IT'S GETTING GRIMMER UP NORTH
The current predicament of Bury and Bolton Wanderers has undoubtedly been a cause of great heartache with 279 years of history between them. Bury may well have spent the majority of their 134 years of existence within the lower two divisions of the Football League, but actually do have two FA Cups to their name in 1900 and 1903, the latter a record FA Cup Final victory of 6-0 only recently equalled by petrodollar fuelled Manchester City last May. Bolton Wanderers have spent more years in the top-flight than Bury and though never having been crowned Champions, they have reached seven FA Cup finals, victorious on four occasions.
As well as winning the first Wembley final in 1923, in front of an estimated 200,000 people kept in line by the famous White Horse - beating West Ham 2-0 - they were participants in two of the most famous finals of the 1950s. During the decade in which the game became enshrined as an unmissable national TV event, the Wanderers were involved in the “Matthews” final of 1953 against Blackpool. There was also Nat Lofthouse’s bundling of Man Utd keeper Harry Gregg over the line in 1958 – a cruel twist of fate for the side which suffered the Munich Air Disaster just a few months prior.
The decline of these two Lancashire sides however also comes to symbolise something of a long-term gradual power shift within the English game.
The shift is away from the old industrial heartlands of the North, North East and Midlands and toward London and the South of England. This may well seem like an odd thing to say while Liverpool stand as European Champions and Manchester City are back to back Premiership winners having completed the very first domestic treble just a few months ago, but as of 2019/20 half of all teams in the twenty club top-flight of English football are situated outside of these heartlands in the North and Midlands and mostly well to the South. Four of those sides sit outside of the capital (if you’re inclined to count Watford as part of the Metropolis, being situated as it is on the London Underground map).
How different it was in 1960/61 however, when just six out of the twenty-two sides in the old First Division were situated South of Birmingham. With the exception of Cardiff City, the rest were all situated in London with no team south of Fulham contesting top-flight football that season. Another signal of this power shift can be seen from the career of Brian Clough. According to former Brighton and Hove Albion keeper Brian Powney, quoted in a biography on Cloughie called ‘No-one Ever Says Thank You’, the man “Hated Southerners” – a theory supported by the fact than in a football career spanning thirty eight years playing and managing, he only ever spent a total of just six months south of the Midlands, on the Sussex coast in 1973/74.
In his 1994 autobiography, Cloughie stated that: “People go to Brighton for various reasons…..For a holiday, for a day trip, for a place to retire, for a Tory Party conference. With all due respect to the club and its fans, you don’t go there for the football. Brighton is not a big-time club and is never likely to be”. The great irony is that as of 2019/20, of all of the former clubs which Brian Clough played for and managed, Brighton happen to be the highest placed side within the top four divisions of English football. A list which includes quite a few illustrious names from footballing hotbeds with histories that include league titles, FA Cups and European trophies to their name. Clubs such as Sunderland, Derby County, Leeds United and Nottingham Forest.
To understand this shift in power, one has to understand England’s economic base and a similar shift which has occurred over the last sixty years or so, similarly away from heavy industry situated in the North and Midlands, toward service sector jobs in London and the South. Heavy industry was front and centre in the development of Professional football in England in the late nineteenth century. Every single one of the twelve clubs which formed the Football League in 1888 were situated in the North and Midlands. All were founded after the passing 1850 Factory Act, which ordered for Saturday work to finish at 2PM, granting factory workers the luxury of leisure time to either play in or spectate at football matches. This combination would sustain professional football in England for the next eighty years or so, with power largely resting North of Birmingham.
After Blackburn Olympic became the first Professional side to win the FA Cup in 1883, by the start of the 1930s Tottenham Hotspur had been the only club south of the Midlands to win the FA Cup since (albeit on just two occasions). It took forty-two seasons for a club south of Birmingham to win the League title, when Arsenal first became Champions in 1931. As late as 2004, Arsenal were responsible for all but 6 of the 19 league title wins achieved by sides south of the Midlands in 115 years of League football (in the fifteen years since then, Chelsea have nearly doubled this figure to eleven non-Arsenal Southern titles).
The influence of industry on the development of professional football however wasn’t just felt outside of the South. In London, Arsenal, West Ham and Millwall all originated as work sides from the factories, shipyards and docks that lay to the East of London during the last couple of decades of the nineteenth Century. With Football playing second fiddle to Rugby in the South during this period, ‘migrant’ workers from Scotland, as well as the North and North East of England played a big part in the formation of all three clubs. Even when Arsenal moved to Islington in 1913 to attract a more upmarket clientele by being close to the Piccadilly Underground line, they could still attract workers from factories situated along the River Lea, as did Tottenham Hotspur.
It’s also interesting to note that of the ten current Premiership clubs situated outside of the North and Midlands, for six of them (Crystal Palace, Norwich City, Southampton, Watford, Brighton and Hove Albion and AFC Bournemouth) their debut season in the top-flight came after 1966. Even a side which had a reasonably successful period domestically and in Europe between the early 1960s and mid-1980s - Ipswich Town - had not reached the top-flight of English football until 1961 and were not even Football League members until as late as 1938. QPR had also enjoyed a reasonably successful time during the same period, finishing as runners up in the league in 1975/76, FA Cup Finalists in 1982 and winners of the League Cup in 1967, though had never even played top-flight football until 1968.
If one game showed the crossing of the paths of northern decline and southern ascendancy, it came with Burnley’s FA Cup 3rd round home tie with Wimbledon in January 1975. At the time, Burnley stood just two points from the top of the old First Division while Wimbledon played in the Southern League. Just fifteen years prior, Burnley were League Champions amidst a run of eight consecutive top seven finishes. The Dons however left Turf Moor with a 1-0 victory, which amounted to one of the greatest FA Cup upsets. Within twelve years, founder league member Burnley were fighting for their existence with the threat of becoming the first side to be automatically relegated as a result of finishing bottom of the fourth tier, only to be saved by one point as a result of a 2-1 victory over Orient on the final day of the 1986/87 season.
Wimbledon meanwhile had just completed their first season in the top-flight, finishing in sixth place and within a year winning the FA Cup, having only been elected to the Football League at the start of the 1977/78 season at the expense of Cumbrian side Workington. Prior to the introduction of automatic promotion and relegation between the Football League and the non-league in 1986, the bottom four sides of the lowest tier of the League had to seek re-election from other Football League clubs at the League’s AGM. During the post-war era, this was frequently a case of a northern side being replaced by a southern one, such as Gateshead being replaced by Peterborough United in 1960, Oxford United replacing Accrington Stanley in 1962 and Cambridge United replacing Bradford Park Avenue in 1970.
What goes some way to explaining the sudden rise of the South is what was happening with the British economy. Manufacturing’s share of the UK employment market had peaked in 1966, with over nine million British workers employed within this sector. For example, in Birmingham the rate of unemployment after the Second World War rarely exceeded 1% before this point, with the City’s household incomes in 1961 being 13% above the national average. After 1966, London also saw the loss of 390,000 jobs within the industrial sector within eight years, but the slack had been taken up within the employment market by the tertiary/service sector.
As Britain experienced somewhat of a de-industrial revolution in the years since, London and the South East had seen a growth in service sector employment generally not matched North of the Midlands.
Birmingham as an example had an unemployment rate of up to 20% by the 1980s. The economic fortunes of the old industrial heartlands came to be reflected somewhat on the football pitch and though some of the bigger northern super clubs like the two Merseyside teams saw form that greatly contradicted what was going on within their local economy, there were plenty of examples of former Northern and Midlands top flight stalwarts on the wane.
For example, Blackpool and Preston North End, who boasted the talents of Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney in the early post-war period, both faced the indignation of seeking re-election to the league during the 1980s. One of Matthews’s other former sides, Stoke City dropped out of the top flight with a record low number of points in 1984/85, despite boasting the talents of Gordon Banks, Peter Shilton and Alan Hudson less than a decade and a half prior and needing another twenty three years before climbing back to the top flight. Leeds United had gone from record breaking League champions in 1974 to relegation within eight years by the start of the 1980s, needing another eight seasons to climb their way back in 1990.
Regions that were previously football hotbeds had come to suffer somewhat as a result of Britain’s de-industrial revolution during the Thatcher era, such as the North East. For example, since joining the Football League in 1890, Sunderland had spent every year in the top-flight until 1958. By 1987 however, the club had fallen into the third tier for the first time in its history. Middlesbrough were also in the third tier and in process of liquidation, just ten minutes away from expulsion from the Football League during the summer of 1986, despite a decade prior boasting a team in the top half of the old First Division with talent such as Graeme Souness. Newcastle also spent six straight seasons outside the top-flight between 1978 and 1984, before failing to keep talent such as Chris Waddle, Peter Beardsley and Paul Gascoigne on Tyneside despite achieving a Kevin Keegan inspired promotion in his final season as a player.
In the late 1970s and early 80s, the Midlands also looked somewhat of an area of footballing promise, with Ron Atkinson’s exciting West Bromwich Albion side, as well as League titles and European Cup wins for Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa and a League Cup win for Wolves. By 1987 however, all three Birmingham area sides had been relegated from the top flight, with West Brom and Birmingham City failing to return for over a decade and a half. Leicester City had been forced to sell off promising strikers Gary Lineker and Alan Smith and as a result found themselves ending the 1980s outside of the top-flight, while Wolves had fallen as low as the fourth tier as a result of suffering three relegations on the bounce.
During the 1980s, there had been a rise in sides from the Home Counties who challenged for trophies, with Watford finishing as runners up in both the League and FA Cup as well as League Cup wins for both Oxford United and Luton Town.
By the close of the 1980s, there had also been a record number of eight London clubs within the top-flight of the English game (at the time London only had eleven Football League clubs), which included Millwall reaching the old First Division for the first time.
An improvement in the economy of the North and the Midlands during the 1990s and 2000s saw a resurgence with clubs like Newcastle United, Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Bolton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers, West Brom and Stoke City spending several seasons in the top flight, along with newer names from the North such as Wigan Athletic and Hull City.
Notably however, each of the aforementioned clubs have also experienced relegation since the 2008 financial crash. Equally notable is the fact that as English football last season enjoyed the achievement of all four finalists for the European Champions League and Europa League coming from the Premiership, three quarters of that quartet happened to be London based. In 1959/60, the number of clubs outside of the North, North East and Midlands in the top four divisions of English football totalled thirty-four. At the start of the 2019/20 season, that number had risen to forty-one, with new names such as Crawley Town, Stevenage Borough, Cheltenham Town, Forest Green Rovers, MK Dons, Wycombe Wanderers and Peterborough United added to the list of League members.
Meanwhile heading in the opposite direction are former Football League members such as Barrow, Chester City, Chesterfield, Darlington, Halifax Town, Stockport County, York City and founder League members Notts County, who before their relegation last season had previously been the oldest club within the top four divisions of English football. The National League North, two tiers below the EFL, now counts as many as nine former Football League clubs among its ranks. The National League South in contrast has just the one – Maidstone United, who were members for just a brief three-year period between 1989 and 1992 who became defunct whilst exiled in Dartford.
As many as ten post-1960 former Football League members have since folded, with all but Aldershot, Maidstone and Rushden & Diamonds hailing from north of Birmingham.
On analysing the facts of the matter, it may seem somewhat hasty to talk of the South eclipsing the North, North East and Midlands when the latter still accounts for 56% of all clubs within the top four divisions of English football. However the loss of one side from the North, along with the threat of a possible expulsion of another is a further sign of the gradual erosion the stranglehold of sides North of Birmingham on English football, who in the founding years of the professional game comprised the entirety of the Football League and the lion’s share of Football League and Premiership titles in the years since.
While Man City and Liverpool seem to be continuing this tradition, it’s undoubted that the ability of the former to rely on foreign oligarch funding and the latter having a sizeable fanbase outside of the North which only them and Man United could realistically draw upon is what separates them from other sides North of Watford. These are most probably the biggest factors as to why clubs like Everton, Aston Villa or Newcastle United could not at present realistically aspire to regular Champions League football and daring to dream of chasing a possible Premiership title like a London club of equivalent size in terms of support like Tottenham Hotspur are currently enjoying.
One also wonders whether by 2030, when taking into consideration the possible effects of a no deal Brexit on England’s former industrial heartlands, the balance of member clubs within the top four divisions may even tip over 50% the other way in favour of sides South of the Midlands. Like many things going on in the world at present, I suppose only time will tell.
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