On the first day of March, Sheffield’s newspaper, the Star, revealed plans for a new stadium for the world’s oldest football club. ‘Finally a home for the Home of Football,’ rejoiced the front-page headline.
Sheffield FC were formed in 1857 and, though not the city’s most successful team, have survived a nomadic existence and lurk in the eighth tier of English football.
This proposed home with a capacity of 4,000 would incorporate a heritage centre as part of a broader initiative aimed at reclaiming lost history: how football first organised beside a flourishing steel industry.
An exhibition at the Central Library might evolve into a permanent museum, there is a 4.7mile walking tour, plans for blue plaques and brown road signs, and public art to spread the word about the birthplace of the modern game, where they can boast the world’s first ‘United’ and the oldest stadium still in professional use.
Prestigious past, shame about the present.
Sheffield’s famous rival clubs United (left) and Wednesday (right) looked destined for the drop
Sheffield Wednesday started March by appointing Darren Moore, their fourth manager of another miserable campaign.
It began with Garry Monk in the dugout. Then Tony Pulis breezed in and out in a turbulent 45 days. Then Neil Thompson stepped up from an academy role to take interim control for nine weeks.
Moore was prised from Doncaster Rovers in League One, proving if nothing else that Wednesday retain some lustre in South Yorkshire. Founded in 1867, they are the third oldest of the top 92 and champions four times, but not since 1930. They are now confronted by relegation to the third tier for the third time since dropping out of the Premier League at the start of the century.
Sheffield Wednesday hired their fourth boss this season when Darren Moore came in in March
They have been docked six points for financial irregularities relating to the 2017-18 accounts and the sale of Hillsborough to the club’s Thai owner Dejphon Chansiri to offset losses.
The Supporters’ Trust are trying to register the famous ground, once heralded as the Wembley of the North, as an asset of community value in the hope it will force more transparency from Chansiri at a time of financial pressure, with a £6.4million loan taken out against the stadium due by September.
There have been disturbing cash-flow signs. Fans wait for refunds requested for season tickets from last season’s lockdown and wages have been late more than once.
Chansiri has reduced the wage bill from £42.4m in 2017-18 to £36.4m in the recently-published 2018-19 accounts, but it still dwarfed turnover of £22.7m in a season when the Owls wallowed in midtable.
The Owls have won three FA Cups, but their current crop are a far cry from those heady days
The problems were seemingly clear to Monk when he arrived in September 2019. ‘The only mistake I feel I’ve made has been Sheffield Wednesday,’ he said recently. ‘It’s the only one where I knew in my heart before I took it that there were a lot of things wrong there.’
Pulis complained openly about the unbalanced squad and was quickly embroiled in a battle of wills with a chairman. Loan targets such as Tom Heaton and Matt Phillips were out of reach on Premier League wages. The brief era of lavish spending was replaced by no discernible alternative plan.
Top scorer Steven Fletcher walked on a free to Stoke, Sam Hutchinson was released only to re-sign seven months later, and promising teenager Liam Shaw will join Celtic at the end of his contract in June.
Moore ended a sequence of seven defeats in a row with a draw against Huddersfield and won at Barnsley before the international break, but the Owls are six points adrift of safety with nine to play.
Sheffield Wednesday are now confronted by relegation to the third tier for the third time
On Thursday they go to Watford, who are on a roll of 27 points from 10 games.
‘I’m gutted for the punters,’ Chris Waddle, legend of Wednesday’s early 1990s heyday and a resident of the city, tells Sportsmail. ‘They deserve so much better and it would be nice to see the people at the top put their hands up.
‘This is not about Darren Moore, Tony Pulis or even Garry Monk, it’s about Chansiri. He needs to admit he’s made a mess of the club.
‘He threw his eggs in one basket when he came in, making a big statement, signing players for good money. They reached the play-offs for two years but since then it’s been disastrous. It’s gone from bad to worse; no investment, changing managers, no structure. It’s been run like a Carry On film.’
The club, who are owned by Dejphon Chansiri (above), are under huge financial strain
Chansiri, who bought Wednesday for £30m from Milan Mandaric six years ago, has been running the club from Thailand since the pandemic struck.
‘Look at Wolves and you can see the level of investment needed to produce a very good Premier League team,’ adds Waddle.
‘This chairman can’t provide that. He would have been carried shoulder-high around the city if he’d taken them back to the Premier League but to be heading into League One is a joke.
‘He’s got to put the club first and move on but he’s stubborn. I can see Wednesday being another Bolton or Wigan.
‘Across the city, Sheffield United are in a better position but something has gone wrong and they’ve sacked a very good manager. Can they be promoted next season without him? Who knows?’
Owls icon Chris Waddle is gutted by their downfall and said Chansiri’s made a mess of the club
Chris Wilder led the Blades from League One to ninth in the Premier League, their best finish since 1992, but his departure from Bramall Lane was not one befitting his status as a local hero. Hours of awkward silence were followed by belated confirmation and there were murmurings of disappointment from the dressing room.
Then, a remarkable interview by the club’s owner, Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who claimed Wilder had been on the brink of quitting since December, had offered to resign for £4m in January and forced his own exit.
‘I don’t blame him for resigning,’ said the Saudi prince. ‘I am sure that the pressures of the Premier League, the pressures of the worst start in the top five divisions in English history, is not easy.’
Chris Wilder became a local hero for guiding the Blades from League One to the top flight
Ouch! He picked at Wilder’s recruitment record and reminded fans of the millions invested under his ownership without mentioning that such investment was not made from his fortune, but from the windfall secured by promotion before he owned the club outright.
The breakdown in the relationship seemed inevitable after a High Court ruling enabled Abdullah to buy out co-owner Kevin McCabe for just £5m in September 2019. He is keen to globalise the club, especially regarding recruitment.
Difficulties were easier to gloss over when the team were performing brilliantly, but less so as United hurtled back towards the Championship, where they made annual losses of £10m before promotion. Despite the pandemic, two years in the Premier League will have boosted income by at least £220m.
Even accounting for improved contracts, bonuses and £120m spent on transfers there should be profit, and a parachute payment of £40m in the first year will help absorb the shock of relegation.
Sheffield United owner Prince Abdullah had harsh words to say about Wilder after axing him
‘Both clubs will be reliant on their owners to varying degrees,’ said Dan Plumley, expert in football finance at Sheffield Hallam University. ‘Sheffield Wednesday are in a slightly worse position financially because of the Premier League difference and the fall-out from the failed promotion push.
‘Relegation to League One would be another £7m-8m hit and it will probably get worse before it gets better. Sheffield United will have the competitive advantage of parachute payments.’
Over to Prince Abdullah. Does he have what it takes to bounce them back up at the first attempt? Can he do it without Wilder, or the experience of McCabe in the boardroom? Can he do it quickly?
There is little margin for error in the Championship, as Chansiri can testify.
Prestigious past, shame about the present, dreading the future; Sheffield braces for an unwanted development: a double relegation for the first time in its history.
If United and Wednesday both go down, it’ll be the first time they’ve had a double relegation