'Sleeping giant' or 'minnow' ...how do you measure a club's size?

The Weekend Dossier: Victory in the FA Cup would do wonders for Wigan’s profile, which has grown hugely already

It is hardly surprising that Wigan Athletic have been unable to sell all their ticket allocation for today's Wembley semi-final – they took only 340 supporters to Loftus Road last weekend for a game that was pivotal to retaining their Premier League status. Accepted it was a Sunday game with live television coverage, and many fans will have saved their money for today's trip, but 340? By way of comparison, League Two Gillingham took 511 fans a similar distance to Rotherham.

To their detractors this is proof that Wigan, despite their Premier League status, are irredeemably "small-time". Yet Wigan are, by some definitions, becoming a "big club". They are among only 10 teams to have been in the top flight since 2005 and are one match from being one of six to play in both domestic cup finals in the last decade. Win today and they are in Europe for the first time. They are also sufficiently alluring for their manager to have resisted entreaties from Liverpool and Aston Villa.

What is a "big club"? It is one of the most provocative issues in fandom, one guaranteed to spark a debate in phone-ins and the comments section of articles on the web. Supporters of clubs such as Leeds United, Wolves and Sheffield Wednesday console themselves that, while they may not currently sup at the top table, they are a "big club", a sleeping giant just in need of prodding awake by the right manager-owner combination. Meanwhile Chelsea, despite picking up pots on an annual basis, continue to be mocked by fans of clubs such as Liverpool for having "no history", in part because for 20 years they had just four major honours to their name and an average gate of 18,787.

"Big club" perception depends in part on timing. The Big Five who conspired to launch the Premier League were Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham. By the time the competition had matured, a Big Four dominated, with Chelsea replacing Everton and Spurs. Those two are now back in the trophy hunt, but have been overtaken by Manchester City.

Further back, a fan growing up in the 1930s would have regarded Huddersfield Town as a big club, while his sons would have no hesitation in thinking of Wolves as one and might well consider Preston and Blackpool similarly. Someone in their forties, growing up when those teams were in the lower divisions, would scoff at such descriptions, but would vividly recall Nottingham Forest conquering Europe and Bobby Robson's Ipswich Town lifting the Uefa Cup.

To my mind there are two measures of "bigness": historical achievement and supporter base. There is no doubt that Manchester United are now England's biggest club, as this week's huge sponsorship deal with Aon underlines. They have the biggest ground, most supporters and have won a major honour in each of the last eight decades. They struggled between the wars but were a powerful force in the early years of the century. After that there is Liverpool, trophy winners in nine of the last 12 decades and with huge global support, then Arsenal, who have the longest unbroken run in the elite, since 1919.

Historically, Everton and Aston Villa would be next. Both were founder members in 1888. Everton have been in the top flight for all but four seasons since, the most of any club, while Villa were early giants and have won the European Cup. But with three European trophies and a higher average gate, a case could be made that Tottenham are at least equal to this pair.

Newcastle and Sunderland each have a large and dedicated support, but only the older members can recall the glory years. By contrast, tomorrow's FA Cup semi-finalists, Chelsea and Manchester City, have gatecrashed the elite in recent years by dint of huge overseas investment. By modern measures (owner's wealth, global support and merchandising, Champions League participation) they are very big clubs, but their standing is not just based on the Premier League era. Before the arrival of Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour they had each won a European trophy, the old Football League title, and remain the only clubs in the country to attract 80,000-plus attendances to a club match on their own ground.

Behind that top 10 are that group of clubs at present brooding in the Championship: Leeds, Wolves, Blackburn Rovers, Forest and Wednesday, who between them have won four European trophies, 14 league titles and 16 FA Cups.

This view is inevitably subjective. Leeds' status owes much to a golden period under Don Revie which coincided with my formative years, as did Forest's two European Cups, achievements which compensate for their relatively smaller historic average gate (they would be 21st in the accompanying table). Wednesday, admittedly, have not won much since 1935 but retained a "big club" image for many years because Hillsborough staged FA Cup semi-finals. Tragically, that status was not matched by their stadium management.

There are other storied clubs in the Championship: Derby County, Ipswich and Burnley have won the league post-war while Bolton have an illustrious history. It is certainly arguable that if a Super League were constructed based on history and support a third of the clubs would come from the current Championship.

Though shaped by the past, however, football lives in the present. The move to the Olympic Stadium could enable West Ham to become accepted as a big club one day; they already have a large core support and respected heritage. The likes of Southampton or Cardiff City could force their way into the VIP area through further benefactor investment – though the new Financial Fair Play regulations make that more difficult. West Bromwich Albion will have their adherents, but now we are getting into the realm of decent, medium-sized clubs, not "big" ones.

What does seem certain, in the internet age, is that "big clubs" are going to get bigger. In the early days clubs were constrained by the size of their hometown populations: thus the clubs fed by the big conurbations of London, Manchester and Merseyside eclipsed the cotton towns. Now the entire global population can be tapped: witness the multilingual club websites being created to build on the Premier League's worldwide TV coverage.

Crucial to this marketing is success. Victory in the FA Cup would do wonders for Wigan's profile, which has grown hugely at home and abroad in recent years thanks to their weekly TV presence and multinational squad. Wigan have already made giant progress – 20 years ago they averaged 2,598 at the gate. That season, Fulham and Reading were in the lower divisions and had sub-5,000 averages. Both have increased attendances five-fold. No one would describe them as "big clubs", but they are a lot bigger than they were.

Chelsea benefactor Matthew Harding once said one of his ambitions was that when he offered someone a ticket to Stamford Bridge they would not ask "who are you playing?" but would go just to watch Chelsea, as is now the case. That, perhaps, is the best definition of all of a "big club" – a team the neutral goes to watch.

'Big club' top 20

1. Man United

2. Liverpool

3. Arsenal

4. Everton

5. Aston Villa

6. Chelsea

7. Tottenham

8. Newcastle

9. Man City

10. Sunderland

11. Sheff Wed

12. Wolves

13. Leeds

14. West Brom

15 Nott’m Forest

16. Blackburn

17. Sheff Utd

18. Derby 

19. West Ham

20. Bolton

This is inevitably subjective, but is based on fact, notably attendances, trophies, transfer dealing, stadiums and league performances

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