Celebrate Sheffield's Unique Sporting History

24 October 2013

From the backstreets of Barcelona to the beaches of Brazil, billions of sports lovers can thank one city in particular for their daily football fix. Sheffield might be better known as the Steel City, but one of England's largest towns is also home to the world's oldest football club.

Once part of the historic West Riding of Yorkshire, the City of Sheffield lies at the heart of a sprawling urban conurbation. Sandwiched between the nearby towns of Chesterfield and Rotherham, Sheffield rose to prominence as a hub of English manufacturing, earning its nickname 'the Steel City' in the process. Its industrial slums prompted George Orwell to write in The Road To Wigan Pier; "Sheffield, I suppose, could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World," but these days the city is more renowned for being England's greenest city – with more than two million trees dotted around its central core.

 Sheffield Town Hall and the Peace Gardens

A sporting claim to fame

While Sheffield was once a titan of industry, perhaps its major claim to fame is a sporting one. On the evening of October 24, 1857 in the suburb of Highfield, the inaugural meeting of what would become Sheffield Football Club took place. Still plying its trade in the lower leagues today, the club is officially recognised by FIFA as the oldest in world football. Its derby with suburban rivals Hallam FC – football's second oldest club – is likewise the world's longest-running and Sheffield FC has enjoyed a surge of renewed interest since celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2007.

Despite laying claim to the world's two oldest football clubs, ironically it's two different clubs which best symbolise the city's love affair with the round-ball game. Sheffield, along with distant Bristol, has long been regarded as something of an anachronism for its failure to produce a club capable of regularly competing in the top-flight English Premier League – and for that you can thank a divide forged long ago.

In 1867, a group of park cricketers eager to keep fit during the long winter months formed the iconic Sheffield Wednesday. The club would have become the dominant side in Sheffield were it not for a decision to leave their Bramall Lane home, prompting the ground's tenants to form a second club in 1889 called Sheffield United. They're now the oldest club in the world to sport the ‘United' moniker and today, the two Sheffield giants continue to divide the Steel City along fiercely parochial lines.

Making the most of history

Between Bramall Lane, Wednesday's impressive Hillsborough home and the still-battling Sheffield FC, there are plenty of sporting reasons to visit the city. However, Sheffield is about more than just football and after more than 20 years of regeneration, the city centre itself is experiencing new waves of visitors.

One of Sheffield's best-loved features is the inner-city Peace Gardens, which fronts the equally spectacular Gothic revival-style Sheffield Town Hall. Nearby is the popular Winter Garden, which houses a temperate conservatory perfect for exploring when Yorkshire's infamous winter chill wraps its ghostly fingers around the city. Meanwhile, Sheffield's renowned Tudor Square is not only home to the Victorian-era Lyceum Theatre, but also the popular Central Library.

Despite the visible remnants of its Victorian past and a lengthy industrial history, Sheffield can thank its historic link to the world's most popular sport for its place in the pantheon of the world's great football cities. They may these days ply their trade at the modest Coach and Horses Stadium in neighbouring Dronfield, however fans the world over owe a debt of gratitude to historic Sheffield FC on what is the 156th anniversary of the club's founding.

Mike Tuckerman

From Europe to Asia and many places in between, there's rarely a town or city I've not enjoyed exploring. When I'm not wandering the streets and discovering new destinations, you can usually find me hanging out with the locals at major sporting events.