The big club debate
This piece was published in OTBC, the Norwich City matchday programme, for the Premier League game against Bournemouth on 18 January 2020. Subscribe to OTBC here.
There’s one topic in football that baffles like no other; one that can split asunder families, lovers, whole fanbases. It’s a debate that rages fiercely across the land, in pubs and on public transport and at dinner tables and alongside water coolers. In fact I’m reluctant to unleash it here, but I guess things can’t get any worse, can they, so here goes: what makes a “big club”?
The beauty — and indeed fiendishness — of this quandary is that it seems obvious at first. Ask someone now, go on, I’ll wait. What did they say? I bet I know: trophies. A consistent presence in the top flight. Good fans. Cultural heft. History. A squad full of galácticos.
But try to define those categories, and you start running into trouble. Which trophies? European or domestic? How many? How recently did they win them? How many years in the Premier League will do? What’s better: more fans around the world, or more fans at matches? When do old glories become irrelevant in a sport that is 150 years old? At what point do recent achievements transfigure into “history”?
Handily, while conducting my usual forensic research for this column, I found a 2019 survey on this very subject, in which 3,500 fans ranked English clubs based on ten different criteria, ranging from transfer spend to stadium size to the number of international players in their side.
The resulting top 20, at first, looks a lot like the current Premier League table, with the usual suspects scoring highly: Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City. But then it starts to deviate: Aston Villa, for example, are ninth, while Sunderland — currently languishing in League One — are 13th. Leeds are 16th, despite a 16-year absence from the Premier League, and a trophy drought that stretches back decades. Apparently “big club” status may be hard to attain, but it’s even harder to lose.
Despite the survey’s best attempts — and at the risk of torpedoing the whole premise of this column — I’d argue that the very notion of a “big club” is impossible to quantify: it’s both deeply rigid and entirely nebulous, based on a kind of nostalgia that is at once far-reaching and short-sighted. It is necessarily esoteric, a term that lacks one clear definition and yet one that is instantly understood by football fans everywhere.
“Small club”, too, has come to mean something quite specific: although it’s a label that could be applied to the majority of the English football league’s 71 teams, and probably half of the Premier League, too, among many supporters it’s taken on a more sneering, pejorative meaning.
But why is it such a terrible thing to be a team outside of that “big club” firmament? A spot at the top of the footballing hierarchy isn’t the golden ticket it may seem — look at the likes of Arsenal or Manchester United or Spurs, all struggling under the weight of fan expectation and media scrutiny. There is a freedom that comes with being a David in a world of Goliaths.
Besides, on the pitch, those lesser clubs are increasingly able to mix it with their beefier counterparts: today’s visitors to Carrow Road, Bournemouth, are a case in point. This is their fifth consecutive season in the top flight, and they’ve become, mostly, a solid mid-table side — though their 11,000-capacity stadium serves as a reminder of their humble roots.
But as they’ve floundered this season, the “plucky little Bournemouth” narrative has begun to unravel. Their spending over the last four seasons has been on par with Champions League sides, and the Cherries are starting to find that big-club money comes with big-club pressure.
And that’s just it: fans of small clubs generally have no issue with that status if they’re performing on the pitch. In fact, it’s something to take pride in: that they’re doing things a little differently, punching above their weight. It’s when results are hard to come by that supporters can start to bemoan an apparent lack of ambition, and decry what they see as a “just happy to be here” attitude.
Too often, though, “lacking ambition” is code for “not spending much money”, and I can’t help but think: be careful what you wish for. A club could spend the GDP of a small country in a bid to climb the footballing ladder, not reach a stable rung to rest on, and then find that the ground has fallen away beneath them.
There is a balance to be struck, certainly — part of the joy and thrill of being a football fan comes from believing in the possibility that there are always greater things to come. But the beauty of supporting a small club — a true small club, with the budget to match — is that it forces you to find richness in something other than money.
Here, then, since you asked, is how I’d define a “small club”: a few precious trophies. History. Loyal fans, though maybe not lots. Homegrown heroes over superstars. Losing, too often. Winning, not enough. Resilience. Community. Pride. If that’s a small club mentality, it sounds OK to me.