Sheffield is home to the world’s oldest football club, the world’s oldest football derby and the oldest football trophy, many of the game’s laws were established in the city, and Arthur Warton, the world’s first black professional footballer, played for Sheffield United. Sheffield is a football city.
It’s 156 years since that first game between Sheffield FC and Hallam FC. A lot has changed. The English Premier League is probably the most potent symbol of globalisation there is. An ever-expanding enterprise swelled by billions of pounds of TV money, crossing borders and time zones, the national game is a commodity crafted for the world’s market. With every passing season the relationships between people and place, communities and clubs that are so central to the idea of English football are fragmenting.
Between April and July 2016 we set about exploring Sheffield, the home of football, to ask a question: was football losing its soul? We wanted to talk to football people in this city, to listen to them, learn from and tell their stories. We think we’ve found an answer, several answers in fact.
Football, it seems, is just as much about the pleasures and comforts of routine as it ever was: it’s about knowing that wherever you are in life there will always be a game to lose or find yourself within.
Football is always about families: families through the generations, friends that feel like family, teams of mates that are like brothers and sisters. Football is about imagining a world outside of your own, going above and beyond to build and maintain something for the benefit of others and making sacrifices to get a game going. Football can pick you up, but it can drop you, too – the thinnest of lines between hope and despair. That’s why it’s the most exciting, life affirming way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
Football’s a language, too. Like all languages it is composed of many cultures and knowledges – all of them intersecting and building upon each other, as we learn through our differences.
Football is also a way of understanding place, and this book as much about Sheffield as it about Football. These football stories are Sheffield stories, portraits of a city, and a nation in changing times.