Get out, get out!
The screams of Sheffield FC captain draw my attention back to the pitch. I’m not distracted by the hailstones falling from an April’s sky, since sooner or later you get used to the Yorkshire’s weather. I was looking at the stands of the Coach and Horses, which looks like any other suburban ground but contains so much history. Around 250 people are distractedly chatting and sipping their beers while keeping an eye on Sheffield FC’s last home game, as if it were normal for the world’s first club to conclude yet another undistinguished season in the Northern Premier League, First Division South.
When I see Stephen Muff, a man on his sixties, welcoming every new fan with enthusiasm and handing the match programme, I can’t help but think that no one has told him that just few miles away, in Manchester, two teams carry out a billionaire fight every summer.
At a closer look, I actually realise that Stephen, just like the other supporters, knows it all and is fine with it.
After all, it’s no surprise that the ones who can pride themselves in founding clubs’ football still consider this sport a rolling ball, a shirt covered with sweat, and that one, two or hundreds cameras filming make no difference at all. Though, it’s not so straightforward to understand how such a prestigious title – the world’s firsts – could remain unnoticed for decades, until a marketer strived to give it a voice in 2007.
When chairman Richard Tims walks through the turnstile, just like any other fan, I immediately see a very determined man, with that kind of in-or-out mentality. Arguably, the only one who could help Sheffield FC claim their right for stadiums selling out every week and tournaments attracting billions of people all around the world.
After a firm handshake, he invites me to enter a tiny room with walls covered with football relics—official letters signed by former FIFA president Sepp Blatter, an Inter Milan’s pennant from a 2007’s game, as well as historic jerseys of Genoa and Real Madrid. Everything is put there haphazardly, as before moving house.
During a second meeting, Richard looks less hasty and more interested in understanding who he’s talking to. He pulls out from a bag a series of gifts, including a reprint of the original “Football Laws”, a gesture that strikes me and will make more sense later on, when he’ll say that I’ll contribute to “spread the word of the world’s first, this is important for me.” But there’s another Richard’s sentence which sums up his philosophy:
The fact that we don’t play professional football, doesn’t mean we can’t be professional.
In recent years, the chairman has been trying to understand whether people could be interested in a brand based on the original values of Sheffield FC—integrity, respect, community. The answer has been positive, as he admits that “this has opened many doors”, and the FIFA Order of Merit is just one of those.
We play in the eighth tier [of English football]!
The serenity of Richard in saying that makes me think that playing in the non-league is anything but a problem.
“It represents our origins,” he adds, referring to a choice dating back to 1885, when Sheffield FC asked the FA to create an amateur tournament due to heavy competition from the likes of Aston Villa and Nottingham Forrest.
We play football, we should be proud of that. Even if we earned enough to pay a player 300,000£ per week, we would invest that money in the community.
Community is a key word—such concept is echoed by Andy Dixon, a former Sheffield Wednesday’s season ticket holder who turned to the world’s first club after being charmed by their warm atmosphere.
Andy’s bond with amateur football began almost by chance, when he decided to take his son, too young to go to Hillsborough, to a Sheffield FC’s game. Since then, he would never stop, and he’s now managing the club’s Twitter account and writing for the match programme.
“I quickly found myself enjoying the football more than the professional game and started going more and more,” he tells MondoFutbol. “My son and I love the football and the friendliness of it at this level. The big thing for me is I followed Wednesday for years and never felt a part of it.“
Andy confirms that Richard Tims’ takeover has proved a turning point for the club:
Richard as chairman is great for the club. He is making the most of the history and appreciates this isn’t just another non league side but something special.
But amongst all the bright sides, there’s a sore point which makes the chairman cloud over for a while.
Recognition isn’t great yet, especially in the South Yorkshire, and the location of the Coach & Horses is likely to be the main cause. In fact, getting to the club’s ground in Dronfield is far from easy—after a 10-minute train journey from Sheffield, a 15-minute walk from Dronfield station is needed before a banner reading “Welcome to the home of football” appears in the bushes.
This is why, in Richard’s plans, the move to Olive Grove is of paramount importance. What is now a deserted pitch, the same where the founders kicked the first ball, should soon become the new Sheffield FC stadium, featuring restaurants and a museum to host the countless relics the club can boast. “But not just that,” says Richard, “we want to be active, not simply celebrate history.”
The goal of hosting the first Amateur World Cup in 2050 could look ambitious, if not unrealistic.
Though, flipping through the pages of the original “Laws”, and reading that “kick off from middle must be a place kick”, one can’t help but think how little it took to give birth to the most beloved of sports.
Photos ©Alessandro Bai/MondoFutbol