The status of London football

LONDON clubs may not be setting the world alight at the moment, but the UK’s capital still provides 30% of the Premier League’s constitution, a figure that compares favourably with its counterparts around Europe.

There are six London clubs in the Premier League (Arsenal, Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Fulham, Tottenham and West Ham), that’s 30% of the division. Of the so-called “big five” leagues, nobody comes close: Spain 10% (Madrid 2), France 5% (Paris 1), Italy 10% (Rome 2) and Germany 11% (Berlin 2).

Heart and soul

London’s dominance is a symptom of its size as well as its financial clout as a metropolitan area. There are three London clubs in most lists of the world’s top 20 clubs, only Manchester and Madrid can get anywhere near that.

That said, it is difficult to claim that London represents the very heart and soul of English football. The professional game did not develop in London, it was a product of Victorian northern England and Scotland. It is far more accurate to say that the spirit of English football rests somewhere between Manchester and Liverpool. 

London and Manchester have each won 36 trophies in the Premier League era. However, London’s success is based on multiple club presence, despite the fact that only three (Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham) have won silverware during the period, with Chelsea snaring 20 trophies, Arsenal 14 and Tottenham two. 

In some cases, the capital city is the heart of a nation’s football. This is, to a certain extent, logical as the game would have first developed in the big cities. Central Europe is a good example of this. Clubs from Vienna, Budapest and Prague, dominated their domestic leagues. Austrian football champions have invariably come from Vienna, 71% of the time. Similarly, in Hungary, Budapest clubs have won 86% of championships and since the Czech Republic was re-established, 65% of titles have been won from Prague.

Overall, London has won just 21 league titles, representing 17.4% of the total. This might seem a meagre total, but Rome and Paris, capitals of Italy and France, account for just 4% and 12% of their domestic league titles respectively. Germany has not seen a single Bundesliga triumph from its capital, Berlin.

Arsenal were London’s first champions in 1931, the Football League’s 43rd season. That proved to be a shift in the powerbase of the game in England that extended into the 1950s, possibly a result of the great depression and a more robust economy in the south of the country.

The period between 1961 when Tottenham won the “double” and 1971 when Arsenal repeated the feat, saw the North take control once more. Arsenal’s “double” in 1971 was achieved in combat with Leeds (in the league) and Liverpool (cup final). In addition, Tottenham won the Football League Cup and Chelsea the European Cup-Winners’ Cup. It was heralded as London’s greatest season and the precursor of more glory for the capital. However, the age of Liverpool was about to begin and from 1973 through to 1990, they won the title 11 times. It was not until Arsenal dramatically snatched the title in 1989 that an 18-year stretch without a London championship ended.

Talent

Since the Premier League was introduced in 1992-93, the football world has changed. Arsenal and Chelsea were the first clubs to seriously exploit the import of foreign talent on a grand scale in England and by 2004, when the Gunners went through an entire league season unbeaten, the first team in the top division to do so since Preston North End in 1899, they had just two regular Englishmen in their line-up, Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole. A year later, Chelsea won their first title since 1955 with a team that included only three English players on a frequent basis – John Terry, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole.

The ability to buy talent from anywhere in the world, along with the growing wealth of London as a city and as a football attraction, contributed to moving the emphasis in English football. Chelsea’s massive cash injection worked in taking an under-achieving club into the very highest bracket, joining London rivals Arsenal, who had largely built their success through sound financial management and innovation. Both clubs became magnets for a new type of supporter, one that had bought into SKY, the Premier and football as a commodity.

How much of this shift was down to the continuing national over-emphasis on London has never truly been addressed, but the gentrification and globalisation of the game, creating a product appealing to a cosmopolitan, tech-savvy and mobile clientbase, clearly drew fans and business towards London-based success stories.

Hence, foreign business people find football from the capital an attractive proposition. London clubs are owned by investors from Russia, USA, Pakistan, Denmark and Malaysia, among others. Although people may not like it, the shape of English football at the Premier level depends on who owns the clubs and how much money they are able to generate and invest. 

Chelsea and Manchester City represent the new type of club, not necessarily the ideal scenario, but two sets of supporters enjoying a trophy-laden era at their respective clubs will care little for that. The opponents that moaned the most and demonstrated the greatest level of resentment to “new money” derived from wealthy benefactors were those that had enjoyed a cosy period of long-term superiority – Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United. Their supremacy was challenged and they didn’t like it, yet these clubs benefitted from the advantage of size compared to their opponents for many years.

In London itself, the resentment towards Chelsea still remains part of the narrative. Just consider that in 1988-89, just over 30 years ago, there were seven teams from the capital in the old first division and Chelsea were not among them – but QPR, Millwall, Wimbledon and Charlton were. That underlines the magnitude of change that has taken place in London over three decades.

Culture

Before we can consider London football as the UK’s leading football city, it is important to acknowledge the public and cultural appeal of clubs in Manchester and Liverpool. The population of Manchester is 510,000 and the combined average gates of United and City total 129,000. Liverpool is another comparable city, with 552,000 people with the aggregate across Liverpool and Everton some 92,000. London has more than eight million people and the average gates of the five Premier clubs from the capital was 250,000 in 2018. Of course, today the big clubs draw on much broader catchment areas than in the past, extending to global audiences across all continents, but these figures demonstrate Manchester and Liverpool’s historic success and the passion the local population has for its clubs.

London football is certainly more confident that it was in the period between the 1960s and 1980s. However, within the city itself, the gap between the top clubs and those further down the food chain, is quite vast. As for the top clubs from the city, they have all seen their income decline due to the covid-19 pandemic and the 2020-21 season could see another big fall in revenues while stadiums are empty. 

London’s size, culture and regional differences mean that unlike Liverpool and Manchester it is impossible to identify a club that reflects the city as a whole. Therefore, comparisons between the three prime soccer cities in England is a difficult exercise. Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and West Ham do not represent London in its entirety, whereas Manchester’s United and City and the Merseyside duo act as standard bearers for their respective cities. Just as London has many faces and identities, its football landscape is richly varied and very cosmopolitan. 

@GameofthePeople
Photo: PA Images

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