Say you’re a supporter of Mansfield Town. Your team plays in the Conference National, a ‘non-league’division five rungs below the Premiership. The best thing to have happened in recent years is that, in the third round of the FA Cup, your team almost beat Liverpool, a club so many leagues higher that it might as well play its home games in Heaven. And what really sticks in the craw, aside from the half-time pie, is not that you didn’t win, but that you lost the chance of a replay at Anfield.
Or, like me, you’re a supporter of ‘sleeping giant’ Sheffield Wednesday. Experiencing an Icarus/Nic Cage-like fall, Wednesday have slipped from the top table to rest in the more modest (or, if you prefer, frankly crap) surroundings of the Championship/National Treasure series of films. The Championship is England’s second division, a league named ‘the Football League Second Division’ in those more innocent days before the advent of the Premiership. It’s full of ‘big teams’ on the skids and ‘small teams’ trying not to be like Jimmy Stewart at the start of Vertigo.
For Sheffield Wednesday, the best thing to have happened in recent years is winning both games against arch-rivals Sheffield United in season 2008/2009, for the first time in 95 years. That was in League One (old name: Football League Third Division – keep up) and now we’ve been promoted to the Championship, the fourth-best attended division IN THE WHOLE OF EUROPE, ahead of the top divisions in Italy and France, a fact I’m sure to impress upon any Italians or French that I happen to meet in any situation whatsoever, regardless of their interest in football or the appropriateness of the interjection.
Sheffield Wednesday: the ninth most successful English side ever with their four top-division titles, sandwiched between no. 10 Leeds and no. 8 Newcastle. Sheffield Wednesday: the third best team in the whole country as recently as 1991-1992. A team that reached both the League Cup final and FA Cup final in 1993, and lost both to Arsenal. The FA Cup was lost in the last minute of extra time of the replay. I tried not to cry in front of my father and he murmured something about there always being next season.
But there wasn’t. There isn’t. (I believed him because I was small and didn’t realise the transience of such glory. Nothing ever lasts forever, as Echo and the Bunnymen would have it; even Sir Alex Ferguson will retire one day.) In these grey days, Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, founded in 1867, are a team that will satisfy me and the average crowd of 23,430 by not getting relegated. From the Championship. This is (relative) success through avoiding (abject) failure.
Fans of our ilk make certain assumptions when friends/colleagues/girlfriends admit their allegiance to Premiership big boys. And growing up in Somerset—at the time an English county without a club in the four league divisions—school friends happily wore the red of United/Liverpool/Arsenal during after-school kick-arounds. I didn’t resent them, much as I didn’t those kids with bigger houses or better exam results. Their existence was just … different. Like that of French teenagers, or jellyfish. And now with my gut pulling tight at the blue and white stripes of the Wednesday replica shirt, I watch Premiership matches and, yes, I enjoy the games guilt-free. Premiership football is show business. Show business being a term never used to describe Scunthorpe, an industrial town in Lincolnshire defined by steel mills and rain, not necessarily in that order.
Why mention Scunthorpe? Not to crack jokes circa 1999 about the inadequacy of internet filters, but to consider my father-in-law Colin, a season ticket holder at Scunthorpe United. Scunthorpe: brief overachievers in the Championship, and known predominantly as the first club of Liverpool/England icon Kevin “I will love it.” Keegan, an ex-England manager who became ‘ex’ in the toilet of our national stadium, teaching a whole country to plan resignations carefully. Here’s a complete list of what Scunthorpe has won in its 114-year history:
That there are no major trophies is understandable, but 58 years is a whopper of a gap from creation until first (minor) trophy. That’s almost a lifetime, especially considering the lifestyle of Northerners. And then another 41 years until the play-off place. (For the uninitiated: play-offs are contested between teams that finish below the top, generally places third through sixth, using a cup system to award the final ‘promotion’ place. It makes the end of the season ‘exciting’.)
Scunthorpe currently play in League One. And struggle. Inspired by the last line of The Great Gatsby, they’ve re-appointed Brian Laws, the hero of their Championship days and a manager later sacked by Sheffield Wednesday. Lower league life is incestuous like that.
(Best Brian Laws story: when at Grimsby, breaking his star striker Ivano Bonetti’s cheekbone with a plate of chicken wings during a post-match argument.)
Why follow Scunthorpe, Colin? Why follow Grimsby? Why follow Wednesday? They’ve no chance of winning anything major. Where’s the joy in that? Does it make your support of football more ‘real,’ in the same way some hipster tryhard enjoys Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti?
Maybe. But in suggesting that life is better spent in the moment, Michel de Montaigne, the French philosopher and no fan of football because it didn’t exist in the sixteenth century and France didn’t even get good until the late nineties, or should I say the late nineteen-nineties—in your face, Montaigne!—might offer an answer to such lower-league existential tossing. There may be no overarching season-long narrative for fans of Rochdale (zero national honors in their 106-year history), Walsall (four in 125 years) or Derby (10 in 129 years). And our dénouement is, most likely, a reassertion of the initial exposition: taken as a whole, this season was the same as last, and will be the same as the next. You might find yourself promoted or relegated or managed by Paulo Di Canio come the end times but the futility of hope, the monotony of the mediocre, is positive and reassuring because it forces you to fully occupy the ninety minutes of each individual game. Honestly. A 3-1 away win at Hull is your Champions League triumph, your 3-2 home win over ex-Premiership Birmingham can be your FA Cup final.
Montaigne could never have been a United fan.
Supporters of those teams outside of the big four can fantasise of Middle East buy-outs, but they need only look at two-time European Cup winners Nottingham Forest to see that all that glitters is not gold. For anyone over the age of 30, they’re a team forever linked with Brian Clough—not only the best manager the England national team never appointed, but also, perhaps, the best football manager to have ever worked in the UK. I mean, they haven’t made a feature film about Jose Mourinho or Alex Ferguson, have they? As Clough’s resistance to alcohol declined, so did the performance of his team. As he resigned from his position as manager at the end of the 1992-1993, so Forest slipped from the Premiership. They’ve been a yo-yo team ever since. Even with Kuwaiti millions—I’d love to hear what Clough would have made of this—they’re currently struggling mid-table in the Championship and managed by a man who sets up his teams not to lose, rather than to win; a tactic that saw him oversee Birmingham City’s recent relegation from the Premiership. This coach is Alex McCleish, the anti-Clough. I think, like Huddersfield, I’d rather have my team owned by a man whose fortune comes from that most English of businesses—the selling of greeting cards.
That said, all it would take are a few judicious signings in the January transfer window and Sheffield Wednesday might take a tilt at the Championship play-off places. From there, as pundits say, it’s a lottery. Get to the Premiership and with the new TV deal that awards even the bottom team more than the £60.6m that champions Manchester City were given in prize money last season, and who knows what might happen.
Well, we know. Not Champions League, perhaps, but maybe mid-table mediocrity. But that’s the thing about sleeping giants—they dream big. And if lucky enough to support a team even further down the leagues than the mighty Wednesday, consider this: if you know nothing of victory, you are at least spared the knowledge of defeat. It’s not the big time, but it’s something.