By Tim Charlesworth
Proudkev recently wrote an interesting article highlighting that a disproportionate number of referees are from the Manchester area. I think this article touches on a much wider point. It is not just refereeing that is biased, but the whole of football in England.
I’m not sure that there is a conspiracy here though, its just that the North West is the heartland of English football. If you look at the density of population in England and Wales, and compare it to the homes of professional football clubs, you will see that the North West is over-represented and London and the South East are under–represented.
It has ever been thus. If you look at the founder members of the Football league, the North West region of England is massively over-represented and there are no teams from Southern England or London:
- Preston North End (NW)
Blackburn Rovers (NW)
Bolton Wanderers (NW)
West Bromwich Albion
13% of the population of England live in the NW (2011 census), yet half the founder members of the league are from this region. Today, it is home to: Man U, Man City, Liverpool, Everton, Blackpool, Burnley, Bolton, Oldham, Wigan, Preston.
There are towns in the South East like Bracknell (pop.77,000) and Slough (pop. 140,000), which have never had professional football teams. Compare these to Bolton (pop. 140,000) and Burnley (73,000). Both of these towns have professional clubs that were not only founder members of the Football League, but have also recently been in the Premiership for extended periods. The distribution of professional football clubs is remarkably hard to change, witness the outcry when Milton Keynes (pop.230,000) tried to rebalance things a bit by taking over Wimbledon’s team.
It is not uncommon for sports to have a regional bias. For example, Rugby League is northern biased, and Rugby Union is southern biased. Football is more universal, so the bias is not so obvious, but it does exist. The culture of football in the North West inevitably, subtly invades all sorts of institutions such as the PMGO and the FA.
As a result, matches are refereed in a way which is acceptable to people from the North West, but not to us Londoners, who have a subtly different understanding of how football should be played. When the Londoners complain about this, the North West dominated FA looks into it, and sees nothing wrong (The Gabriel-Costa incident involved two London clubs)
Interestingly, the lack of professional football clubs in the South East is part of the explanation for Southampton’s success with their youth programme. Southampton is the nearest major club for a huge section of England’s population, so their youth programme can choose the best players from an enormous population. 16.3% of England’s population live in the South East. For most of this population they have the choice of going to Southampton, or the difficult journey into London. The development of Reading and Wycombe is slowly changing this (Chelsea also draw young players from the South East), but Southampton still have a good advantage.
So why is there a North West bias in English football? I think there are a few reasons.
The lack of teams from London and the Southeast in the founder members of the league is not coincidence. The FA, at the time, was far more regional in nature than today (actually, even today it is more regional than you probably realise).
The early days of football were dominated by a clash between the northern FAs and the southern ones. Generally the northern FAs were dominated by working men who couldn’t afford to take time off work unpaid. The southern FAs were dominated by ex-public school boys and the middle classes who believed in the Corinthian spirit. The London and South East FA regions resisted professionalism far longer than the Northern ones, and so the northern clubs got a big headstart in the world of professional football. The game nearly split in the manner of rugby league and rugby union, but disaster was averted when the southerners finally conceded defeat and allowed professionalism.
Football is traditionally a working class pursuit. The industrial towns and factories of northern England were particularly conducive to the formation of the early football clubs. Indeed Arsenal itself is the product of the Woolwich Arsenal (a munitions factory), a rare example of industrial concentration in late nineteenth century Southern England.
Success breeds success in football. Teams that win, attract supporters, ambitious players, good managers etc. All of these things enable them to perpetuate success. We might note that Arsenal was the first club in Southern England to go professional in 1891, and is still, over 100 years later, the most successful club south of Birmingham.
So the northern teams got off to a far better start than the southern ones. Football is a great respecter of history (history plays a big part in the all-important concept of a ‘big club’). However it seems to me that we need a better explanation that just what happened 100 years ago. So here are a few ideas of advantages that the North West clubs still have:
Despite the romantic notions of middle aged men like me, it is actually very hard for a child to succeed in football. It requires the sacrifice of educational opportunities, and a certain mental toughness. This gives an advantage to boys from deprived backgrounds with poor education and employment prospects, of the type found in northern England. Football, like many other sports can be an ‘escape from the ghetto’. Indeed, a lot of successful English players are from exactly this kind of background.
There is something to do with open space. Football pitches are a problem in Southern England. Open space is precious in Southern England. The real estate is more valuable and it is difficult to find the space for pitches. Northern English towns are smaller and more compact, so finding space on the edge of towns is not so hard. Real estate is less valuable, and so there is less pressure to develop pitches into something else.
Southern England is also flatter and less well drained than Northern England with more clay based soils. We live in a wet country where football matches are likely to be frequently called off if pitches are not well drained, and Southern England is more vulnerable to this than northern England.
There is something about large towns and small cities that is particularly suited to developing children to play football. The north of England is particularly rich in these settlements. Living in a town is good for young footballers as the population is concentrated, and they have easy access to other players, and competitive leagues etc.
However, if a city is too big, like London, this can be a problem, because land will become scarce in the city and it is too far to travel out of town to find open spaces to play in. Kids in Islington have less access to ‘football spaces’ than kids in Stretford (home of Man U).
No town illustrates this better than Ashington. Ashington is a mining town in Northumberland (the North East). It has a population of just 27,500 (c 0.03% of the UK). It is the hometown of a bewildering number of professional footballers, including England internationals, Jackie Milburn (second highest all-time scorer for Newcastle, behind Shearer), and world cup winners, Jackie Charlton and Bobby Charlton. It also lays claim to Jack Milburn (368 appearances for Leeds, when they were good) and a long list of lesser professionals, including the much-hated Martin Taylor (who played for Birmingham in the match I can never talk about)
The middle class bias towards rugby – this is one of my oldest bugbears (I was made to play the beastly game for gentlemen with odd shaped balls as a child). Southern England generally has higher income levels than Northern England, and is therefore generally more ‘middle class’. (When I was a teenager in the mid-80s, the North Bank used to sing ‘you’ll never work again’ to the Liverpool fans. To my eternal shame, I found this funny).
My feeling is that northern children are not steered towards Rugby League for social reasons. So kids like me and Clive Woodward, who want to play football, are just allowed to do so. I actually cried when I read Woodward’s autobiography. He was a keen and talented footballer, but his father sent him to a Rugby-playing boarding school in order to get him away from his football friends (Woodward went on to play rugby for England and then won the world cup as coach -my sporting achievements are less impressive). I think this kind of thing is less likely to happen in the North West.
Actually the balance of power in English football is changing. It is noticeable in recent years that southern based clubs like Reading, Portsmouth, Southampton, Norwich are having the best spells in their history. There are also an unusual number of London clubs in the Premiership at the moment. So perhaps we could argue that the historical benefits of the North West clubs are starting to ebb away.
The growth of 4G and other astro pitches is starting to make it easier for Southern kids to access all weather football spaces
The English population has continued to drift from north to south over the last 100 years. Southern towns are getting bigger and more able to support professional teams (50 years ago Bracknell was much smaller than Bolton).
Football is becoming gentrified, and less shunned by the southern middle classes.
The development of local players is becoming less important to clubs as they use less locally developed players and source youth players from ever further. The location of a club is becoming less relevant.
The ‘headstart’ that clubs like Bolton had is less useful the more time drifts on.
So English football is dominated by the North West, and this does lead to a certain amount of bias in favour of the clubs from that region. It is likely to remain so, but the globalisation of the game and the slow disconnection between clubs and their local communities, is undermining the North West bias. It doesn’t make it impossible for London clubs to win, but it does make it harder.
19 December 2012: Gibbs, Jenkinson, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey, and Wilshere, all signed new contracts, as Arsenal spoke about the value of having young British players in the team.
On the Arsenal History review of the 1970s: January to June 1973 – being screwed by the league and the final before the deep decline.