History, fans, noise and passion

Football fans know a Proper Club when they see one

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

My brother once proposed a simple but radical rule change for English football: any club from a place where rugby league is more popular than football should face automatic relegation from the Premier League.

The proposal, I admit, was inspired by partisanship: it followed an especially disappointing Aston Villa performance at Wigan Athletic, a team that, ridiculous as it now sounds, spent eight seasons in the Premier League between 2005 and 2013 and even won the FA Cup.

If your team was a founder member of the Football League, all the way back in 1888, it is a Proper Club

Football fans will recognise the sentiment behind the idea. There are “Proper Clubs”, and clubs that are no such thing. Not many fans like Liverpool and Manchester United, but they accept that they are Proper Clubs. Not many fans like Manchester City, but City are disliked more because they are not deemed a Proper Club. Their success is bought, their history is limited.

Run through a list of teams and fans can give immediate answers on which are Proper Clubs and which are not. Nottingham Forest? Proper club. Brighton and Hove Albion? Not so much. Sheffield Wednesday? Proper club. Birmingham City? Sorry, Dad, but they just do not make the cut.

For some teams, Proper Club status is disputed: Newcastle, for example, have won trophies in the past and enjoy a huge fanbase, yet somehow their supporters grate. Their expectation of success that never arrives — not to mention their enthusiastic welcome for the club’s new Saudi Arabian owners — is simply ridiculous.

But what are the rules? What makes a Proper Club? First of all, history matters. If your team was a founder member of the Football League, all the way back in 1888, it is a Proper Club. Everton, Wolves and West Bromwich Albion, even Notts County and Accrington Stanley, qualify for this reason. If it was your club that came up with the very idea of a football league, then so much the better: Aston Villa are the original Proper Club. And yes, your author is biased in their favour.

Longevity cannot be the only consideration, however: trophies matter too. There is no denying that the long success of clubs like Liverpool, United and Arsenal score them points in the Proper Club league table. The English teams able to say they have reigned as champions of Europe — Chelsea, Liverpool, United, Villa and Forest, but not Arsenal or Tottenham — win even greater points.

Paradoxically, past success counts for more in the Proper Club league table than recent success. This is not as nonsensical as it sounds: Portsmouth and Swansea have won major silverware more recently than Everton, but Everton are undoubtedly a Proper Club, while these recent cup winners are not.

Then there is the size, style and atmosphere of a team’s stadium — or “ground” as we should properly call it. If your stadium fits in fewer than 35,000 fans, you lose points. Sorry Crystal Palace and sorry Southampton: you are not Proper Clubs. Even clubs with long histories — like Burnley and West Brom — lose points because of their unfortunately poxy grounds. Even if your ground is like a beautiful Victorian museum, as is the case with Fulham, if it can only hold 19,000, you are simply not a Proper Club.

In fact, your ground counts for rather a lot. West Ham are a Proper Club, owing mainly to their working-class East London heritage, but they lose points for selling their raucous old Boleyn Ground and moving to the joyless Olympic Stadium. Somehow Tottenham Hotspur — another Proper Club — managed to retain their identity and sense of home in building a new stadium at White Hart Lane. But Man City, who inherited their stadium from the taxpayer after the 2002 Commonwealth Games, have lost what little soul they once had.

Proper Clubs have supporters who can not only fill the grounds, but make plenty of noise and intimidate their opponents

Proper Clubs have supporters who can not only fill the grounds, but make plenty of noise and intimidate their opponents. In this respect, perhaps, Newcastle might be considered a Proper Club. Poor Sunderland, their neighbours who languish in the third tier yet attract crowds of up to 46,000, probably qualify too.

Yet Arsenal, who have won plenty of trophies in their time, have supporters so quiet that their old ground, Highbury, was known as “the library”. Man City cannot fill their stadium even for evening matches in the Champions League, and do not sell all their tickets when they reach cup finals at Wembley. Rival fans like to taunt newly-successful teams by chanting “where were you when you were shit?” In City’s case, they are left wondering where the fans are even now, when the team cost almost £1 billion to assemble.

So Man City: not a Proper Club. Arsenal: just about. Leeds United: Proper Club. Trophies may be part of the judgement; the legends of star players too. But really, Proper Clubs are about history and character, fans, noise and passion. You can survey it, you can try to quantify it, you can disagree on the marginal calls. But football fans know a Proper Club when they see one; and when they find themselves against a team that falls short, they are only too happy to express themselves via the medium of disobliging songs

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