sabato 14 gennaio 2012

Up where we belong

This is the sports feature I had to write as assignment for my Sports Journalism module in the MA in Sports Journalism I am attending at Sheffield Hallam University. It is about the decline of Sheffield in football. The title - "Up where we belong" - is taken from a song by famous musician Joe Cocker, who is Sheffield-originated. I guess both United and Wednesday should be in the Premier League, as they have a very solid and loyal fan-base even in League One. I hope my staying in the Steel City can help both of them in promoting...

A cloudy mid-October Sunday in Sheffield. Families are enjoying lunch at home. Occasionally broken by helicopter rotors and police walkie-talkies, a thundering silence rules the roads to Bramall Lane. Nervous officers are monitoring outside the world’s oldest professional football ground. After one year of abstinence, Sheffield is back to celebrate the United-Wednesday derby. You may think it is the electric atmosphere of a thrilling Premier League match.

Wrong impression. Both clubs are floundering in League One. Not exactly what you would expect from the city of the first ever football derby, played on Boxing Day, 1860 between Hallam FC and Sheffield FC, world’s oldest club.

Less than 20 years ago the Steel City derby was a main item in the newly launched Premier League. It was even one of the 1993 FA Cup semi-finals. Since then, poor results and rising debts traced out the descending parabola of Sheffield in football.

“It’s a decline, however temporary. The teams will climb back” is Sheffield Telegraph journalist Alan Biggs’ hope. “I would define it as misfortune,” United historian John Garrett observes. “Decline means that finances are out of control. That’s not the case of the Sheffield clubs.”

Previously, United and Wednesday hit bottom, with the former crashing even into the fourth tier, during the 1980s, when local steel industry was sinking with losses of over 18,000 jobs in the Don Valley.

Ellis Cashmore, Professor of Culture, Media and Sport at Stafford University, finds a connection between these two phenomena. “Sheffield had prosperous teams in the early 20th century, similarly to other wealthy industrial cities,” he evokes. “But in the last two decades English football has been dramatically transformed by television and changes in the occupational sector, with the slump of heavy manufacturing. Consequently, traditional power centres became less influential.” Alan Biggs' memory is still vivid. "There was depression in the area," he remembers. "As people became unemployed, the match attendances dropped."

Bad investments have been another cause. Former Wednesday chairman Lee Strafford accused Premier League boss Dave Richards, who ran the club from 1990 to 2000, to have dissipated huge amounts of money. Emblematic cases are Netherlands international Wim Jonk, who reportedly earned £20,000 per week, and lionised Italian genius Paolo Di Canio, signed for £4.5m and sold to West Ham for nearly one third. “We were in trouble for a decade,” Trevor Braithwait, Wednesday director of communications, recalls. “We couldn’t afford high wages anymore.”

United recruited striker James Beattie with a £40,000-a-week fee, not reinvesting properly what Everton paid for defender Phil Jagielka (£4m). “I guess we invested badly in terms of managers’ judgement, rather than in players,” Garrett specifies.

“Getting a decent team is the key, regardless the economic situation” Rogan Taylor, head of the Football Industry Group at the University of Liverpool, states. “It’s hard if there’s no sugar daddy prepared to put, and lose, money.”

Meanwhile, the global recession broke out. Especially United suffered, as owner Kevin McCabe is a businessman in an affected sector like property. In times of crisis the two teams share the same sponsors - local firms Gilder Group and Westfield Health. “Nothing unusual, it happened in Glasgow, too,” Taylor underlines. "If you support the two halves of the population, at least everyone is happy."

No closer point seems to be reached, though. "Sharing a football ground is not a simple business,” Taylor adds. “Nowadays stadia are products the clubs sell to their fans, with hospitality, shopping centre and cafés." The idea of only one Sheffield-based team is far more hilarious. "Old chestnut,” Biggs observes. “I recall a debate with Dave Bassett and David Pleat, respectively ex-United and ex-Wednesday manager. They felt it was in the interest of Sheffield for the two clubs to merge. But supporters are too proud."

Meanwhile, winds of change are blowing on the Pennines. Wednesday are benefiting from the ownership of ambitious tycoon Milan Mandarić. “Only now we seem to have the financial fortunes every club needs to move forward,” Braithwait says.

United have set a new austere basis by cutting expenses and trying not to be economically over depending on McCabe.

Actually both teams are occupying the leading places, with an 18,000-fans average attendance in home matches. “10 Premier League clubs would kill just to reach similar peaks” Garrett ensures. Will they return soon into the top flight? Fans cannot predict. Quoting a Vera Lynn song, their only certainty is that “we’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day...”

AUSTIN, Simon (2001). Steel derby loses its edge. BBC Sport, 5 October.
AUSTIN, Simon (2002). To spend or not to spend?. BBC Sport, 11 April.
BILLINGHAM, Neil (2011). It’s all quiet over there. FourFourTwo, 210, 66-69.
HAMILTON FAZEY, Ian (1993). Survey of Sheffield. Financial Times, 9 June.
HOCKING, Tom (2011). Calling it a truce?. When Saturday Comes, 297, 21.
RAWCLIFFE, Jonathan (2011). Blades and Owls face up to League One life. BBC Sport, 17 June.
WOLFFE, Richard (1997). The Steel Industry. Financial Times, 28 February, Surveys.

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