What is a big club?

This week saw Michael Owen hit the headlines for the wrong reasons after controversial comments made about Newcastle United in a book released by the former footballer.

Describing Newcastle as only being classed as a big club “in the sense that it has a big stadium and a lot of fans”, Owen claimed that Newcastle supporters were more blindly deluded than most fans, believing that their club was bigger than it actually is. He cited a lack of success – either historical or recent – as supportive to his case.

However, before going on to criticise his former employers, Owen did at least acknowledge that fans of most clubs believe their team is 10% bigger than the reality suggests. Had he stopped there and left out the most critical – and utterly unnecessary – remarks, there’d have barely been a reason for the section of content to generate any headlines at all.

In my experience, many fans believe their team is better than it is, and pundits are always quick to feed into the building-up of teams whose greatest achievements are long in the past.

For example, Sunderland remain among the most successful teams in the country when taking into account league titles. If historical achievements are key to the measure of a club in modern football, they’d have to be considered among the country’s biggest.

But in recent years – even decades – Sunderland can point only to the odd top-ten finish in the Premier League as evidence of success. In terms of top flight performance since the mid-1950’s, they’ve been relegated three times more often than placing in the top half.

Everton are another good example. Top flight regulars for all but four seasons of their 141-year existence, it’d be very difficult to argue that Everton are not a big club.

But with only two FA Cup final appearances to show for their efforts over the last 30 years – one won, one lost – Everton are no more successful than Portsmouth or Wigan in terms of major silverware lifted over that period.

And then there’s the likes of West Ham, whose connection with Wembley or silverware often appears linked more to the role played in England’s 1966 World Cup Final victory over West Germany by a number of the club’s players. Yet try getting Hammers fans to concede that they don’t support a big club.

Compared to most clubs in the country, Newcastle United are huge. Owen himself touches on the size of the stadium and the level of support received. Only a handful of other clubs in Britain can match the following which Newcastle United attract.

And yes, there may be an element of believing that the club is bigger than others may percieve it to be. But that’s not unusual.

If polling the fans of every club in the land, there would undoubtedly be more than 20 clubs whose fans felt passionately that their club’s standing in the game was deserving of them being in the Premier League – some based on historical accomplishments and some based on more recent endeavors.

And it applies to fans of clubs more familiar with winning trophies, with Man United or Liverpool fans unlikely to concede that even Real Madrid or Barcelona were genuinely bigger.

But perhaps that’s just part and parcel of being a football fan. For Owen to use it as a critical remark wasn’t just petty, but demonstrated a lack of understanding of what being a fan is about.

Maybe in his retirement – from football and, hopefully, writing – Owen can immerse himself in the game as a fan a little more, and sing songs of how Liverpool, Newcastle or Stoke are by far the greatest team the world has ever seen.