When Charlie Stillitano opened his mouth and began to declaim about which clubs had the most right to football as a concept, a codified sport and a commercial enterprise, it is unlikely that Sheffield even crossed his mind.
It’s possible he’s never heard of Sheffield at all – but that is where the laws of the game were first put on to paper, and it’s the home of the world’s first football club.
Based in Dronfield, just outside the city itself, Sheffield is where Nathaniel Creswick and William Prest founded their club on 24th October 1857 – and proceeded to write down the laws of the game for the first time.
Their publicity materials are now all emblazoned with the motto ‘The World’s First’, and chairman Richard Tims has worked hard towards ensuring that everyone interested in football history knows whence it came.
He credits former Barcelona president Joan Laporta with the inspiration to do that, having been invited to meet him in 2003.
“I thought I was just going on the museum tour, but he met me on the steps [of the Nou Camp], out of season, 9.30 in the morning and showed me the inner workings of Barcelona football club,” he recalls. “What I learned on that trip was all the people in that organisation were more amazed to meet me than I was to meet them. That’s when the penny dropped. Why are people in Sheffield not amazed at what they’ve got on their own doorstep? Why is the UK obsessed by the Premier League? So I started a marketing campaign to let the world know where football kicked off.”
Sheffield now has men’s and women’s teams along with its junior divisions, and although he is resigned to the fact that the men’s first team will never compete at the highest levels, he is entirely happy with that, arguing that it is completely consistent with the club’s ethos. After all, were they to gain a place in the Premier League it would require millions and millions of pounds invested in facilities and players – and cash is not what they are about.
“The two gentlemen who wrote the laws of the game did it for the love of the game – not for money,” he points out. “We want to remain as close to those principles as possible – I think that’s refreshing. If you can be that social conscience to tell youngsters coming through that 99.9% of people around the world don’t play football for money, they play for different reasons, that’s what our club represents.”
Intriguingly, Sheffield’s women are edging closer to professionalisation, having just begun their first-ever campaign in the second division of the elite FA Women’s Super League. The entire team was the brainchild of Helen Mitchell, first-team coach up until 2015, and now the general manager. She had played for and managed a local side, and in 2003 approached Sheffield with the suggestion that they affiliate.
“We were going nowhere,” she says. “We didn’t have a fixed base – each year we were looking for somewhere different to play. So we thought, ‘Right, let’s affiliate with a men’s team, that’s probably the best.’ We can get a stable base, a bit of support, and we can get our name out there, a bit more established badge. So I rang the chairman here, completely out of the blue, and just said, ‘How do you feel about having a women’s team?’ He was like, ‘Right, yeah, that sounds interesting, let’s meet up.’ So we did, and he said, ‘Your timing’s brilliant because we are looking for a women’s team.’ We put together a plan, he took it to the board, a five-year plan, where we wanted to be, what it would bring to the club, that sort of thing. They said yes, and that was it.”
Mitchell led the team to promotion from the FA Women’s Premier League in 2015, picking up the manager of the year trophy at the FA Women’s Awards as well. Without elite coaching credentials, though, she couldn’t have continued her role with the team in the WSL set-up – and she didn’t want to. The new first-team manager is 25-year-old Zoe Johnson, formerly development team coach, and one of the few women in charge of a WSL team; Mitchell has taken on the role of general manager.
“I’d been thinking about stepping away [from coaching] for a few years,” she admits. “It’s a much bigger job than I can do – plus all the other [admin] stuff, I felt I wasn’t giving the focus the team needed. It needed to be separated out, so I was quite happy, once I’d got my head round it, to step away, and it’s been good for me to have a different focus. When you’ve been doing the same things for 12 years, it can become a bit of a treadmill, although it’s been brilliant; to have a different focus and a different challenge for me has been really refreshing.”
In recognition of its role in the creation of football, Sheffield were awarded the FIFA Order of Merit in 2004 – alongside Real Madrid. Tims thinks that is an incredible achievement in one way – but an entirely ordinary one in another.
“Whether you support Real Madrid or Sheffield, we all love the game,” he says. “If you’re the first football club in the world, does every football club in the world not genetically come from you? Should they not love you? We’re not trying to be Man United, Man City – or Real Madrid. We just want to be the ultimate grassroots football clubs – integrity, respect and community, remembering where the game came from.”
You can find out more about Sheffield FC here.
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