The cult and cliché of the ‘sleeping giant’

6th August 2011, the first day of the Football League season, and a Portsmouth fan calls up 6-0-6 on BBC Radio Five Live, after their battling 2-2 draw with Middlesbrough. But one of the first things he discussed was not so much the performance, but about how the club was a ‘sleeping giant’.

In fact, he said this three times, much to my annoyance – and also (understandably) to the Southampton fan who later called in to dismiss it as total nonsense. Because, ultimately, what is a ‘sleeping giant’? Perhaps because I’m a fan of a small lower league club and I see how many of the alleged ‘sleeping giant’ clubs have fallen, I have a different perspective on this, but to me, it is a ridiculous cliché, and there is no such thing.

Let’s take Portsmouth as an example to start with. Now I quite like Pompey and have nothing against them. But a bit of perspective here – it was only just over 30 years ago (1979-80) that Portsmouth won promotion from the Fourth Division. For years they were merely a struggling second tier side habitually avoiding relegation, until Harry Redknapp arrived and built a squad with experienced campaigners such as Paul Merson and Tim Sherwood, which went on to win promotion to the Premier League in 2002-03.

Yes, OK, so they have won league titles and FA Cups, but that was a long time ago. Has a few years of Premier League football, a FA Cup victory and even a bit of European competition, thanks largely to the efforts of one man, erased the memories of 40 years of total mediocrity? Arguably, Portsmouth’s 2010-11 season was merely a return to form prior to Redknapp.

There are better examples, and never is it more evident than in League Two, which has traditionally seen the odd ‘big club’ reach a trough. And it is here that the concept of the ‘sleeping giant’ looks more absurd than anywhere else – because who are the sleeping giants? We have two ex-Premier League clubs – Bradford City and Swindon Town. Bradford have history, albeit their greatest success was about a century ago, but Swindon are, to be honest, quite a small club in the grand scheme of things, though no doubt Swindon fans would disagree.

Then you also have Port Vale, whose fans certainly like to think of themselves as ‘sleeping giants’, and I’m sure some would argue the same about Plymouth Argyle, despite their lack of top flight history. Bristol Rovers, in the shadow of their more illustrious neighbours, have also visited the second tier in the recent past, as have Rotherham, Gillingham, Crewe, Shrewsbury and Southend. Oxford and Northampton (for one season in the case of the latter) even made the old First Division.

And yet therein lies the problem – half of the teams in the league could claim to be one of its ‘big clubs’, which simply cannot be the case. Plus, there are three divisions above them, two with many other clubs that could claim to be ‘sleeping giants’, and another with clubs that would almost certainly claim to be after being relegated, with 3 destined for that fate every year. Ultimately, you can only have 20 clubs in the Premier League and 24 in the Championship. There’s not enough room for all the ‘giants’ to squeeze in. Some clubs will inevitably be left out in the cold.

The other point is this – of course, if the clubs down the bottom were all so great, why are they down the bottom, in a league often condescendingly derided by fans of ‘big clubs’ as being a ‘tinpot league’ made up of numerous ex-non league clubs? You can blame off-the-pitch mismanagement, but to a certain extent, that’s beside the point. The clubs are down there because they got relegated from League One, and in turn from the Championship and, in some cases, the top tier. Your team is only as good as the players it puts out there.

Case in point – I was at Old Trafford for the League Two play-off final, and it was unfortunate that due to a combination of different circumstances (or, to put it another way, the FA’s absurd choice of venue), only about 11,000 Torquay and Stevenage fans made the trip to Manchester. While browsing internet forums after the match, there were some fans of other ‘bigger’ clubs in the league (your Bradfords and Port Vales) sneering at the poor attendance from two clubs who were both in the non-league just two seasons previously – and ‘non-league’ to them might as well be ‘pub league’.

But again, that’s missing the point: Stevenage and Torquay made the play-off final on merit, a tremendous achievement for two very small clubs with miniscule budgets. If you want to fill Old Trafford or Wembley, you can’t buy your way there or gain a free pass because of a bigger fan base, bigger stadium or an FA Cup win 100 years ago. It’s all about here and now – in other words, Mr Billy Bantam or Mrs Vicky Valiant, you’ve got to do it on the pitch.

The whole thing just comes down to a total lack of perspective. Talk to that Portsmouth fan and I’m sure he’d disagree with the Bradford and Port Vale fans who claim their clubs are ‘sleeping giants’ – Bradford’s FA Cup win was in 1911, and Port Vale haven’t won anything for 10 years and even that was the Football League Trophy. But a Leeds fan would likely tell a Portsmouth fan that he was also spouting nonsense.

And it’s not solely down to former Premier League or second tier status – there were fellow Torquay United fans who felt (and still do) that the Conference was beneath them, as if we had the right to be a ‘big club’ in the Conference (on an average attendance of less than 2,500) because we’d been in the Football League for some 80 years. Fans of long-term Football League clubs do look down their noses at non-league clubs – I’m sure Lincoln, Darlington and Mansfield fans aren’t looking forward to trips to Braintree, Alfreton, Ebbsfleet and Nailsworth (home of Forest Green Rovers, for the record) this year.

The very nature of the promotion-relegation system means that teams will move up and down, and this has arguably become more important. While many lower league fans bemoan ITV Digital or the rise of Premier League wages or the influx of foreigners or some other rash excuse for their club’s financial plight, I would argue that the single most influential change in English football actually came in 1986-87 – introduction of automatic promotion and relegation to and from the Conference, in place of the annual vote.

Suddenly the Football League was no longer a members-only club, and the open door for non-league clubs gave investors a new option to invest in. Teams like Cheltenham, Wycombe and Yeovil have done well to establish themselves in the League. That of course means that there are going to be clubs that were traditional Football League members but are now stuck on the outside – as with the ‘sleeping giants’, with a history of trophies and the top flight, there’s not enough room for all of them. Again, someone has to lose out.

The conclusion is this – no team has a god-given right to be good or poor, high up the leagues or down in the basement. You have to earn it. History is just that – history, the past, what has gone before. It means nothing if you don’t have a team that can win matches. And if you’re complacent, and think your club is too big to fail, just go and talk to a Luton fan, preparing for a third season in the Conference.

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