LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

Founded in 1857, Sheffield FC are struggling with the responsibility of being the world’s oldest football club. Ridding debts by reforming would ruin their raison d’être – but eighth-flight football before 200 people every other Saturday means wage cuts, want-away players and withering form. Paul Martin visits Dronfield to see if ‘The Club’ can climb out of the mire while remaining true to 157 years of football history.

 

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In a football world dominated by satellite riches, identikit flat-pack stadiums and obscene salaries, visiting the Coach & Horses, home of Sheffield FC, is a welcome reminder that heritage still has a place in the English game. If perhaps only just.

Football aficionados from across Europe make the pilgrimage to Dronfield. ‘We’ve had groups from Germany, Poland and other countries,’ said one local on the touchline. ‘They seem to care more about history and tradition than English fans.’ The observation has more than an ounce of truth – neither of Sheffield’s modern-day big two of United and Wednesday has rushed into partnership with the world’s oldest club on their doorstep.

Neither could Sheffield follow the lead of clubs such as FC Halifax and AFC Wimbledon, reform and start from scratch – their entire operation is based around the USP of being the world’s oldest football club still in existence. No history, no kudos.

Laudably, the club is at pains to make best use of its tradition, something it refers to as ‘The Mission’. Community and education programmes, 20 (!) teams, including girls at under-15, under-14 and under-11, futsal, veterans and over-35s, coaching schemes, this staunchly amateur club provides the kind of across-the-board support for the local game that would put a Championship club to shame.

And for those Poles, Germans and groundhopping football nuts, there’s a quite wonderful pub alongside, the one that lends the ground its name. The Coach & Horses (‘beer, music, arts, community’) offers local Thornbridge ales and quality bar snacks in the kind of homely hostelry that defines the word ‘pub’. Sheffield FC memorabilia on display awaits studious perusal. Not every pub has the first published photo of an English football team.

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The club even has a special rate for fans at the Best Western Cutlers Hotel slap in Sheffield city centre.

Six miles south of town, Sheffield FC are rightly proud to be the world’s first football club – but this doesn’t alleviate the same problems that blight their younger counterparts right across the football pyramid.

Average crowds, though healthy for the Evo-Stik Division One South, number 200-250. Moving to a pub-team field in Derbyshire a decade ago has not affected attendances but the club’s main aim is to move back into Sheffield. Specifically, back to a rebuilt Olive Grove Stadium, near Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane, where the first football match was played back in 1857. Until finances improve, however, an aim it will remain.

With wages cut, stories have surfaced in the local press about key players – captain Warren Burrell and star striker Zeph Thomas – being attracted by rivals. How long can the club field a full XI?

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Senior figures at the club remain defiant. Before a recent home game with Leicestershire outfit Coalville Town, SFC manager Ian Whitmore used his programme notes to hit back at the ‘negativity that has emanated from The Club’. ‘The problems are only temporary,’ insisted match-day secretary Chris Shortland. ‘The fact that the club owns the ground and adjoining pub offers some financial security.’

How then does the club find itself in such a position despite famously earning itself nearly £900,000 from the sale of football’s first ever rulebook to an anonymous bidder three years ago? This short-term measure only paid off immediate debts. And now…

So, does the status of the being the world’s oldest club at least attract players at this level? ‘Finances are the big factor,’ confirmed Shortland. ‘Other clubs in this division can offer players more than we can. But we’ve got a team of 11 local lads and it certainly means a lot to them to represent the world’s first club. Our immediate focus is to develop young players.’ Many from the under-19 squad ran out for the first team this spring.

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A healthy 264 gathered at Dronfield’s seated end and standing terrace for the visit of promotion-chasing Coalville, who brought a small but vocal support. Home fans included Chris Waddle, watching his son Jack play left-back, neutrals a Wigan groundhopper notching his 90th club this season alone, a nice round 600 in total. We are not worthy…

The talk before the game was of keeping the score down, but Sheffield got off to a flyer, 2-0 inside 30 minutes with goals from Richard Stirrup and captain Andy Gascoigne in his 200th appearance. Coalville struck back on the stroke of half-time and completed the comeback nine minutes before the final whistle. Honours even at 2-2, a fair result considering the balance of play and frenetic finish.

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Is football coming home to Olive Grove? For now, Sheffield FC need all the support they can muster to survive just where they are. A visit to the Coach & Horses is a real antidote to Premiership sterility and a treat for any European groundhopper seeking to sample the true grassroots of the English game.