Meet Richard Tims. He’s the chairman of Sheffield FC, the world’s first football club. In a footballing climate of global mega-star players and stratospheric wage demands, it’s his job to remind the world that the beautiful game was kicked off over 160 years ago by two pioneering young men from Sheffield.
Progeny have a strong working relationship with Sheffield FC through Richard Larking, Director at Progeny Law. We were instrumental in helping the club attain financial investment from LSG Sports, and continue to provide ongoing corporate and company legal support.
We spoke to Richard about the past, the present and the exciting future of this unique football club.
Richard Larking: To start with, could you bring us up to speed with a potted history of Sheffield FC?
Certainly. The club was formed in 1857 by Nathaniel Creswick and William Prest. They were members of Sheffield Cricket Club, who started playing informal football matches as a winter activity. At the end of the cricket season, on October 24th, 1857, the inaugural meeting of Sheffield FC took place and the world’s oldest football club was born. At the time there were many competing sets of rules for the developing game of ‘Foot-ball’ but the rules they established provided much of the foundation from which today’s game has been built.
As chairman of the club for the last 20 years, tell us about the role you have played in its history.
When I joined the club as chairman, I inherited what was known locally and anecdotally as the oldest football club in the world, but no one had explored the potential or sought to secure much wider recognition than this. So, when I got involved, I wanted us to start getting the message out there, for the wider world to know our story – our USP if you like.
We had some documents to back up our claims, but not many because, believe it or not, the world’s oldest football club had not had its own ground until 2001 and led a very nomadic existence for 140 years. So before going out and telling our story to the world, I wanted to make sure it was recognised officially that we were the world’s first football club, and we were on a firm factual footing. I spoke to a historian at the Football Association (FA) who confirmed in writing that we were the world’s oldest football club still in existence. Our proud claims and the provenance of the club were given the official seal of approval.
So, Sheffield FC effectively established the modern game of football?
Yes, absolutely. Our claim to fame is not that we invented football, but that we formed the first specific organisation with the sole intention of playing football. A version of the game had already been played – we’ve all seen the re-staging of those chaotic, village-wide football matches – and some existing universities played football at the time, but they had obviously been established for reasons other than football in the first instance.
We drew up the first set of laws in 1857 by which other teams played and formed the first football club which to this day still plays football. These are key points. Other clubs which were established before us are now no longer in existence and, crucially, they would have played by different rules anyway, so their impact on the modern game as it is played today was minimal.
A report in the London Telegraph of a match against London describes the London players as ‘falling about laughing as the Sheffield players butted the ball’! Obviously, this was the forerunner of the header, but it highlights how the game was evolving and the need for a universally agreed and applied set of rules. We like to say we brought order to the chaos!
At Progeny, we see ourselves as creating a new template, a new set of rules if you like, with our unique framework of coordinated advice and insight across financial planning, legal and asset management. It strikes me there are many similarities between our approaches.
Yes, there’s definitely a shared pioneering spirit. The development of our club is key to the birth and development of the modern game. We brought in elements like cross bars, corner kicks, free kicks, the first floodlit game was held here, the first trophies awarded, the first intercity match. These are all familiar parts of the game that we now take for granted, but they were initiated by us over 160 years ago. There are clear similarities with the way Progeny are innovating and forging new ways of providing integrated advice, leading the way in their field and shaping the future.
Without trying to be funny, an obvious question would be… if Sheffield FC were the first football team to be formed, who did they play against?
I’m lucky enough to do a lot of speaking around the world about our club, and without a doubt this is the question I get asked the most! The founders of Sheffield FC persuaded a local cricket club, Hallam, to establish a football club so Hallam FC became the second football club in the world. Their first fixture was played on Boxing Day 1860 at their ground in Sandygate in Sheffield. I’m pleased to say that Sheffield FC won 2-0!
Obviously there’s a long and proud history to the club, but Sheffield FC is not just a historical artefact, you’re a living, breathing football club with a future.
That’s right. Our brand is the world’s first football club, which is something that appeals to every football fan around the globe. However, Sheffield FC is the team, and they mean a great deal to our loyal fanbase. Going forward, it’s our aim to build on our heritage and create a sustainable football club that retains the values and keeps the history alive while carving out a clear future. Our brand and club are about integrity, respect and community, and a game that’s open to every age, race, gender and ability.
We want to use our story and our history to ensure that Sheffield FC is around for the next 160 years too. Football fans obviously have their rivalries, and this is a big part of the game, but our aim is to rise above this in a way, as without us no teams would exist. Our message is something that can connect with fans of all colours and has the potential to give this club a sustainable future.
How are Progeny helping with this?
After the global financial crisis of 2008, we had a few difficulties but the club continued and was run by motivated and passionate local people who were managing and investing in it. However, we knew that if the club was going to have a future we would have to seek to do more than just survive, and look for investment capital. Progeny were instrumental in helping us seek and deliver this financial investment into the club.
Our investors, LSG Sports, were inspired by our unique story and it was clear from the beginning that they also shared our strong principles of integrity, respect and community. We look forward to working closely with them and we’re very excited to have secured our future at the heart of the sport. Our aim is to take the world’s first football club and attract the attention of a global audience to leverage the brand into sustainability. Investment will help us do this.
Given Progeny’s ability to provide a unique framework of integrated advice, they are also perfectly positioned to provide us with ongoing support on corporate and company secretarial issues, commercial real estate and employment advice, as well as deal with our personal affairs.
Have you received recognition of your status on the international stage?
Very much so. While FIFA don’t ordinarily deal with domestic clubs, they gave out two special awards to mark their centenary – one to Real Madrid, and the other to Sheffield FC. The only two domestic clubs to hold the Order of Merit in the entire world. In 2007 we celebrated our 150th anniversary with games against Inter Milan and Ajax and a visit from Pele.
I have met a lot of international footballing contacts in my 20 years as Chairman. A highlight was Joan Laporta, president of FC Barcelona. He was hugely interested to meet me and excited to learn about the true origins of the game, and that’s when the penny dropped for me on the potential that we have here at the club. Any football fan, whatever team they support, should be as interested as the President of FC Barcelona in our story.
Do you think that, paradoxically, with the Premier League being so out of reach to many football fans, that lower league football has benefitted as a result?
Yes, there is a degree of that. The aim for clubs is to attract people to come and watch their local teams in the first place to see what they’re missing. For example, it’s just £8 to see one of our games and fans can have a decent pint of beer at half time in our local pub and come back for the second half. The experience is entirely different and lower league clubs need to get that message out there.
Finally, I want to ask you about being a custodian. We work with clients who might be custodians of their family wealth or business and help them grow and protect these valued assets for future generations. As a chairman of a 160+ year old football club, you must similarly feel like the custodian of a precious heritage?
Absolutely, and again, that’s an area where I can see that Progeny are absolutely on the same wavelength as us and in a prime position to help. As a custodian, I am the gatekeeper for future generations. When I joined the club 20 years ago my immediate concern was to stop it going out of business. It had never had its own ground, so my next goal was to find us a permanent home. If we continued playing in a rented stadium I’m not sure Sheffield FC would still have been here! I’m lucky to have been surrounded by a wider group of committed people who have worked extremely hard over the years to keep the club in existence and to ensure we can kick on and build from here.
What we have started to do is to create something that is more than a local football club. It’s what we call a ‘living, breathing antique’. We’ve always been old, but we are also a modern, forward-thinking, progressive football club. We were in the Women’s Super League last year, we have disability teams, Futsal, walking football. Coupled with our heritage and values, this is a pretty unique and powerful package and one that we can proudly pass on to future generations of Sheffield FC.
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