Why is football biased towards the North West of England?

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 underrepresented.

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)
    Aston Villa
    Wolverhampton Wanderers
    Blackburn Rovers (NW)
    Bolton Wanderers (NW)
    West Bromwich Albion
    Accrington (NW)
    Everton (NW)
    Burnley (NW)
    Derby County
    Notts County
    Stoke City

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 1989: Rangers 1 Arsenal 2, Zenith Data Systems Challenge Cup between the champions of Scotland and England.  Arsenal won 2-1.  There is a video on You Tube.

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.


21 Replies to “Why is football biased towards the North West of England?”

  1. Thanks for this piece Tim. I really enjoyed it.

    My family moved out of north London when I was 11 and moved to Poole in Dorset where I attended Poole Grammar School – a rugby playing institution with just a little football for the oiks. Nearest football teams were Poole Town (currently about 200 points clear at the top of the Southern League Premier) and Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic (now beating Chelsea in the Premier League).

    My eternal wish is for those little clubs to bring enlightenment to Dorset.

  2. A well written and enjoyable Saturday morn read. The English prem (inc former Div 1) is dominated by successful teams from NW England so any others with designs on the title can gauge their team progress by how well they perform at their NW competitors grounds. Having said that the commercial appeal of London is likely to redress things in favour of London based fball enterprises.

  3. Tim,
    An interesting post to which I would like to add the presence in many towns of the North West of the good old Rec. Cricket was probably as popular as rugby league and the wicket at the Rec was as cherished by the local community as was that in the County ground.
    In 1940/41 when I lived “oop north” it was a shame to see so many Recs overgrown and neglected and I hope that reinstatement was swift and permanent after the war ended. 😉

  4. Thanks Tim – you kept me reading to the end (always a sign of a well written and interesting article).

    It is always worthwhile bearing history in mind when considering present predicaments.

    I wonder how the game would look if the existing institutions were dissolved and we started from fresh.
    Nah, thinking about it, that could be even worse.
    It’s always ‘the wrong sort’ that take the lead in these things and we’d end up with something even worse – likely with a global financial bias.

  5. Great piece.

    In Italy, they usually say it’s about rich North against poor South. Juventus, Inter and Milan, three most successful clubs in Italy, represent North and Napoli, both Roman clubs etc represent South.

    In Croatia, Dalmatians (people who inhabit Dalmatia, not the dogs) say it’s about rich North (Zagreb) and poor South (Split).

    There was a story – tongue-in-cheek one – on one Serbian forum that said Manchester success is actually a part of demographic project so that people don’t emmigrate from there.

  6. The change in he northern bias will only come about as technology takes the place of the ref’s eye.

    The hand is quicker than the eye but technology is as quick as the action and more accurate than ref’s decisions.

    This has already been shown by the ‘over the goal line technology that has been introduced. This technology tells the ref and us if the ball went completely over the line and therefore a goal or not. Arsenal have benefited from this by being credited a goal that might not have been given by the eye only.

    We have also benefited by a ‘goal’ not given to our opponents by technology which might have been given by the ref’s eye.

    However the biggest change will come when there is an openness and free flow of information by the PMGOL..


  7. By chance, this morning I’ve been finishing off part 10 of the series on the Arsenal History Society site about Arsenal in the 1970s.

    In 1973 Arsenal came second in the league but were not given a place in the Uefa Cup. It is widely assumed that this was because of a Uefa ruling that there should be only one club per city in the cup, as was the case in the Fairs Cup days.

    But in fact it was a League ruling. So with Tottenham already in the Fairs Cup it was the League that ordered that Arsenal could not play in it, and gave the places to Tottenham, Leeds, Wolverhampton and Ipswich.

    Not so much a northern bias as an anti-London bias.


  8. “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.”

    “The hand is quicker than the eye but technology is as quick as the action and more accurate than ref’s decisions.”

    Both of these situations will become invalid if the rules of football were implemented to the letter.
    A foul should be a foul regardless of the reasons. If rules are broken, then punishment, no ifs, no buts.

    Of course there will be still moments of indecision, but i really think they would be just that, moments as opposed to the increasing norm we have today.

  9. Thanks Tim , brilliant stuff. Makes a hell of a lot of sense.
    Have always felt a southern team has to be either extremely good, extremely well funded or both to compete with some of those teams.
    Interesting you mention the dynamics may be changing. I wonder if immigration may eventually have some effect, there have been and will continue to be some very talented, and extremely ambitious ,hungry kids making their homes in these Isles……Idont have the stats on immigration to hand, but would imagine more settle in the south …..initially at least, but of course stand to be corrected.

  10. That said, I still think Riley and some refs have issues with our club, or manager that need addressing.

  11. I have no problem with the geographical location of the teams (although it’ll be interesting to see where the Tiny Tots go while the Armitage Shanks Stadium is built) that’s driven to a large degree by the support each team can muster, although the teams in the South West may disagree.
    However the rules of the game should not be open to interpretation. The rules allow for a certain amount of contact but as mentioned by others, a foul is a foul. If It’s a foul then whether it’s at St James’s Park, at Anfield, Ashton Gate, The Hawthorns, Carrow Road or Selhurst Park shouldn’t change that. Similarly whether the Ref if Italian, Swedish or from Manchester, it’s the same foul.
    The unfortunate situation we’re in now where PL refs have to follow some idiotic ‘interpretation’ which results in them being considered as second class around the world. If Kevin Friend was left to officiate a match by the rules instead of the ‘Riley Interpretation’ we could(!) find out he’s quite good, but at the moment he just looks like a clown along with his clown PMGO colleagues.

  12. para
    December 19, 2015 at 10:48 am

    I see that you have quoted my comment regarding the hand is quicker than the eye.

    I am not saying that increased technology alone is the answer to the problem of referee mistakes in football in England. Nor am I saying that an open PMGOL etc alone will resolve the problem.

    The PMGOL (as reported in Untold) claim a 98% accuracy for their referees.

    That we know is wishful thinking or living in a dream world.

    Even if everything regarding refereeing professional football matches in England was correct it would be unlikely to bring about a 98% accuracy.

    Better use of technology and a an open PMGOL would bring to football respect for referees and even the PMGOL which isn’t possible at the moment.

  13. And as if by magic, Chelsea take an early two goal lead!
    Back on topic, could understand more if these northern refs were consistent in allowing physical play, but when you see players rotationally fouling ours for the best part of the game before getting a yellow, then Bellerin, Caz or whoever gets a yellow for their first tackle, and you see how often this happens.

  14. Great piece Tim.

    It’s great articles like this that set Untold apart.

    It’s not necessarily all about Arsenal, but it is about how it may effect us.

    As it says on the tin, ‘From an Arsenal Perspective’

  15. Mandy the PGMO are a corrupt bunch of cheating self appointed officials. They have no shme nor self respect.

  16. Alan Ball, Kevin Richardson , Geaorge Eastham , Steve Bould , Lee Dixon .
    Perhaps if there is a bias towards the north and the southern players are so weak perhaps we should be aiming our scouts towards that area rather than scouring the world for promising 15 year olds. Maybe there are a few rough diamonds up there like the ones listed above.

  17. Northern teams dominated for 40yrs ( Liverpool and Manchester) money comes then Chelsea have a short dominance,then more money and its north and south. In future money not referees will determine who rules! Give it a rest, blaming referees for northern dominance, players who make less mistakes as a team will be more successful. Now analyse why cricket, croquet, tennis,yachting and rugby union is more successful in the south. Blame that on officials from the south! Yes/No. statistics can be analyse to suit!

  18. Terry Lawson, we’ve had many people over the years claim that statistics can be used to prove anything, and each time we’ve invited the writer to give us an example in which statistics can be used to prove two contrary propositions, and no one ever has. So we’ve tended to stop making the invitation of late – but it is still there.

    My own view, from having had to study statistics in some depth as part of my research work in earlier years, is that decently put together statistical analysis can’t be used to prove contrary views. But as always, I await some evidence to prove me wrong.

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