An intriguing and unexpected debate has begun in England in the wake of Jose Mourinho’s exit from Chelsea. It is this: What constitutes a “big” club in terms of English soccer?

Note the use of the word. The debate is not about what makes a successful club or a rich club, but a “big club”. Until the early 1990s, the Big Five clubs in England were Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs and Everton. They were the richest and the most successful clubs in the land but had also won major trophies throughout the decades.

Spurs and Everton have slipped behind the other three and Chelsea have overtaken them in terms of honours won and money spent, under the with most of the recent success bankrolled by billionaire Roman Abramovich. Money, though, cannot buy history or class.

Two things in particular have sparked the discussion: the attendances last week at the European matches played by Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs on successive nights and the comments of Arsenal’s chairman Peter Hill-Wood.

He, whose family have been involved in Arsenal for generations, dismissed Chelsea’s bid for “world domination” as “fantasy” when he announced Arsenal’s near 35.0 million pounds profits and their 200 million pounds turnover on Monday.

Chelsea’s chief executive Peter Kenyon once said Chelsea “would paint the world blue” and become THE club for London and be the richest club in the world by 2011. With Mourinho gone and Chelsea in relative disarray, those claims seem rather fanciful right now.

The night before Mourinho went, Chelsea had fewer than 25,000 fans for a Champions League match at home. Meanwhile Everton had 37,000, and Spurs had a near-capacity crowd of almost 36,000 for their UEFA Cup games. Arsenal had a capacity 60,000 for their Champions League match. It has to be said that those figures, at least to some degree, are a reflection of the history, the passion and the commitment of the fans of those clubs – especially Everton and Spurs who have under-achieved for years.

The idea of their being just a Big Five is slightly bizarre anyhow. For example, Newcastle United, should be counted as a “big club”, despite not having won an honour since 1969; you could argue that Aston Villa remain a “big club” despite going years without a trophy; Sunderland, in the 1890s were known as “the Bank of England club” and are still a big club, and Manchester City have a massive fan base as well. Big clubs aren’t just restricted to the Premiership. Both Wolves and Sheffield Wednesday have a history, tradition and big fan bases.

Football fans “know” who the big clubs are and what they stand for. It’s an complete mix of history, success, tradition, great players neutrals love and admire, and their potential to come back if they are currently languishing somewhere outside the top division.

Of course Chelsea are a rich and successful club, similar to the way Blackburn were in the early to mid 1990s. But a “big” club in the way real fans understand the phrase? I would suggest not.

Married to the amazing Sarah and raising Jakey, Daniel, Amelia, Josh & Jonah in our blended family. Passionate for Jesus, social work & sport.

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