How English is your club, and is it important?

IN THIS globalised age, football clubs have strayed a little from their original roles as standard bearers for their home towns and cities. They are no longer uniquely British, they are worldwide sporting entities with fans across all continents. 

With foreign ownership and players, overseas coaches and international financial backing, England’s football clubs belong to multi-cultural audiences. Old nicknames, which once provided an indication of the industry sectors they were once synonymous with, now seem very outdated. The old adage, the game belongs to the fans is simply not true, although without the patronage of the supporters, football is merely a product on a balance sheet.

Some clubs retain a distinct regional affinity, such as Newcastle United and Liverpool, but others have all but lost their original identity.

How can we judge a club’s “Englishness”? Maybe it is ownership, location, squad composition, sponsors, nationality of coach and contribution to the England squad, among other categories. The Premier League, for example, has a broad range of club owners who originate from the US, Asia and other parts of Europe and the Middle East. Only around a third of the clubs in the top flight are owned – in some shape of form – by UK business people. 

Using these values to determine the clubs who have the most “Englishness” can deliver surprising results. For example, Chelsea – a club that most people would dismiss as having very few local links – has a higher level of English influence than most clubs. Why? Chelsea’s squad may only have 22% English players and be owned by a Russian, but their shirt sponsor is a UK company, their manager is English and they have contributed significantly to the England squad over the past three World Cups. 

Tottenham, however, have the highest “Englishness” rating in our study, around 60%. The factors that make Spurs the only club to breach the 60 mark are their ownership, squad, provision of players to the national team and their fan demographic.

Liverpool, Manchester United and West Ham have a ranking just below the Tottenham number, Liverpool and United benefiting from their cultural and nationwide appeal while West Ham’s squad and ownership also make them more English than many of their rivals.

Two of the most “English” of the 20 clubs are Aston Villa and Burnley. Aston Villa’s squad is almost 50% English, their coach is also English and their shirt sponsor, Cazoo, was formed by a British entrepreneur. The club’s ownership is in the hands of Egyptian and American investors.

At the other end of the scale, the club with the least English elements appears to be Wolverhampton Wanderers. Wolves have Chinese ownership, a Maltese-based shirt sponsor, a squad comprising just 13% English players and a Portuguese coach. Wolves have yet to provide any World Cup squad members although that will surely change as time passes. 

Leeds United and Arsenal are also near the bottom of the pile. Both have very little Englishness about them at the moment. Arsenal have a US owner, a Middle-Eastern sponsor – including one of the few big stadium naming rights deals – and their squad is more than 60% foreign. Arsenal’s coach is Spanish and they have made a surprisingly poor contribution to the England squad. Only the club’s location and heritage is intact.

These calculations are, to be clear, based on obvious facts rather than emotion, a key element in football’s cultural footprint.  A visit to Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal would confirm that clubs from London have very cosmopolitan customers that include many tourists. Furthermore, crowds at Liverpool and Everton seem to have a far greater element of local flavour. Hence, despite a business structure of such clubs that leverages global opportunities and a position as citizens of the world, the local spirit is more prevalent the further north you go from London. Some clubs, such as Millwall, would undoubtedly claim to be very representative of their area. It is worth noting, though, that the dynamic between “tourists” and traditional fans is not always a comfortable one.

With the UK’s big six clubs creating multi-national teams and franchises that aim to exploit new markets, it is the smaller or less successful clubs that often have more “Englishness” about them than those which aim to appeal to fans from other continents. 

The bigger clubs attract multinational sponsors that can feed off the back of a football institution with worldwide potential. Therefore, names such as Emirates, Chevrolet, AIA, American Express and Standard Chartered feature in the Premier League. At the same time, the gambling industry also dominates sponsorship in the competition, an indication of the game’s stereotypical demographic.

The dilution of English sponsors has a lot to do with the economic condition of the world, especially in the years since the 2008 financial crisis. It also underlines how UK Plc has been preyed upon by overseas companies through the decades. Globalisation works both ways.

English football has, according to some countries, sold its crown jewels in allowing clubs to fall into the hands of investors, effectively severing traditional links. This is why many clubs have only a faint whiff of “Englishness” about them and they are little more than global corporates with a football team of hired hands.

Perhaps this does mirror life itself, with communities breaking down, economic imbalance proliferating and materialism eroding historic cultures. On the other hand, how important is it for a club to appear to be very typical of its domicile and nationality? Some clubs, such as Barcelona, have managed to embody the spirit of their region even though they have built countless teams from overseas players and coaches.

One of the appealing things about modern Britain in the not-too-distant past was the country’s ability to invite and integrate people from all corners of the world. In football terms, our clubs became a reflection of this multi-culturalism, but the “fantasy football” approach to team-building has meant players have become very transient, have little affinity with the town in which they play and are mostly “here today, gone tomorrow”. It is inevitable when your workforce is 60% foreign.

But this is the modern world, is it not? Overseas travel has become that much more accessible in the past 40 years and we are influenced more than ever by other nations and nationalities: culturally, socially and politically. Insularity breeds a lack of imagination and willingness to welcome new ideas. It was insularity that scuppered English football in the past and while clubs have a duty to nurture talent for national teams, they also have to move with the times. In fact, we all do.

In the past, football clubs were a product of local communities, but they are now business entities influenced by world events and the macroeconomic climate. It is fair to say that those that do not embrace the idea of globalisation are in danger of being left behind. Being an “English” club may actually be a big disadvantage if it prevents clubs from riding the waves of change.


Photo: PA

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