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.


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.


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. 

Photo: PA Images

Where’s the next Bashley? Clue: It won’t be long coming

Wivenhoe, where Icarus once lived...
Wivenhoe, where Icarus once lived…

As sad at it is that Bashley are on the verge of collapse, no longer able to support football at Step 3, or indeed any step, we shouldn’t be too surprised that yet another non-league club looks set to bite the dust. You don’t have to look too far to see that year-by-year, the list grows of clubs that are living beyond their means or have lost the financial clout they once had.

In the mid-1990s, Wivenhoe Town’s ground was a monument to thwarted ambition. The groundwork for a stand to match their once considerable ambitions stood unfinished. Again, it shouldn’t have come as a great revelation to people, for Wivenhoe has a population of 7,000 and the standard ratio of audience to population would give them a crowd of 70. But Wivenhoe went through a spell where they were able to attract big-name players – John Lacey (Fulham & Tottenham), Paul Price (Luton & Tottenham), Lil Fucillo (Luton), Martin Gittings (Stevenage) and Steve Clark (of St.Albans fame) and others – to build an all-star squad to what was effectively a village club. When the money ran out, so did the players and Wivenhoe were left bereft.

Bashley is even smaller, around 3,000 people, and nearby New Milton has approximately 25,000 people. That Bashley rose from the Wessex League in the late 1980s to reach the top four of the Southern League Premier in 1992, is something of a fairy story, but seemingly, it has been a long struggle for a club that has defied the odds for years.

There’s a lot of bullshit in non-league football, gossip proliferates the clubhouses up and down the country. But it’s more likely the horse variety you can get a whiff of in Bashley. It’s a strong equestrian area. It certainly doesn’t look like a footballing stronghold.

So it must be tough to try and win over the locals. In recent years, they haven’t been doing too well at it – in 2008-09, their average crowd was close to 300, but this season, which has seen them cemented in the bottom three, they barely get half that figure. If Bashley don’t get a solution to their dilemma, they will become extinct. Until someone starts up Bashley AFC (2014 revisited), that is.

Bashley’s crisis comes at a time when [apparently unfounded] rumours persist that Lowestoft of the Isthmian Premier have financial problems. The rumours have been denied, but it is a sign of the times that news continues to leak out about the financial health of non-league football clubs.

Talking of the Isthmian, the current league leaders Dulwich Hamlet – it’s good to see them doing well – may have trouble ahead. Dulwich’s ground, which was one of the first new structures in the 1990s, has a complicated story behind it, and they are never too far away from a “Dulwich may lose ground” story. They are in the news again.

It’s either money or grounds that scupper non-league clubs. In the Isthmian League, clubs that have experienced financial difficulties or have risen from the ashes of other failed entities include: Maidstone United, AFC Hornchurch, Enfield, Lewes, Canvey, Carshalton and Grays. Others have had severe ground issues: Hendon, Grays, Wealdstone and Kingstonian. And this is all recent problems, we are not talking ancient history.

And the Southern League is no different, in fact is probably worse. This season, the three clubs at the bottom are all suffering from financial restrictions: Bedford Town, AFC Totton and, of course, Bashley. There has also been reports on the following having financial problems of some sort, ranging from near bankruptcy to sweeping budget cuts: Chesham (2006), St.Albans (2009), Corby (2012), Weymouth (frequent), Banbury (2012), Redditch (2012), Truro (2011), Burnham (2013), Chippenham (occasional publicised budget cuts). And don’t forget Hinckley have also gone this season. Others that have experienced stadium controversy include Cambridge City and Hitchin Town.

In recent seasons, clubs  that have run into trouble included Halesowen, Kettering, Rothwell and Bromsgrove.

What does this prove? Firstly, the frequency is alarming and has probably been accelerated by the economic downturn that hit Britain and Europe in 2008-10. Secondly, it demonstrates that the business model that is non-league football is broken. Clubs that have suffered from a spate of postponements this season are undoubtedly experiencing cashflow problems at present. I would argue that most clubs do not have the luxury of excess cash, mainly because a lot of it goes on players’ wages. And then, of course, there’s the floods, which could finish off some clubs.

The solution? Not easy, because unless everyone starts to see sense and stop the madness that is paying £200 a week for part-time footballers, often relying on third-party funding to ensure the club can compete at this level, then nobody will flinch. I would suggest the leagues should get together and try to introduce some common sense to proceedings. Surely local football deserves a long-term, sustainable and realistic future? As it stands, most clubs will see the only solution as increased admission charges and the begging bowl. I ask you, is that really financial fair play?