The Old Divide
Beyond the obvious big four, northern football is struggling against the economic tide
If, in many ways, the story of England in the last century could be told through the ascent of London and its surrounding areas and the relative decline of the north, the same is true of top-flight football. In the inaugural season of the Football League, in 1888, six of the twelve teams came from Lancashire, and none at all from south of Birmingham. For a century thereafter, football was one of “very few institutions in England that reversed the usual North–South polarities of power, wealth and influence,” wrote David Goldblatt in The Game of Our Lives: The Meaning and Making of English Football; indeed, 79 of the 117 league titles have been won by northern sides. Now, though, underperformance on the football pitch has become a metaphor of the wider plight of England’s north.
At this juncture it would be worth offering some clarification. While the four clubs in Manchester and Liverpool continue to perform strongly, these two cities have largely been sheltered from the worst of the socioeconomic forces affecting the north in recent years. The two cities have been dynamically regenerated and grown into economic hubs in their own right: in 2015, Merseyside was the fastest-growing major city region in the country, with Greater Manchester only slightly behind. The two cities also have far better transport links with the rest of the Europe than most of the north.
But performances in the wider north, and especially England’s towns and cities north of Manchester and Liverpool, have declined markedly in recent years. Last season Sunderland finished 17th in the Premier League, yet were the highest-placed team from north of Manchester; only twice in the history of English football has the leading club in the region finished lower.
It was the culmination of a trend brewing for decades. The first Premier League season, in 1992-93, featured 10 northern sides out of 22 – the four clubs from Liverpool and Manchester, plus Blackburn, Leeds, Middlesbrough, Oldham and the two Sheffield teams. By 2015-16 that had fallen to six and, although three northern teams – Burnley, Middlesbrough and Hull – were promoted from the Championship last season, there is not yet any evidence that the trio will be able to sustain long spells in the top flight. In every season from 1992-93 to 2003-04, a club from north of Manchester – Blackburn, Newcastle or Leeds – finished in the top five of the Premier League. Since then, only one team north of Manchester – Newcastle, in 2011-12 – has finished in the top five, and the top northern team since has finished 16th, 10th, 16th and then 17th last year. This trend is not confined to the top of English football either. In 2016-17, the percentage of teams in the top four divisions from the north of England fell to 36%, the lowest of all time.
In explaining the underwhelming performances of England’s northernmost teams, it is easy to point to greedy owners, knee-jerk boards sacking managers endlessly or idiotic purchases of over-priced players. But, while these have all been factors in the decline of England’s northernmost teams, it is not as if the north has a monopoly on such incompetence.
To explain the bleak fate of the north on the pitch, then, perhaps we need to look away from the minutiae of the clubs themselves and to the broader forces at work.
At the start of the 1960s the Professional Footballers’ Association won two landmark victories. In 1961, the maximum wage was abolished; two years later George Eastham, a Newcastle United player, won a High Court ruling that outlawed football’s ‘retain and transfer’ system, which required a player out of contract with a club to obtain their consent to transfer to another club. Together, these changes “began the economic process of concentration of success in a relative handful of clubs,” says Tony Collins, author of Sport in a Capitalist Society. They also made money a greater determinant in a team’s on-field performance.
In the history of English football, there has traditionally been one factor above all else that determines the wealth of a team: their home attendances.
But this link has now been shattered and the north of England’s club are the losers. The explosion of interest in English football since the creation of the Premier League, from the English middle class, corporate types and wealthy fans from overseas able to fly in for matches, has transformed what all clubs can generate in matchday revenue. But the bounty has not been shared around equally – the greatest benefits have gone to clubs in London, or those easily commutable from there, and teams with the global appeal of those in Liverpool and Manchester. This has meant that teams with lower average attendances than northern clubs are now able to out-earn them: in the Premier League season, Sunderland had the sixth-highest attendance but only the thirteenth-highest matchday revenue and fifteenth highest revenue overall, according to the Swiss Ramble blog. That season, West Ham had an average attendance of 9,000 fewer than Sunderland, yet their matchday revenue was twice as large. Sunderland’s decision to cut their season-ticket prices in 2016-17 was another stark reminder of how what a team can earn, and how competitive it can be on the pitch, is hugely dependent upon its local economy.
Simon Chadwick, Professor of Sports Enterprise at the University of Salford, is from Middlesbrough. Despite the club winning promotion in 2015-16, Chadwick does not believe that they will be able to fight against the wider socioeconomic tide in the Premier League for long. “There still seems to be a sense of identity within the town and with the football team, but increasingly this seems diluted as people’s mobility increases and as the balance of power in both football and the world in general shifts elsewhere. It’s almost like towns such as Middlesbrough are running, trying to keep up with the world, but they can never run fast enough.”
Once one accepts the correlation between what a team earns and how it performs – in Soccernomics, the authors find the correlation to be 90% over a 10-year period – then deteriorating results from northern teams are a natural corollary of the region’s relative economic decline. It follows that performances of England’s northernmost teams tend to be worse when Conservative governments are in power and especially during times of swingeing public spending cuts, which disproportionately affect the north where the percentage of the population employed by the state is higher. The previous low-point for the north in English footballing history was in the 1980s; in 1980-81, just after the first season under the Thatcher government had been completed, the proportion of northern teams in the top two divisions briefly fell to 27%, an all-time nadir. Rather like now, the 1980s were boom-times for previously middling clubs in London and the south: for Brighton, Crystal Palace, Luton and Oxford United then, read Bournemouth, Crystal Palace (again), Southampton and Watford now.
When it comes to attracting the best players, northernmost teams now effectively face a double disadvantage. They earn less, relative to other teams, than before, so can be outbid. And players are also less likely to want to join because many would simply rather not live in the north. So if they are to be enticed to the north, they demand extra cash.
“Sunderland is pretty bleak. So is Newcastle,” Roy Keane, the former Sunderland manager, wrote in his autobiography. “They wanted compensation for the cold and dark nights.” Sometimes even extra wages aren’t enough to make playing in England’s northernmost towns and cities appealing. “Every time Sunderland move in for a big-name target, there is the usual stuff about the player’s wife/girlfriend being unimpressed by the shopping on offer, and the lack of nightlife,” rues Paul Dobson, one of the editorial team at A Love Supreme, a Sunderland fanzine. “Given the amount of time players and their nearest and dearest spend jetting off to Dubai, Vegas, or simply London, this is hardly a valid argument, but the more times it’s repeated, like any other lie, the truer it becomes.”
The same could also apply to owners and major shareholders prepared to invest huge sums in clubs. All Premier League clubs bring enormous cachet to those involved, but some have much more than others. This isn’t just about performance. It is far easier for a wealthier foreign owner and his business associates to jet in to a game at Watford or West Ham, say, than one at Burnley or Blackburn Rovers. The Rao family, who own Blackburn, have reportedly not visited the club for three years; the team’s results have collapsed as they have ceased to invest more cash.
In this sense, then, the poor recent performances of northernmost teams threatens to become self-perpetuating. Where once northern teams could be powered to glory by local industrialists – think of Jack Walker at Blackburn or David Whelan at Wigan Athletic – now their millions look puny set against the billions of owners from the USA, China, Russia and beyond. So football clubs in England’s northernmost towns tend to pay far more for mistakes than those further south, in more prosperous areas.
Perhaps this is to overstate the extent of the woes of the northern teams. In the top two divisions, relative to population, the north is still overrepresented – it has 36% of teams in the top two tiers, but only 27% of the population in England and Wales, as Stefan Szymanski, one of the authors of Soccernomics, notes. If that seems impressive, it is altogether less so considering that in the north attendances seem so impervious to on-pitch struggles.
In the coming years, the relative weakness of northernmost teams in generating their own revenue will also become less important. Thanks to the Premier League’s new TV deal, from 2016-19 the proportion of revenue teams generate from their own matchday income, as opposed to media deals negotiated collectively, will decline. But attracting players to northernmost teams will remain a problem; “What’s becoming most important to today’s player is not the culture or history of a club but the location, for the family, and the distance back to where they want to live,” Gary Neville said recently.
For all that the Premier League is inclined to think of itself as the only game in town, the fate of its northern clubs should be set in a wider context. The sense of the north being dragged down by forces beyond its control is enhanced by looking to other sports and countries. Durham County Cricket Club enjoyed great on-field success while also producing England players, yet last year required an emergency bail-out from the England and Wales Cricket Board to remain alive. In many ways, Durham’s trouble was not of their own making but reflected the economic weakness of the north-east, rendering locals far less able to pay lavish amounts for internationals or domestic T20 matches than those further south. “All sports clubs and entertainment venues are vulnerable to their local economic climate,” says David Harker, the chief executive of Durham. In football, the plight of East German clubs also has some similarities with the north of England. No team from the former East Germany played in the Bundesliga from 2009 until RB Leipzig in 2016-17 – and their rise has been powered by huge investment from Red Bull.
None of this, really, should be particularly surprising. Sport, and above all the Premier League, is now big business, as it is never shy to remind us. A predictable result is that success goes where the money is - both to the clubs and the cities and regions too.
The conclusion is uncomfortable. There is unlikely to be any true revival in northern football unless there is a wider resurgence in the economies of England’s northern towns – and neither seem likely anytime soon.