What it means to be a ‘big’ club
An intriguing and unexpected debate has begun in England in the wake of Jose Mourinho’s exit from Chelsea. It is this: What constitutes a “big” club in terms of English soccer?
Note the use of the word. The debate is not about what makes a successful club or a rich club, but a “big club”. Until the early 1990s, the Big Five clubs in England were Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs and Everton. They were the richest and the most successful clubs in the land but had also won major trophies throughout the decades.
Spurs and Everton have slipped behind the other three and Chelsea have overtaken them in terms of honours won and money spent, with most of the recent success bankrolled by billionaire Roman Abramovich. Money, though, cannot buy history or class.
Two things in particular have sparked the discussion: the attendances last week at the European matches played by Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs on successive nights and the comments of Arsenal’s chairman Peter Hill-Wood.
The Old Etonian, whose family have been involved in Arsenal for generations, dismissed Chelsea’s bid for “world domination” as “fantasy” when he announced Arsenal’s near 35.0 million pounds profits and their 200 million pounds turnover on Monday.
Chelsea’s chief executive Peter Kenyon once said Chelsea “would paint the world blue” and become THE club for London and be the richest club in the world by 2011. With Mourinho gone and Chelsea in relative disarray, those claims seem rather fanciful right now.
The night before Mourinho went, Chelsea had fewer than 25,000 fans for a Champions League match at Stamford Bridge against Rosenborg Trondheim. Meanwhile Everton had 37,000 in for a UEFA Cup match against Metalist Kharkiv of Ukraine and Spurs had a near-capacity crowd of almost 36,000 for their UEFA Cup game against Anorthosis Famagusta of Cyprus. Arsenal of course had a capacity 60,000 for their Champions League match with Sevilla.
Those figures are a reflection of the history, the passion and the commitment of the fans of those clubs — especially Everton and Spurs who have under-achieved for years.
The Big Five was always a misnomer anyway. Newcastle United are a “big club”, despite not having won an honour since 1969. Aston Villa remain a “big club” despite going years without a trophy. Sunderland, in the 1890s themselves known as “the Bank of England club” are still a big club, so are Manchester City.
Football fans “know” who the big clubs are and what they stand for. It’s an intangible mix of history, success, tradition, great players neutrals love and admire, and their potential to come back if they are currently languishing somewhere outside the top division.
Of course Chelsea are a rich and successful club. But a “big” club in the way real fans understand the phrase? That’s another story.
Mike Collett, Reuters Soccer Correspondent, London