Capital: London Football, Present and Future
In an article last year,Â The Economist coined the phrase `Londonism’ to refer toÂ what itÂ regarded asÂ aÂ distinct ideology driven by the office of Mayor. It cited as the central tenetsÂ of `Londonism’: enthusiasm for the financial services industry; an openness to immigration; and the unceasing pursuit of economic growth.Â TheÂ successÂ of this new way of thinking, according to the piece,Â isÂ symbolized by theÂ redevelopment of the Docklands to the east of the city’s centre. The landscape of this part of the city is now replete with tall, shimmering citadels of global financial behemoths, futuristically-designed transport hubs and high-value property developments.Â Unsurprisingly, however, the article fails to lookÂ beyond theÂ streets paved with gold. Since its transformation began in the 1980s, theÂ Docklands has become an enclave for the Ã©lite of the neo-liberal economy, while the dilapidatedÂ streets of the some of the poorest areas of western EuropeÂ sit almost literally in their shadow.
Similarly, on a superficial level, it might appear that London’s football clubs have been raised by this tide of prosperity. Currently, the capital has some five representatives in the top flight and nine more across the three divisions of the Football League. However, look underneath the shimmering surface and there may be trouble ahead.
While in the rest of the country still reverberates to the piercing `pop’ of the property speculation bubble, the market in London remains afloat, buoyed by the continued influx of foreign speculators and the failure of government – local and national – to increase and improve the stock of public housing. Just as those of us outside the golden circleÂ find our choices become more and more limited, clubs wishing to improve or relocate facilities have their options severely reduced by absurdly high land and property values. This could be seen as a blessing for some: Brentford, Crystal Palace and Leyton Orient, among others, could make a tidy sum in selling the land from underneath their seats. But, all three of those clubs – particularly the former two – have struggled for quite some time to find affordableÂ plots for newÂ stadia in or near their present locale. The latter, meanwhile, faced the prospect of being crowded out of their manor by local rivals, a threat which hasn’t gone away sinceÂ the process to award the Olympic Stadium to West Ham collapsed late last year. In December 2011 Barnet indicated that they would be leaving Underhill at the end of the current season, following a long-running dispute between chairman Tony Kleanthous and the ToryÂ overlords ofÂ Barnet Council. However, it remains unclear where they will relocate to, and the danger is that anything more than one or two seasonsÂ outside of the borough would cause irreperable damage to its community links.
AsÂ their clubs have remained in situ, many of their traditional supporters have long since departed from the streets and communities around them.Â Demographic change and migration into and out of the innerÂ districtsÂ areÂ pertinent topics for policymakersÂ for reasonsÂ not unrelated to the concerns touched upon in the previous paragraph. The continued transformation of parts ofÂ inner London into a playground for the moneyed classesÂ has put a strain on the housing budgets of many local authorities, which, having been prevented from buildingÂ its own housingÂ to meet demand,Â have been forced toÂ contribute to market rentsÂ to house tenants in private accommodation, something which has been seized upon by the coalition governmentÂ asÂ it attempts further to erode welfare provision.
It could be argued that the expected influx of people with disposable income is a positive development for clubs. After all, won’t those people buying spanking new apartments next to the Den want to see what all that noiseÂ is about? Certainly, if they are to maintain their status, innerÂ city clubs need to make greater efforts to coax those newly arrived in their immediate vicinity to attend games and engage with their new local team. Received wisdom among existing fans is that migrants from both within and without the country are just not interested. But ticket prices are surely a greater obstacle, especially to those struggling to pay their rent, but to those with cash for leisure as well? The cheapest adult ticket at Barnet this season costs Â£14 for a place on the terrace, while the cheapest adult ticket at West Ham is Â£32 (and this is only for the lowest category games).Â Another issue is competition: the sheerÂ density ofÂ professional footballÂ clubs within the capitalÂ may wellÂ be inhibitingÂ growth. Crystal Palace and Millwall are cases in point. While the latter showed an increase in average attendance in the 2010/11 season, this was almost entirely symptomatic of promotion to the Championship from League 1. Indeed, with the team struggling this year, there has been a noticeable decline. Similarly, the Eagles posted a small increase in numbers, but for both clubs the averageÂ has remained under or around 60% of total capacity in recent seasons,Â depriving them of vital funds withoutÂ which it will become increasingly difficult to compete in the second tier. On the fringes of the city too, Watford’s average crowds appear to be inÂ steady decline. The effect is even more pronounced in League 1.Â In 2010/11Â Brentford, Charlton and OrientÂ eachÂ recorded a decreaseÂ in attendance compared with the previous campaign,Â although very strong starts to 2011/12 by the former two may reverse this effect.
An increasing populationÂ brings opportunities, but not all of those who move in are freshly minted: migrants from the English provinces will more often than notÂ bringÂ a footballing allegiance with them. Meanwhile, those without a ready-made affiliationÂ will take some persuading toÂ embrace the third tier over Sky’s festival of hyperbole. The conundrum is that few, if any, of the smaller clubs have the resources to project themselves across a wider geographical area, while the largerÂ clubs are already spending increasing amounts doing just that: even while living within walking distance of a Championship stadium, IÂ received frequent mailshots from Fulham’s marketing department,Â attempting to flog tickets for undersubscribedÂ clashes withÂ fellow mid-table fodder.
Given the density of clubs, the potential forÂ the poachingÂ of lower-league support by the larger clubs is likely to bite in future years. Increasingly,Â Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs are regarded as standard-bearers for the whole city and not just owners of a particular patch. It has long been commonplace on a matchday to seeÂ kids from the estates circling the groundÂ sporting Arsenal or Chelsea replica kit.
What, then, are the long-term prospects for London’s nine Football League clubs? My fear is that, as in society at large,Â perpetuation of the status quoÂ leaves many with a bleak future:Â declining facilities, a draining away of their traditional support by socioeconomic forces, and aggressiveÂ competition from better-resourced clubs. On the plus side – for some, at leastÂ – there is probablyÂ room for one or twoÂ more representatives of the capital to nestle in the lower reaches of the top flight, reflecting moreÂ accurately London’s role as the driver of the country’s economy. Despite their recent travails, both Charlton and West HamÂ retain Premier League infrastructure, andÂ appearÂ well placed toÂ regain theÂ top rungÂ (the latter very soon).
Those left behind, though, willÂ have to implement radical policiesÂ or face oblivion. The scorched-earth approachÂ ofÂ leaving theÂ concrete streets to theÂ marginally fresher air on the other side of the M25 is one that should concern supporters most. The sordid tale of Wimbledon’s relocation to Milton KeynesÂ shows just how possible this is. Indeed,Â it has been widely reported that those in charge at Orient have activelyÂ considered the idea of moving to the `virgin’ territory at the end of the Central Line or even to the mid-century splendour of Harlow. Nevertheless,Â such anÂ approach wouldn’t necessarily be a panacea.Â Many of theÂ satellite townsÂ orbiting the capital already hostÂ established League clubs that would not welcomeÂ furtherÂ encroachment byÂ their London counterpartsÂ on their catchment areas.
Personally, I would like to see the deepening of local ties as a counterweight to the globalism of the big three. Clubs should forge closer ties with their respective local authorities to ensure a presence in the communities they represent,Â while much more innovative thinking in their marketing and ticketing policies is needed to encourage lost supporters back andÂ attractÂ new attendees from their own doorsteps. The city’s non-league scene – which hasÂ already been losing clubs (although perhaps at the moment due merely to bad management) – is also a potentially fruitful partner. The professional and semi-proÂ clubs seem to existÂ entirely separatelyÂ of each other at the moment, which is a wasted opportunity.Â Greater contactÂ between them could help all parties to survive the destablizing effects of current policies.Â Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner, that I want all of theÂ capital’s clubs to contnue to thrive. A true `Londonism’ shouldn’t leave anyone behind.