As yet another football season draws to its conclusion, much has been decided about the makeup of the divisions next season but a couple of issues are still to be resolved. One possible permutation of the Premier League survival race is that Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Hull City are relegated, to be replaced by Brighton and Hove Albion, Newcastle United and Fulham. Should this occur, the Premier League would be left with six northern teams; the two Merseyside clubs, the two Manchester clubs, Burnley and Newcastle. For the 2017/18 season, if this permutation does occur, those six teams from the North, one team from Wales, three teams from the Midlands, three teams from the south coast and six from London plus Home Counties Watford will compete in the richest league in the world. Sixty years ago, the make up of the 1957-58 top flight was eleven teams from the North, six from the Midlands, three from London (plus Home counties Luton) and one from the South coast.
So are things changing?
One might argue that they are. Over the duration of the Premier League era, Blackpool, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Bradford City, Leeds United, Oldham Athletic, Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United, Wigan Athletic have all at some point plied their trade in the top flight, admittedly with varying degrees of success. The clubs in the Midlands can also point to a changing demographic with the demise of traditional powerhouses such as Aston Villa, Derby County and Nottingham Forrest being tempered by the success of Leicester City and Stoke City who, despite odds being against them, have established themselves as a consistent Premier League side. It would not be unreasonable to point out the lack of top flight teams in the South West and East Anglia but in terms of heritage, we need to note that it was the clubs in the North West and Midlands that founded the Football League and clubs from the North that were dominant for vast swathes of the twentieth century.
What also needs to be noted is the plight of these once Premier League teams after dropping back a division. Many have suffered more than one relegation as they have struggled to cope with the realities of life outside the promised land. Financial struggles affect many clubs and it would be unfair to suggest that Northern clubs are disproportionately affected, particularly given the success of Manchester United. The Old Trafford club have been the success of the Premier League era. Much of that success came with its intelligent embracing of marketing, globalisation and corporate hospitality to add to its city dwelling and footballing heritage. They also had the good fortune of having successful periods at the time that firstly radio became widespread (1950s) and then the satellite TV era (1990s) which meant a greater spread of people associated with the club outside of its own catchment area. One seemingly cannot go anywhere in the globe without seeing a red shirt but even they are now struggling on the pitch in a way reminiscent of the period after Sir Matt Busby's retirement. The reality is that for the North, Manchester United and to a lesser extent Liverpool has been papering over cracks. Many of the successful Northern teams of the earlier twentieth century came from smaller towns but were then playing on a much more even financial playing field with their city neighbours. Then club owners and chairmen were local business made good, now owners and chairmen read as a global who's who of successful businessmen with fortunes to seemingly burn at the altar of footballing success. One might argue that such businessmen are less interested in history and more interested in investing in clubs that have greatest potential. For that, you really could do with a club with a large catchment area, marketing potential and affluent fans who are willing to pay the going rate to follow their team. Being in a city or near London would also help. It is entirely correct to point out that Manchester and Liverpool have areas of huge financial hardship but they also have access to considerably more affluent areas and and an ability to attract fans from across the globe. One fears that many Northern clubs are simply not attractive enough to those looking to invest heavily.
Examining the difficulties of Northern teams has been done before but there is a more concerning side that is often missed and this is what goes on at the very bottom of English football: the trap door to non-league. At the time of writing, it remains a significant possibility that Hartlepool will exit the league along with Leyton Orient. This will mean they join teams such as Halifax, York City, Chester City, Tranmere Rovers, Stockport County, Wrexham, Scarborough, Darlington and Macclesfield who have left the league in recent years and some have gone to the wall. The reasons behind the club's struggles will be multi-factorial but many live in the shadow of bigger clubs and there does seem to be a higher incidence of Northern clubs falling through the trap door.
The intention of this blog is not to come across as a dour Northerner with a chip on his shoulder. The author is acutely aware of the troubles faced by clubs elsewhere, Portsmouth and Coventry City being two examples. Leyton Orient leaving the league has also not gone unnoticed. Each club has to take responsibility for its own situation and indeed fans themselves have to support their clubs rather than seek the glory of associating with clubs simply due to success. There runs a considerable risk that football will become dominated by city clubs, clubs with the richest owners and clubs that are predominantly based in the South of the country. One may of course be entirely wrong and in ten years' time, Northern clubs will once again be more dominant but there can be a distinct feeling that football in England is migrating southwards. No club has a divine right to be in any division but the evolution of the game over recent years and particularly the financial disparity may just have taken the Premier league out of reach for many clubs.