Just what the hell constitutes a big club?

This season, the mighty Blackpool will be competing in the giddy heights of the Premier League, while Sheffield Wednesday ply their trade a full two divisions lower including a foray into the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.  While this competition is by no means a dishonourable competition, with the chance to play at Wembley the prize for those players of League One and Two stature, the fact you’re sniggering indicates that my point has been made. 

Yet I ask you, of these two teams with wholly different seasons awaiting them, just who is the bigger club?  My limited knowledge of the subject would lead me to cite Sheffield Wednesday and I’m sure many of you would have plumped for the same answer.  This debate was even more intense when the likes of Norwich and Leeds were playing in the third tier of English football, while the likes of Burnley and Hull City hosted the country’s best players every other week. 

To pinpoint just how this farcical concept happens though is a very different matter.  Clearly, it’s got nothing to do with how good your team actually is.  

Supporters are a decent indicator.  Man Utd have millions of them and many would view them as the biggest club in the country, although I’m sure many on Merseyside would disagree.  Traditionally the bigger teams do get more people willing to pledge their allegiance, while those smaller ones have to make do with less lofty ambitions for season ticket sales.  Yet, Premier League regulars Wigan Athletic very rarely fill the JJB stadium and Middlesbrough are the same, as are Bolton Wanderers.  Compare them to perennial ground-fillers Wolverhampton Wanderers and Stoke City and tell me if the two latter clubs are any bigger than the ones previously mentioned. 

That is not to mention Charlton, whose lack of local followers has forced them to bus fans in from across the slightly outer London suburbs of Kent.  This isn’t a problem faced by Leyton Orient however, who boast a small, but nonetheless loyal collection of nearby supporters despite the heavy competition in our capital city.  And yet, the majority of people will recognise Charlton as the bigger of the two. 

Perhaps that is because of geography.  While Charlton battle only with Crystal Palace for supremacy in the south of London, little old Orient find themselves slap bang in the middle of West Ham, Arsenal and Tottenham.  To be recognised as a big club with those three as neighbours is like trying to justify yourself as pretty whilst standing next to David Beckham, Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom.   

If you rule the local roost therefore, maybe that gives you automatic ‘big club’ status, with a kind of Lion King ‘you rule all that you survey’ logic coming to apply.  Turn your attention to the North West though and you can see a whole clutch of big clubs all squeezed into one teeny tiny part of the British Isles.  If giants such as Liverpool, Man United and Blackburn can all co-exist within 100 miles of one another, maybe being king of your geographical castle isn’t enough to justify national ‘big club’ status. 

Perhaps then it is history, trophies and prestige. Can a look at the past give us a clue as to what defines those teams who have earnt the right to be called big?  It certainly seems to be a good indicator, with the likes of Leeds United and West Ham living off the glories of their illustrious pasts.  Derby County and Nottingham Forest are blessed with similarly successful heydays, while the now-Conference side Cambridge United can claim to be a huge fish in their current pond given their top-flight exploits in the early nineties. 

However, would I personally call Cambridge United a big club?  No – to answer the question matter of factly – I wouldn’t.  To go further, I wouldn’t call Derby or Forest big clubs either.  I would certainly call Leeds, Newcastle and West Ham big clubs, but not for their dominance in days gone by.  Lest we forget that in the last decade both Leeds and Newcastle played in the Champions League and it is this recent success, albeit more humble than the glory they once enjoyed, that gives me my perspective on these two football clubs. 

Perspective is the key word on what defines a big club.  As absurd as it sounds, Wigan’s prolonged stay in the Premiership leads a somewhat young observer like myself to label them a bigger club than the afore mentioned Nottingham Forest, complete with their European Cups during Brian Clough’s fabulous reign.  Because as I’ve grown up and learnt the game, this isn’t the Nottingham Forest that I know.  My Nottingham Forest worship Wes Morgan and hover around the Championship play-offs. 

Big clubs change between generations of fans, with the respective performance of the teams of the time forming the opinions of those just beginning their football education.  Tomorrow’s fans are likely to think of Man City as a huge club, because the free spending, title-challenging Man City are the ones they’ll grow up with.  Football is, as we all know, a matter of opinion and because of this, Ipswich Town, the team I shall always support, are the biggest club in the world.    


Jon Vale

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