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Oldest football club trials new phenomenon: the socially distanced sell-out

Sheffield FC

Global pandemics are old news for the world’s oldest football club, which came into being when Queen Victoria was still in her thirties and the battlefields of the Crimean War were still smouldering.

Having gifted the game free-kicks and corners in their inaugural 1857 Rules, it somehow seemed fitting that Sheffield FC should be among the first to trial a new, very 21st-century phenomenon this week: the socially distanced sell-out.

The club’s Northern Premier League derby against Stocksbridge Park Steels attracted a capacity crowd of 400, all of whom had been obliged to buy their tickets online in advance, and which was significantly bigger than attendances for equivalent matches in recent seasons.

Amid a gloomy narrative of bankruptcy and government bail-outs, the current chapter in Sheffield FC’s unprecedentedly long history is a refreshing one of resilience and real hope for a future in which it will be able to better exploit its unique position within the game.

“We’ve been having our setbacks since 1857,” said chairman Richard Tims, who is leading the drive to relocate the club to a new permanent home, complete with a visitor centre, from their current base at the Coach and Horses in Dronfield, which they bought in 2001.

“We’ve come through fights with the FA, two World Wars, the Spanish Flu pandemic, and 144 years without our own ground, so we’ve learned how to be resilient. We’ve not just survived but we’ve come through kicking and screaming and now, arguably, we’re in the best position that we’ve ever been in.”

On the evidence of Tuesday night’s first home game of the season, Sheffield’s on-pitch issues might prove more acute. Three first-half goals handed a comfortable win to their neighbours, themselves a pertinent example of the value of grass-roots football given their fame as the start-point for Jamie Vardy’s career.

For most of the fans, who flashed their QR codes through the creaking turnstiles and were asked to partake of the hand-sanitiser perched on a pair of re-purposed picnic tables, the result was most probably an after-thought in a city starved of live football due to Government restrictions.

“We had loads of phone calls asking if there are any tickets left,” Tims added. “If you’d asked me a couple of years ago if we’d ever sell 400 tickets for a match online, I would never have believed it.

“At our level, football without fans is not viable because it is a double-whammy – we don’t just survive on gate money, but on income from the social club, which currently has a reduced capacity.

“Let’s not decry the situation – the financial pressures that are on other clubs who have contracted players make it a very worrying time, and no-one wants to see clubs like Bury and Macclesfield go to the wall.

“But in many ways, for us it is still business as usual. We don’t have contracted players, so if the season was halted our costs would go down as a result.”

Sheffield and Stocksbridge play at level eight in the football pyramid, comfortably within the cut-off which allows for crowds – subject to health procedures and approval from the respective local authority, which in some instances has stepped in to force some clubs, including Scarborough and Whitby, to play behind closed doors.

That sobering prospect brings another potential milestone at a club for which making history is almost second nature.

“There hasn’t been any live football in Sheffield for quite some time,” said Tims as he surveyed the socially distanced main stand. “Unless they are let back in soon, this might be the biggest crowd we’ll see in the city this season.”