Midlands early season gloom continues

THE bottom end of the Premier League is currently dominated by the Midlands, that area of England often overlooked when it comes to the battle for major honours. Leicester City have provided the most glorious moments in recent years, winning the Premier in 2016 and FA Cup in 2021, as well as enjoying a decent Champions League run in 2016-17. But this season, Leicester are struggling and sit one place off the foot of the table. Moreover, their manager, Brendan Rodgers, has been under pressure after some disappointing performances.

Leicester’s 2016 title win was a remarkable achievement, but such is the nature of the Premier League, it was always going to be difficult to live up to, especially as they lost some key players from that team in the immediate aftermath. Leicester had to wait for five years for their next taste of glory, winning the FA Cup for the first time after a history of near-misses in the competition. Leicester’s Premier triumph was a one-off, a moment in time when a team of journeymen produced a series of outstanding results, combining a strong team ethic with the element of surprise. It had happened before in football, notably in 1955 and 1962 with Chelsea and Ipswich Town respectively. To some extent, Nottingham Forest in 1978 was another case of unexpected over-achievement.

It was widely believed that Leicester would fill the place vacated by Arsenal and Tottenham in the race for Champions League qualification. For two seasons, they finished fifth, but they tailed-off in 2021-22, finishing eighth. While they lost ground, the two north London sides regrouped and are stronger than they were in 2020. Leicester have effectively lost the initiative.

The Foxes went into the 2022-23 season with a degree of uncertainty hanging over them. Their owner, Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, was badly affected by the pandemic owing to the near collapse of all tourism, and Rodgers was unable to trigger a squad rebuilding programme. The sale of Wesley Fofana for

£ 70 million to Chelsea looked like some form of desperate measure. The pandemic was tough on Leicester and they lost over £ 100 million across the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons. At the same time, the club’s wage bill reached a record £ 192 million, 85% of income. In 2019-20, with revenues down to £ 150 million, the wage-to-income ratio was actually over 100%.

Leicester began the season dreadfully and have still only won one game. They still have plenty of talent in their squad and it is difficult to see them staying in the relegation zone. But there may be sacrifices before they begin to seriously recover.

Leicester’s only win in the Premier so far was against fellow midlanders Nottingham Forest, an emphatic 4-0 victory at home. Forest are bottom of the league and have struggled to acclimatise after winning promotion. Away from home, they have scored once in five games. It was always going to be tough for the club after such a long time out of the top flight and even though they spent £ 145 million on new players, some of whom seem a little over-priced.  There was talk of Forest replacing their manager, Steve Cooper, who had been widely praised for getting the club back to the Premier League. However, at the start of October, Cooper signed a new contract that keeps him at the City Ground until 2025. Such a move underlines the long-term view being taken by Forest’s owner Evangelos Marinakis but football can be a fickle game. Clearly, the blame for Forest’s start to the season is being directed elsewhere and there were reports that Marinakis was looking to dispose of the people behind the club’s summer recruitment programme.

If Cooper appears to have been given time to get things right, there are growing fears for the immediate future of Aston Villa coach Steven Gerrard. Villa under Gerrard have failed to impress, his 37 games have yielded a win rate of 32% and they have scored an average of 0.55 goals per game. This is the record of a manager sitting in a very precarious seat. Many Villa fans have turned against Gerrard, which must be a big blow to a manager that probably has his eyes on the job at Liverpool in the not-too-distant future.

Villa remain a big club and their average gate of 41,500 this season highlights their huge potential. In fact, the city of Birmingham is grossly under-represented in English football’s upper echelons. It is hard for them to compete with the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool, but Villa should be better off than they are at the moment. Their revenues for 2020-21 totalled £ 183.6 million, which represents a mid-table position among their Premier League peers. One area that needs looking at is the club’s relatively poor record of generating profits from player sales. In 2020-21, for example, they made just £ 1.4 million. They made an overall pre-tax loss of £ 37.3 million and they have consistently lost money on a seasonal basis. But they have a low level of debt compared to many clubs. Although nobody would surely entertain it, creating a super club in England’s second biggest city may only be possible through merging Villa with their rivals Birmingham.

Wolverhampton Wanderers have found themselves on the downside of a cycle this season. After two seasons finishing seventh in the Premier, their last two campaigns have been less successful and in 2021-22, they were 10th. They lost their highly-rated and popular manager, Nuno Espirito Santo, to Tottenham and have just sacked his replacement, Bruno Lage. While Wolves said farewell to their coach with compliments aplenty, the decline at Molineux dates back to last season. In their last 14 games of 2021-22, they lost nine and looked quite ragged in the final weeks.

They have yet to replace Lage, but Nuno Espirito Santo has been named among a list of possibles. Like Villa, Wolves have the potential to be European contenders. They made a healthy profit in 2020-21 of £ 144.9 million, but their accounts did include an exceptional item of £ 126.5 million, which represented a waiver of debt owed to the club’s Chinese owners, Fosun International.    

How much of the current malaise afflicting midlands football can be attributed to the financial impact of the pandemic? Arguably very little as over the past decade, only three top six placings have been achieved by the region’s clubs, all by Leicester City. Most of the “big six” clubs in the Premier saw their revenues fall between 2019 and 2021, although Manchester City’s actually experienced an increase of 6%. Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham saw their income drop by around 20%, while Chelsea and Liverpool’s earnings dropped far less. Conversely, Aston Villa’s revenues went up from £ 55 million to £ 184 million, due to promotion, but Wolves and Leicester enjoyed rises of 13% and 26% respectively.

Football has always been a cyclical game, with teams building, peaking and declining in a relatively short space of time. The polarised modern game has created clubs that are almost immune to such cycles. Hence, it is hard, almost impossible, to break into the top bracket. Certainly the gap is daunting – since Leicester won the Premier in 2016, the margin between the league champions and the midlands’ top club has been 38 points, more than 12 wins’ worth of points.

The power in English football can be found in London, Manchester and Liverpool. In terms of population, these are three of the top five cities in England. Birmingham is the only city with more than one million people outside of London and it is the second highest city by gross value added. London may have more clubs, but Birmingham has one eighth of the population. Leicester is in the top 10 of cities by population.

There are clubs outside the Premier who might claim they deserve a crack at Premier League football – Stoke City, Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion and Derby County are all names that have rubbed shoulders with the very best. At the moment, the Midlands hopes rest with Wolves, Villa and Leicester, but the problem is, they may forever be in the shadow of the “big six”. It would be nice to think that might change, but at the end of the day, it is all about money and the clubs from the heart of the game’s roots are trailing behind the standard bearers of corporate football.

The day of the modest provincial football club may be over – will we ever see another Leicester, Burnley or Ipswich triumph?

IT WAS A RARE moment when Leicester City won the Premier League in 2016. It was the most surprising title triumph since Nottingham Forest won the old first division in 1978. It also reminded football fans there was still some romance left in the game.

Right across Europe, domestic football has become a case of “leagues within leagues”, with two thirds of almost every country’s teams having no chance of tangible success. Survival at the highest and most lucrative level has become the priority for many.

Football has become the property of large, metropolitan clubs. The prospect of a small or medium-sized provincial club winning the league is now quite unlikely. Indeed, there is something of a correlation between population and football success.

Clubs from large cities have more potential for economic growth and building mass supporter engagement. Of course, there are exceptions, but given football’s traditional demographic – working class, male, white – the big cities were always more likely to fuel success. Furthermore, big cities have the commercial and industrial links to provide income for football clubs in the form of sponsorship, benefactors and business opportunities. It is also a matter of profile, the more people there are, the more visible and embedded in society a club becomes.

Leicester, for example, is a city of 330,000 but the club is backed by Thai business, so any assumptions about the Foxes being a humble outfit springing a surprise become a little invalid. It was a shock for the system, but Leicester’s status was changing at the time of their title win. Needless to say, nobody anticipated they would be contenders in any shape or form. Leicester are certainly not Steeple Wanderers, but they do have to co-exist with bigger, more wealthy clubs.

English football’s early years were dominated by teams from the industrial regions of the country, the north and the midlands.

Before football became a free market – the first stage being the removal of the £20 maximum wage in the early 1960s – almost any club, with good management and a few decent players could take a stab at winning the major prizes. Go right back to the start of the Football League and Preston North End. Today, Preston is a town of 120,000 people, comparable to when they won the league in 1889 and 1890. Bank in the late 19thcentury, Preston drafted in a batch of Scots to build their team – up to six or seven played at one time – and adopted a professional approach and tactical awareness that made them too strong for the opposition.

At the time, nearby Manchester had experienced extraordinary growth  during the industrial revolution and its population was close to 700,000. Preston’s moment in the sun, little did they know it, was only going to be short-lived. The two clubs had roughly the same attendances in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but by the time United won their first title in 1908, their gates were over 20,000 and Preston’s were around half as big. Like many clubs in the Lancashire area, the industrialised growth of Manchester and the rise of United cast them into the shadows and wiped-out any first-mover advantage that Preston had benefitted from.

English professional  football’s early decades were dominated by the industrial north and midlands, hence clubs like Newcastle and Aston Villa enjoyed their most fruitful and influential periods. It was during this period that football started to define its audience – the working man taking advantage of cheap entertainment that acted as a pressure valve for the struggles and high poverty levels of 19thand early 20thcentury life in the big cities and towns.

The emphasis started to shift in the 1930s and coincided with the rise of Arsenal. London’s ascendancy – the city had not won a single championship until 1931 – came at a time when the north of England was severely hit by the great depression and industrial decline. During this period, clubs that had been at the forefront of the English game started to lose some momentum. In some towns in the north of England, unemployment was as high as 70%. Newcastle United, for example, saw crowds fall from a peak of 40,000 to 20,000 and also suffered relegation. There are a number of clubs who struggled to regain their mojo from the days when they ruled the game: Aston Villa and Sunderland are two other good examples.

Scroll forward to the post-war years and big names such as Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United started to win regular championships. There were exceptions, such as Tottenham in 1951 and 1961, Chelsea in 1955, Burnley in 1960 and Ipswich Town in 1962. but essentially, the balance of power was tipping in the direction of Manchester and Merseyside. By the time England won the World Cup in 1966, the two cities had won four consecutive championships and three of the previous four FA Cups.

Of the teams that pulled-off surprise title wins, the most eye-catching were Portsmouth’s back-to-back achievement of 1949 and 1950, Burnley’s 1960 triumph and Ipswich Town’s 1962 win.

Portsmouth’s win in 1948-49 could easily have been explained as a curious success in a time when the major clubs were rebuilding after the war, but to do it again a year later underlined their genuine quality. In hindsight, and considering the history of the club over the past 50 years, Pompey’s success now seems even more unlikely. As for Burnley, Harry Potts had a blend of promising young players and proven talent, while Ipswich’s success was startling because the club had little money and depended on the management and tactical brain of Alf Ramsey to take English football by surprise.

It would not be until 1972 that a team from outside the large cities, Derby County, won the title again and that was largely because of the exceptional managerial talent of Brian Clough, who built a team that combined function with form thanks to astute transfer market activity and a loyal band of players.

Clough repeated the trick at Nottingham Forest in 1978 with pretty much the same format, while Derby did it again in 1975 under Dave Mackay. Both of these cities had populations of under 300,000 but they were still bigger than Burnley (73,000) and Ipswich (133,000).

Increasingly, though, the growth of the Premier League polarised English football to such an extent that the possibility of similar oustanding feats now seems very remote. Although Aston Villa had a resurgence in 1981 and 1982, winning the league title and European Cup, even Birmingham, England’s second city, struggles to create a winning formula on a sustained basis.

Money can bring temporary success as Blackburn Rovers found in 1995, who benefitted from the cash of long-time supporter Jack Walker. Rovers won the title and sunk back to where they had come from in a relatively short cycle. That’s why the Leicester story was so astonishing, people had forgotten that clubs from outside London, Liverpool and Manchester can actually win trophies. Leicester’s success was only the eighth post-war title win to come from the Midlands, an area that comprises sizeable clubs with reasonable support, but has, in recent history, been an under-achieving neighbourhood. It should be noted, though, that the region has won more European Cups than London by three to two.

If there are limited opportunities in Italy, Madrid and Barcelona have stood astride football in Spain for decades.

The footballing capital of Italy is currently Turin, but Milan was the principal city in the past. Rome’s lack of success is quite notable, just five title wins between AS Roma and Lazio.  Italian football has seen unexpected triumphs, such as Fiorentina in 1956 and 1969, Cagliari in 1970, Verona in 1985 and Sampdoria in 1991. Of these, Cagliari of Sardinia represents the lowest population of any modern Serie A winning side, just 154,000.

In recent years, Italy has seen smaller clubs win promotion to Serie A, but they are up against it in terms of competing with the bigger teams. Given that Milan and Turin both have a rich industrial history and are now among the top 30 wealthiest cities in Europe, it is no surprise that the clubs from those locations have dominated Italian football. There is a very clear north-south divide in Italy, with a much higher level of prosperity in the north. In fact, economic sociologists claim there is no other country in Europe where the gap between the richest and poorest halves of the country is as large as Italy. This may explain why the only champion club south of Rome and on the mainland was Napoli, who won the scudetto twice during Diego Maradona’s time (1987 and 1990). Italian fans have often taunted Napoli’s supporters by referring to the city as “Africa” and serenading them at their own ground by singing, “welcome to Italy”.

If opportunities in Italy are limited, the same has long applied to Spain, where Real Madrid and Barcelona dominate La Liga. When a team other than this mighty duo wins the title it is often partly due to one or both being in transition or another less-favoured club profiting from an influx of cash. Either way, such is the strength of Spain’s leading clubs that success for anyone else has proved to be unsustainable. Perhaps the two most unlikely title winners were Real Sociedad from San Sebastian and Deportivo La Coruna, cities with populations of 187,000 and 245,000 respectively.

The sheer financial strength of Real and Barca along with their political and cultural influence and heavily cemented place in Spanish society, makes it almost impossible for another club to win the title. The chasm is there for all to see, so it is hard to envisage a La Liga winner beyond the top three clubs and even then, Atlético would have to overperform and perhaps overspend to consistently overcome the Real-Barca axis.

Large cities like Valencia (791,000) and Sevilla (689,000) have rarely had a look-in when it comes to the title. Valencia have won La Liga six times, the last in 2004, while Sevilla have just one to their name, in 1946. Athletic Bilbao, with their Basque-only policy, have been champions eight times, 1984 being their last title-winning season. 

On the face of it, Bilbao’s policy of only playing Basques, while a reflection of regional pride, did not always worked to their advantage. The population of the region is just over two million, a relatively small percentage of Spain’s 47 million. When La Liga started, five of the 10 teams were from Basque country and Bilbao enjoyed a golden period in which they won four titles in eight seasons and finished runners-up twice.

The Spanish Civil War ended Bilbao’s era of dominance. The national league was suspended but in 1937, the Republican areas of Spain formed La Liga del Mediterraneo (Mediterranean League) and La Copa de la Espana Libe (the Free Spain Cup). Bilbao did not enter – the Basque region was in the front line in the struggle against General Franco and most of the club’s players had either enlisted or fled to France. Although Athletic Bilbao have maintained their place among the most well supported and intense clubs, success has been intermittent and they have never regained the lustre of their glory years.

It is fair to say that Paris Saint-Germain, thanks to their financial strength and backing, are enjoying their glory years at the moment. Ligue 1 has been monopolised and the financial gulf between PSG and the rest of the division is now vast. PSG have elevated the status of Paris as a football city after years in which the French capital seemed pre-occupied with other activities.

Historically, French football has been far more democratic than other countries. Success has been shared around, with Marseille and Saint-Etienne winning more titles (10) than any other clubs. Interestingly, while Marseille has 900,000 residents, Saint-Etienne has just 175,000, underlining the achievements of the later in the 1970s when they performed exceptionally well domestically and on the European stage.

Population, in the past, appears to have had little say in who wins the French league, Lens (31,000), Monaco (38,000) and Auxerre (37,000) have all won the title. However, since 2012-13, PSG have won eight out of the last 10 Ligue 1 championships, with Monaco and Lille interrupting the sequence. Were it not for PSG’s somewhat artificial wealth, it is possible that French football would be the most competitive among the top leagues, with well-supported clubs like Marseille (Average 50,361) and Lyon (49,079) likely to be among the front-runners. As it is, though, France’s football capital is now its principal city.

Only today can Paris claim to be the epicentre of French football.

The same cannot be said of Germany, where the balance of footballing power has long been in the hands of Munich. The country’s history certainly got in the way of Berlin ever assuming that position – the last Berlin champion of any kind was East Germany’s Dynamo Berlin, who – state-assisted – won 10 consecutive DDR-Oberliga titles. Hertha Berlin in the west last won a title in 1931. In 2019-20, Union Berlin will join Hertha in the Bundesliga for the first time.

Bayern Munich, once they were admitted to the new German league, didn’t win their first Bundesliga title until 1969. German football, until that point, had been very open although in the inter-war years, Nuremberg had been the most successful team with five titles. In the post-war world, there were 11 different German champions in 16 seasons.

Munich, in many ways, was a natural city to become the standard-bearer for German football, indeed post-war recovery. Munich played a key role in the economic, political and cultural redevelopment of the nation, earning a nickname, Heimliche Haupstadt – the secret capital.

Bayern’s rise started at a time when Munich was heavily in the spotlight. In 1972, the city hosted the Olympic Games and two years later, when Munich was still reeling from the tragic killing of Israeli athletes in the Olympic Village by terrorists, the World Cup final was held in the magnificent Olympic Stadium.

It is difficult to call Munich, or any of the major cities in Germany, provincial. The country has a largely decentralised economy, a result of the structure set-up by the constitution. The capital is Berlin, but the financial centre is most certainly Frankfurt. Large economic hubs are spread right across the nation – Munich, Stuttgart and the Ruhr are good examples. German football, for a long while, mirrored, this, although the modern “industry” has placed Bayern very much at the top as a kind of “national champion” in much the same way that BMW, Bosch, Porsche and Siemens are viewed.

Another German company and national champion, Volkswagen, have backed Wolfsburg, a club from a city of 123,000 that won the Bundesliga in 2008-09. Wolfsburg are a relatively unpopular club due to the advantages of being connected to VW, but in the modern era, their financial clout has been somewhat diminished. Nevertheless, Wolfsburg are the last club other than Bayern and Borussia Dortmund to win the Bundesliga.

Generally, across Europe, due to economics, politics and demographics, capital city clubs have dominated their leagues. In the old Soviet Union, Moscow was the major power until the 1960s and it was not until 1961 that Dynamo Kiev broke the capital’s hold on the USSR football scene. But into the 1970s and 1980s, Moscow sides rarely got hold of the silverware, with teams like Ararat Erevan (Armenia), Dinamo Tbilisi (Georgia) and Dnipro (Ukraine) coming to the fore.

However, since the break-up of the union, Russian football has seen Moscow sides win 19 out of the last 30 championships. Clubs like Spartak, Lokomotive and CSKA have been challenged, though, with Zenit St. Petersburg emerging as a power, thanks to the support of energy giant Gazprom. It is likely that future Russian title battles will be between Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Outside Lisbon and Porto, Portuguese clubs have very little chance of winning a major prize.

In Portugal, the league has never been won outside of Lisbon (57 wins) and Porto (31). It is often forgotten that Portugal is a relatively small country, having a population of 10 million and a capital with half a million people. Benfica, with 37 title wins, has an average gate – in normal times – of more than 50,000 which represents 10% of the Lisbon population, although the club has something of a “national” status with fans coming all over Portugal. But there is little doubt that provincial clubs have no chance of major success – the differential between the top clubs (Benfica, Porto and Sporting) and the rest is substantial.

In the Netherlands, the Eredivisie title has been dominated by four cities: Amsterdam, Eindhoven, Rotterdam and the Hague. Between them, they have won 114 championships versus 28 among the rest of the country. Eindhoven is a city of 228,000 but PSV’s success has, historically, been underpinned by the club’s relationship with electronics giant Philips. Consequently, in terms of population, Eindhoven has over-performed, but Utrecht, a bigger city with 345,000 people, has one title.

Elsewhere in Europe, cities such as Brussels, Budapest, Istanbul, Prague and Vienna have been at the heart of football’s development. In Austria, which is now dominated by RB Salzburg thanks to the financial impetus provided by the Red Bull drinks company, Vienna has won 78 of 110 championships, but between 1911 and 1923, the Austrian league comprised only clubs from the capital. The last time a club from Vienna won the Bundesliga was 2013 (Austria Wien), while Rapid, the most decorated club in Austria, were last champions in 2008. Prior to Red Bull’s monopolisation of the league, Sturm Graz were the last provincial club to finish on top (2011).

Budapest has always been a big football city but Hungarian football has declined over the past 50 years and has always struggled to live up to its golden age of the 1950s. In the 21stcentury, clubs from Budapest have been challenged by rivals from Debrecen (population 202,000) and the city of Székesfehérvár (pop. 98,000), which plays host to Videoton.

Debrecen is the second most important city in Hungary and its football club has received generous government support. From 2005 to 2014, Debrecen won seven Hungarian titles. Budapest, meanwhile, went through a lean spell and from 2008 when MTK were champions to 2015, the city did not win the league once. Ferencvaros restored order in 2016.

Similarly, the Czech Republic’s capital, Prague, has been confronted in recent years by Viktoria Plzen from the famous beer-making city. Prague has won 66 out of 95 titles, with Sparta and Slavia leading the way. But two of the historic and famous names in Czech football, Dukla and Bohemians, have not lifted the crown since 1982 and 1983 respectively. Other cities have not won as many prizes and one might expect, such as Brno (one) and Ostrava (four).

Istanbul is a city that has dominated its domestic football, although it is not Turkey’s capital. Passionate it may be, but Turkish football has been overwhelmingly run by Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe and Besiktas, who have won 53 out of 63 championships.

Ankara, the capital, has yet to deliver a title, although the top divison, the Süper Lig, includes two clubs from the city. The last team from outside Istanbul to win the championship was Bursapor in 2010. Given the financial clout of Istanbul’s big three, it seems unlikely that the balance of power in Turkish football will shift in the near future.

Switzerland has seen a sea change in the past few seasons. Young Boys Bern  revived the notion the Swiss capital had an important role to play, winning the title for four consecutive seasons between 2018 and 2021 after a period of Basel dominance. Zürich, which is not only Switzerland’s financial centre but also a magnet for research and development, has secured more league titles than any other Swiss centre and in 2022, FC Zürich won their first title since 2009.

In Belgium, Bruges have won the last three league championships and you have to go back to 2017 for the most successful club, Anderlecht’s last title.  Bruges have been champions five times in seven years, and Anderlecht are also challanged by Genk and Gent. Genk, a city that has an important role in Belgian industry, has a population of 66,000 of which more than 50% are foreign. It is the third most significant city in Flanders. Although the national team is strong and the country has a good record of exporting top players, Belgium’s clubs struggle to compete in Europe.

It is no coincidence that the clubs that have been dominating their leagues over the last 10 years – Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona, are from some of the richest and most populous cities in Europe.

Wealth tends to gravitate towards large cities where opportunities abound and commerce can flourish. Football is now an industry and therefore, it too benefits from the advantages of a thriving metropolis. The combination of critical mass, commercial potential and globalisation creates a compelling mix that will probably ensure football will, for the foreseeable future, be led by the metropolitan elite. However, there is always room for the unexpected and that’s why people still flock to football even though for many clubs, success can only ever be temporary and may be as frequent as Halley’s Comet.

The achievements of smaller, modest clubs like Ipswich Town, Leicester City, Burnley, Cagliari, Verona, Lens, Kaiserslautern and Deportivo La Coruna, among others, can never be taken away. The question is, with such an emphasis on cash generating clubs from principal cities, can it really happen again?