Comment: Sheffield should shout about its place in football history - and this is how they should do it
A few short months ago, a colleague from across the blue-red divide of The Star sports desk penned a few words that crunched cogs into gear in the slow-moving mind of yours truly.
The column, set to the backdrop of to you-know-who’s impending return to the Premier League, questioned the sad reality that for all the rich football heritage, for all the pioneering efforts, victories and tragedies of this great sporting city, few obvious reminders of Sheffield’s place at the forefront of footballing history exist in and around town.
And for a wet-behind-the-ears Wednesday writer brand new to this part of the world, it struck a chord.
Stadium-situated statues are commonplace of course and Bramall Lane hosts to two of its own, but in other cities their football heritage is given a starring role in town centre topography; Jackie Milburn in Newcastle, Brian Clough in Nottingham, Duncan Edwards in Dudley.
Handsome murals of modern heroes scale buildings in Leicester, Liverpool and Leeds and football museums have been hauled up in Manchester and Glasgow.
So how on earth, as a sport-mad, history-enthused newbie wandering around trying to learn a thing or two about the Steel City, did I fail to bump into a gleaming city centre reminder of Sheffield’s right to be recognised as the true home of football? It’s a question worth revisiting.
Perhaps the city’s two sides have been too modest for too long, perhaps money is too tight and perhaps the footballing divide runs too deep to open up a contentious debate over of who or what, where or why any statue would come to pass.
The FA are certainly not an organisation that shy away from boasting their wares, and while drinking in the build-up to the 1,000th international fixture of the England men’s national team this week, a figurehead sprung to mind well worthy of bronze immortality, one that played an indelible part in the early history of not only both Wednesday and United, but the national game itself.
Born in Sheffield, where he lived all his life, Sir Charles Clegg played in the very first of those 1,000 England matches against Scotland back in 1872.
Many will know of Clegg’s achievements, of course. A top-level player, referee and most notably administrator, his nickname as ‘The Napoleon of Football’ was only ever a slight over exaggeration – his influence in the game would stretch far further than the little leader’s military escapades.
Together with his brother William he played for Sheffield FC – the world’s oldest club – and played in the first-ever floodlit football match as captain in 1878.
He went on to play for Wednesday, his favourite club, and went on to become the Owls’ chairman. But were it not for him, Sheffield United may not have ever existed either, for he was the chairman of the cricket club that first proposed football be played at Bramall Lane.
He went on to become chairman and president there, too, and in his later years became chairman of the Football Association. He took on FIFA over the issue of professionalism and became the only person to date to hold the roles of FA chairman and president simultaneously. He refereed two FA Cup finals and two internationals.
In 1927 he was knighted and though his citation did not mention football, he is generally regarded as the first person to receive a knighthood for services to football.
It is perhaps important to remember that Roy of the Rovers was not first published until 1954.
And so if it can be done, if that cross-city divide can be overlooked and the city can dig between the sofa cushions to build something that signals the fact that visiting football fans are on sacred ground, then Sir Charles Clegg would surely be the face worthy of joining the likes of Milburn, Clough and Edwards.
Owls and Blades, rules and associations, Hallam and Youdan. For all the billions, the Champions Leagues and the 1,000th internationals, football would be unrecognisable without the influence of this great city. Sacred ground this certainly is.