The First Law of Soccer Self-Delusion
... is that the epithet ‘massive club’ is used by lazy journalists and desperate fans to describe success-starved teams.
It’s been a couple of weeks of contrasting fortunes for two of England’s so-called ‘massive clubs’. Manchester City got very rich quick while Newcastle United descended once more into farce.
I say ‘so-called’ because the term ‘massive club’ must be one of the more preposterous myths in modern football. Journalists use it lazily and interchangeably with ‘sleeping giant’. The fans of these clubs use it because, naturally enough, they’d like to believe their clubs are massive. Players or managers who are linked with these clubs tend to use flattering words like ‘massive’ (when what they’re after is the massive salary). For example, when Turkey coach Fatih Terim was linked with the Newcastle job this week, his agent described Newcastle as ‘a massive club with passionate fans’.
But here’s the thing. According to the First Law of Soccer Self-Delusion, the more frequently the epithet ‘massive’ is used, the more starved of success is the club in question. As the Guardian’s Martin Kelner once wrote, the phrase massive club has come to mean ‘any team that once won something, but is unlikely to ever again’ (1). The word ‘massive’ is, for example, widely used in Tyneside in inverse proportion to Newcastle’s success. It is 39 years since Newcastle last won a trophy, the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1969; rationing had only just been abolished when the club won its last domestic trophy, the FA Cup, in 1955.
The promiscuous use of the word ‘massive’ is a sure sign that a once-thriving club is now grubbing around in mid-table, or worse, dining out on past glories. Really big clubs don’t need to keep boasting about how massive they are. They just cast very big shadows. And they win stuff. It’s the bitter supporters of once-large-but-now-perennially-underachieving clubs who are prone to use the phrase most. They think their clubs are massive. But to everyone else they’re a laughing stock.
How then should we measure a club’s stature? Is it the number of trophies in the cabinet? Or does the size of its fan base count? Newcastle fans will tell you that the 52,000 fans who fill St James Park for every home game are what make the ‘Toon’ a big club. I’d say that makes Newcastle a club with lots of fans, but ‘massive’? As I’ve argued before on spiked, Newcastle isn’t a massive club, but a mid-table club with massive delusions (2).
And we’re not just talking about delusions of grandeur here. Club owner Mike Ashley was utterly deluded to imagine that wearing a replica shirt would make him appear a regular, brown-ale supping member of the Toon Army. Kevin Keegan was deluded if he thought that: a) Mike Ashley had the cash to splash on players like David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Ronaldinho and Thierry Henry – all reportedly on his transfer wish list; and b) that any of those players was desperate enough to play for Newcastle. Finally, the fans were deluded if they believed that Keegan was the Messiah. Six wins in 21 games is a poor return by most Messianic standards.
To return to the measurement question, how important is a club’s wealth? These days no club can compete for silverware without considerable financial resources. Chelsea is the fourth richest club in the world according to the Deloitte Rich List, which ranks clubs by revenue generated. But, although they have won five trophies in the last four years, their rivals still refuse to acknowledge that they are a big club.
In 2006, after Chelsea had won their second successive Premier League title, Arsenal keeper Jens Lehmann said: ‘Chelsea are not a big club. In England those are still Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal.’ Martin Samuel made a similar point in The Times in 2007: ‘For all the talk of worldwide domination, Chelsea are not a big club. Its traditional rival in London is not Arsenal or even Tottenham Hotspur: it is West Ham United.’ (3) For Samuel, it’s not the size of a club’s wage bill that matters; rather ‘it is the habits of decades, not a few great years, that dictates the size of a football club’.
The same charges are levelled against the newly rich Manchester City. The Blues have long been ridiculed by supporters of their city rivals United for their pretensions to massive-club status. There’s a mocking chant, sung to the tune of ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands’, which consists of dozens of verses each ending in the refrain ‘cos City are a massive club’: they’ve got the tallest corner flags in the world; they do a lap of honour when they win the toss; they won the Shamrock Trophy in ’92, and so on.
But now that City are being taken over by the Abu Dhabi United Group, the investment arm of the Al Nahyan royal family, whose wealth is estimated at £560 billion, will they finally gain admission to the Massive Club Club? I wouldn’t count on it. As Chelsea have discovered, football has its own form of snobbery in which the game’s traditional aristocrats look down sniffily at the nouveau riche arrivistes. Money might be able to buy you trophies, they say, but it can’t buy you tradition or class. ‘City have the richest owner in the world, but I still see United as the biggest club in the world’, said Ryan Giggs, adding: ‘United have a status and history that it has taken years to build up.’ Chelsea midfielder Deco echoed his sentiments. ‘City have a lot of money now, but they do not have the history or the reputation like other clubs have got.’
You’ve got to feel sorry for City. When they were attracting crowds of 30,000 in the old Division Two (now League One), their massive-club claims were ridiculed because they hadn’t won a trophy for years. Now that they have serious Arab oil money behind them, they’re dismissed as vulgar lottery winners who don’t have the correct breeding or pedigree (ie, they don’t sell as many replica shirts in the Far East as United or Liverpool). Either way, they can’t win. Well, actually, they can. One of the advantages of being filthy-rich is that you no longer need to bother about what others think.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.
(1) Sporting casserole or just a load of posh tosh?, Guardian, 6 February 2006
(2) The Second Coming of the Geordie Messiah, by Duleep Allirajah
(3) The debate: are Chelsea a big club or not?, The Times (London), 23 September 2007
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