1930s, late 1950s and 1970s, for example, alleging that the incumbent directors were “out of touch with history”. Percy M Young wrote in 1964 that “deep down the collective unconscious in Sheffield retained a deep affection for the amateur traditions on which the city’s football fame was built.”
Certainly, in the modern era frugality has been costly.
Back in 1961, Wednesday’s board failed to provide financial backing for Harry Catterick, even though he had orchestrated promotion to the first division and two years of the highest league finishes since the 1930s. Astonishingly, Catterick – then dubbed “Mr Success” by the Daily Herald after a popular Frank Sinatra song – was denied a salary increase or funds to strengthen his squad during the 1960-61 season, at a time when he had one of the highest win ratios ever boasted by a Wednesday manager. When Catterick left for Everton in April 1961, Wednesday were still in the title race. In their wisdom, the Wednesday board had preferred to ring-fence cash for a new stand. Two years later, Catterick won the league for Everton, having in the meantime acquired Wednesday’s star midfielder, Tony Kay. 25 years later the board did it again. Howard Wilkinson’s long-ball methods weren’t pretty to watch but under his management Wednesday got back to the top flight and achieved their highest finish for 20 years. But in the late 1980s the board steadfastly refused to countenance any spending to build on this achievement. Wilkinson was simply unable to compete in the transfer market, with Wednesday’s prolific striker Lee Chapman leaving to join Chamois Niortais of France, a club described (perhaps unfairly) as the “Crewe of French football” by one writer. When Wilkinson was allowed to join Leeds in November 1988, Wednesday were eighth in the first division and Leeds struggling towards the bottom of the second division. Three years later Leeds were on course for their first championship win since 1974, helped – just like Everton had been in the 1960s – by a number of Wednesday stalwarts. Mel Sterland, a crowd favourite at Hillsborough, played right-back in the championship-winning side. Chapman, returned from Niort, to lead the Leeds attack. Just to rub it in Leeds won 6-1 at Hillsborough in January 1992 with Chapman scoring a hat trick.
As commercial pressures grew in the late 1990s the boards began to adapt.
At Hillsborough, as Wednesday slumped badly following the departure of Wilkinson, the board suddenly changed course and began to make investments. At first the strategy worked, with Dave Richards, the managing director of a local engineering company, presiding over a period of success. Ron Atkinson was recruited to manage a revival in fortunes. Although the club was relegated in 1990, it quickly recovered and enjoyed an exciting period between 1990 and 1995. But in the mid-1990s Wednesday stumbled. Capital – eventually more than £17m - was secured in March 1997 through a private placement of shares to Charterhouse, a London-based investment bank. But the money was poorly spent, with the expensive acquisitions of underperforming internationals such as Wim Jonk and Gerald Sibon of the Netherlands, Gilles de Bilde of Belgium and Andy Hinchcliffe, an injury-prone England full-back. Successive management changes with David Pleat replaced first by Ron Atkinson – in a second spell at Hillsborough – and then by Danny Wilson failed to yield results and in 2000 – the last year before parachute payments were introduced – Wednesday were relegated. The club already heavily indebted, with a number of highly paid players on lucrative contracts and facing a sharp reduction in its revenues, never really recovered. In 2003 Dave Allen, owner of a local casino, took control and for four years provided some stability before departing in 2007 after an acrimonious bust-up with supporters’ organisations. Wednesday were relegated again in 2010 and looked almost certain to face insolvency.
Milan Mandarić, the Serbian-American entrepreneur who had previously made investments in Portsmouth and Leicester, saved Wednesday from bankruptcy towards the end of 2010.
I was back in Britain by then, living in London but travelling regularly up to Sheffield as my dad struggled with the final stages of a fatal lymphoma. So I started to see a lot of the team again. Under the management of Gary Megson and then Dave Jones Wednesday stopped the rot and the steady improvement continued under Stuart Gray. There were some marvellous moments, not least the glorious final months of the 2011-2012 season when Wednesday – inspired by the speed of Michail Antonio and the spirit of the giant defender Réda Johnson – embarked on a 14-game unbeaten run to pip United for the second automatic promotion place from the third tier. It wasn’t all positive – far from it. I remember a miserable Tuesday night in Stevenage when we conceded four goals in the first 20 minutes to a side that didn’t exist when I started watching the Owls and were eventually thumped 5-1. Later in the championship Stuart Gray’s side were well-organised on the whole but found it hard to put the ball in the net and during 2014-2015 – when I finally took the plunge and bought a season ticket – won only five times at Hillsborough and scored fewer than a dozen goals from open play.
My regular trips to the city – where my mum, who turned 90 this year, still lives – have provided a regular glimpse into the bleakness of its post-industrial fortunes. When I grew up in the 1960s the area around the Hillsborough ground was stable and community minded, its lines of brick terraces home for thousands of industrial workers. It’s now much more fragmented, full of older people, students and the desperately poor. I remember coming back once in the mid-2000s desperately trying to find an internet café (my dad steadfastly refused to entertain installing a connection at home) and thinking that Potosí, a grim and remote mining city of the Bolivian highlands, where I had just been reporting, was more connected to the modern world. Even now there is something depressing about the shopping streets around Hillsborough with their charity shops, electronic cigarette outlets, cheap pubs and fast food joints. Tattoo parlours are popular too. No more than a few hundred yards from the ground one tattoo place offers the delights of scarification and branding as well.
It’s perhaps not surprising then that Hillsborough is uncomfortable with globalisation. It’s still fairly solidly Labour (being part of the Brightside-Hillsborough constituency) but Ukip has a strong presence. And in June, Hillsborough – like many other post-industrial disaster areas – put up two fingers to the European Union. In a recent blog post Charles Pattie, a Sheffield University geography professor, estimated that in areas such as Hillsborough four in every five electors voted to leave.
The odd thing, though, is all this coincides with a moment on the football front at least where globalisation has offered the prospect of rescue.
A wealthy Thai businessman called Dejphon Chansiri took over in February 2015 and started to invest in the club. Chansiri’s fortune is founded on his family’s canned fish business: the Thai Union Group owns well-known brands of canned salmon and tuna like John West. In addition a syndicate of unnamed associates has supported his commitment to the Owls. Canned fish has always been something that has turned my stomach. No matter: the business seems solidly based in the demand of European, American and Asian consumers for cheap protein. And although by contemporary Premier League and even Championship standards the amounts invested so far a relatively modest – maybe about £30m in players and ground improvements – they still represent the most significant financial commitment to the Owls for more than 20 years3.
Chansiri is evidently a controversial figure within football. The finance director of one lower-league club told me that Wednesday have become very hard to deal with. Certainly we seem to have sometimes struggled to complete transfers. Various structures have been implemented in the eighteen months since Chansiri took over. All three members of a football management committee – Stuart Gray, Glenn Roeder, the former Newcastle, West Ham and Norwich manager, and Adam Pearson, the chief executive of Hull Rugby League – set up in the wake of the takeover have since left the club. Nonetheless for the first time in 25 years it seems a degree of financial and management stability has been achieved.
On the field there has been quite a strong global presence too. Supporters greeted the appointment of Carlos Carvalhal, a former Portugal Under-21 international who has had short spells in charge at Sporting and Turkey’s Beşiktaş, with some scepticism, not least because before joining Wednesday his last job had been a three year stint as technical director at Al-Ahli of the United Arab Emirates.
But as Carvalhal and his Portuguese coaching team have gradually taken control of playing affairs, performances have improved markedly. The new manager has been able to recruit some gifted players. The owners have been careful but Wednesday have still been prepared to spend significant amounts on players, certainly much more so than at any time in the recent past. In 2015 Wednesday paid Watford £3m for Fernando Forestieri, an Argentinian striker who has played for Italy’s Under-21s, and the £5m outlay for Middlesbrough’s Adam Reach in summer 2016 was the biggest transfer fee for 20 years. And after years when our wage bill always seemed to be among the lowest in the division, Wednesday are now more competitive. Barry Bannan and Steven Fletcher, the Scotland international midfielder and striker, respectively, both chose to come to Wednesday.
As I go about the country now I see some of the best football being played by Wednesday since the 1990s.
Not surprisingly relations with the fans have improved significantly. There has been some criticism of price increases but Wednesday have sold record numbers of season tickets, are attracting 25,000 people a week and regularly sell out away ticket allocations. In May, Wednesday came close to getting back to the Premier League, losing by a single goal to Hull City in the Championship play-off final. This season it has been a bit more up and down. But it does seem a revival is underway and there is a chance that Chansiri might meet his stated objective of winning promotion to the Premier League by the end of this season. Is it possible that a new international globally focused owner is putting in the foundations for a new period of success? Could Wednesday be a new Leicester (whom Wednesday’s former owner Milan Mandarić also sold to a Thai business group)? Maybe Percy M Young’s cyclical theory of football history will prove to be correct? The good times at Wednesday have come roughly every thirty years in the club’s history: the early 1900s, the early 1930s, the early 1960s, and the early 1990s. By my reckoning we are on course to make the Premier League again in the next few years. Maybe the 2020s will prove to be another golden era? Perhaps that gypsy curse that my Uncle Joe told me about in 1962 is finally losing its efficacy.