Birmingham’s football fadeout
Unless Aston Villa win promotion next year, Birmingham may go without any representation at all in the Premier League next year
West Bromwich Albion are all but mathematically assured of relegation from the Premier League this season. They are nine points from safety, have just fired Alan Pardew after a disastrous tenure as manager, and only have five wins in all competitions since July. In the Premier League, the Baggies have lost eight matches in a row. The future for the club from the West Midlands looks bleak.
Just above them in the table, and more than flirting with relegation, are yet another team from the West Midlands, Stoke City. Regardless of their struggles this season, both teams, till very recently, seemed like permanent fixtures on the Premier League roster. Stoke are playing their 10th straight season, never finishing below 14th in nine attempts before this season, while West Brom have been a top-level club for all but four of the last 16 seasons. These are by no means small teams living on the perilous edge of Premier League survival.
Yet it is entirely possible that by the beginning of the next footballing season, both clubs will be playing second-tier football. Which teams, then, will represent the West Midlands in the Premier League? A glance at the Championship League table, one level below, suggests that Wolverhampton Wanderers are odds-on favourites to win promotion, while fallen giants Aston Villa could possibly also win promotion, though this is by no means assured.
This means that the map of top-level English football in the 2018-19 season could look peculiarly lopsided. There will be two clusters of teams: one in the south, around London, and another around Manchester and Liverpool, with no more than half-a-dozen clubs to represent the entire remaining landscape of England and Wales.
At least as far as the geography of football teams is concerned, English football is rapidly becoming a very unequal sport indeed. Look closely at the great gaps on the footballing map of England, and even the usual tropes about what should make for a good top-flight football team don’t hold water: big cities, dedicated fans, and a long history.
Consider Birmingham, arguably England’s second largest city by population and economic output. Unless Aston Villa win promotion next year, Birmingham may go without any representation at all in the Premier League next year. Which would be a tragedy for a city that was, at least in part, the birthplace of the football league system in England in 1888. As The Economist pointed out in a prescient article in August 2016, “A Country Of Two Halves”, the game of the English working classes has followed these classes in their decline.
The reasons for this decline of football outside the clusters are, of course complex. Some clubs are poorly run. Other clubs are just located in places that are far too unglamorous to attract good talent.
But, more generally, there are two sets of factors at play. First, there is the distribution of the UK economy itself. Regional declines in the West Midlands and elsewhere mean that clubs either have to make do with local owners with limited resources, or hope and pray for foreign owners who are not only willing to invest in unglamorous places but have the resources and wherewithal to turn this investment into long-term projects.
And second, there is the economics of the modern Premier League club itself. Increasingly, the really successful clubs are not those with long histories or dedicated fan bases. But those that can keep the cash registers ringing irrespective of actual success—Arsenal—or large and fanatic fan bases—Chelsea. The truly successful clubs in the two mega-clusters of English football have learnt to tap into a diverse mix of direct and indirect revenue, and thus enmesh themselves into a virtuous circle of results, brands, stars, revenue and investments.
While clubs no doubt pay rich lip service to their fans and local communities, the top clubs in English football are international commercial operations. The price of entry into this elite circle is steep, as we have seen with Manchester City. Or you could have a spectacular season à la Leicester City, whose triumph should see them motoring along in the top flight for seasons to come.
But for the rest of the teams in England, the game is very much a heavily lopsided contest between the haves and have-nots. Can Birmingham rise again? The answer may lie in China, Qatar...anywhere but Birmingham.
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