Style Over Substance? - How do we measure the size of a club?
Does size matter? I suppose any issue of Cosmopolitan will tell you, yes. But I’m not here to discuss your private lives. The issue of the size of a football club has been discussed and debated forever, but finding a definitive answer isn’t easy, especially as there are some factors which make up the size of a club that are purely subjective.
Many modern clubs can claim to be the biggest but their fans would only debate size in regards to a few factors, namely, trophies, attendances, stadium and finances. So, for the benefit of those who think their club is the biggest by virtue of the number of trophies they’ve won, here are the world’s top five trophy winners, in reverse order; Celtic, Pénarol and Nacional of Uruguay, Rangers and number one; Al Ahly of Egypt. So, there you have it, no Barcelona, Manchester United or Boca Juniors (and I suppose that top five depends on whether Rangers should be allowed to keep their history after they were liquidated eight years ago, that’s for another debate however). Al Ahly are, trophy-wise, the most successful, and therefore largest club in the world. The debate is over, goodbye!
No, you're right it isn’t over. The other criteria are a little more predictable, with Real Madrid, Barca, United, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Chelsea and Juventus all making multiple appearances.
For what it’s worth, Barca regularly appear at the top of those lists and should probably be crowned the biggest club in the world. Is the debate over now? Can we realistically call Barca the ‘biggest’? Yes, when you look at facts, figures and bank balances. Yet, there is a lot more substance to football than purely winning trophies and racking up Instagram followers, as I'll explain soon.
Before we get to that point, the question is “where do County fit into this debate?”. We certainly cannot compare with the financial might or the wide-ranging fan base of the world’s biggest clubs, but we are certainly much higher up the football ‘size debate’ than our league position suggests, though there is a case to be made for looking at our recent past and concluding we are exactly where we deserve to be, remember next season (whenever that is) will mark a decade since our last appearance in the Football League. But the size of a club isn’t merely measured in terms of what happens on the pitch, fortunately for County. As we have already discussed, past history, fanbase and attendances play a part in the debate and based on those criteria County are more a League One size club.
We certainly don’t have the silverware, but many League One clubs don’t, so let’s look at the other factors. Our average attendance in 2019/20 was 4,342, which was higher than five League One clubs and higher than 12 League Two clubs. During our last season in the National League North, the sixth tier, County averaged 4002, which supports the theory that County’s attendances will increase further if (when?) we win promotion back to the Football League. Edgeley Park also compares favourably to its Football League counterparts; the capacity allows for a large increase in attendances and the facilities maybe a little neglected in areas but after visiting regional football grounds for over half decade, it’s a fairly comfortable argument to say the overall aesthetic of Edgeley Park is one of a Football League-standard ground.
County aren’t alone in being a big fish in a small pond, clubs like Sunderland, Portsmouth and Leeds United, will also argue that they are currently lower down than clubs of their stature should be. In recent years they too have suffered from many off the field problems and a distinct lack of production and guile on it.
You’ll notice that when we talk about trophies and finances the clubs topping those charts are glamorous, well-known, and yes, ‘big’. There isn’t a mention of Accrington Stanley, Barnsley, Wealdstone or Walsall, but they, like County, are just as important to the size debate because there is another way in which we can argue the success and size of a club. It isn't exactly meaningless, but it isn't measurable in the same way stadium size or Twitter followers can be. It is also completely subjective, however, it is quite possibly the most important factor in determining size, especially to the fans. This particular ingredient can be described as what the club is about, the way it’s portrayed by other fans and outsiders and what it gives back to the fans and community. This is collectively known as ‘soul’.
As far as I’m concerned, and I probably won’t be alone here, you can take the finances, social media followers and trophies, bin the lot and set fire to it, because soul is vastly more important than any of those factors. We have seen many clubs rise up into the Premier League over the last decade; AFC Bournemouth, Burnley, Leicester City and Brighton and Hove Albion were all visitors to Edgeley Park in the recent past but are now a part of the established elite. At what cost though? The gentrification of football has seen clubs trade in some of their identity for a place at the top table. Can their fans be entirely happy with life in the Premier League when it brings increased ticket prices, inconvenient kick off times and a distinct lack of atmosphere? The grass isn’t always greener and County fans should be careful what they wish for as we step out on the journey with Mark Stott.
Soul is a vital ingredient of any football club and although it isn’t quantitative it is a whole lot more spirited and bold than mere numbers on a page. The work that Dulwich Hamlet have done to promote anti-discrimination and anti-homophobia is highly commendable. They may be a minnow in terms of the ocean which is world football, but there is plenty of positivity and energy about them and clubs like FC United of Manchester, who despite an element of pretentiousness, started their club with good intentions of abandoning the artificial and faceless world of Premier League oligarchy for a more simple and uninhibited version of football.
It’s not just about smaller clubs giving back and having that down-to-earth, feelgood factor about them. West Bromwich Albion have recently seen their Hawthorns Hot Meals initiative deliver nearly 6000 meals to local children who are most in need during the Covid-19 pandemic. It is clubs like these who are willing to do things differently and have an element of morality about their work that are the real big and successful clubs.
While County aren’t the richest or most trophy-laden there is still a lot of spirit and heart interwoven through the club. County are rough around the edges, no-nonsense and imperfectly perfect. We have a deep-rooted sense of pride and are a traditional part of the community, not a synthetic, pop-up club, but a club we County fans can identify with. I know, I can hear Michelle Keegan’s voiceover on the promotional video too, but it does identify a lot of positive traits which describe County beautifully.
Trying to quantify and measure a club’s soul is difficult, so it comes with a sense of satisfaction that I am able to sum up County’s size and standing within the game with a single quote;
“We may only have a small house, but we have a big bloody heart”
Thank you to Danny Bergara for neatly encapsulating just how County can stand up and be compared to the super-rich clubs of the world, we don’t have much, but what we have is worth so much more than anything material.