Capital: London Football, Present and Future
In an article last year, The Economist coined the phrase `Londonism’ to refer to what it regarded as a distinct ideology driven by the office of Mayor. It cited as the central tenets of `Londonism': enthusiasm for the financial services industry; an openness to immigration; and the unceasing pursuit of economic growth. The success of this new way of thinking, according to the piece, is symbolized by the 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. Unsurprisingly, however, the article fails to look beyond the streets paved with gold. Since its transformation began in the 1980s, the Docklands has become an enclave for the élite of the neo-liberal economy, while the dilapidated streets of the some of the poorest areas of western Europe 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 circle 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 affordable plots for new 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 since 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 Tory overlords of Barnet Council. However, it remains unclear where they will relocate to, and the danger is that anything more than one or two seasons outside of the borough would cause irreperable damage to its community links.
As their clubs have remained in situ, many of their traditional supporters have long since departed from the streets and communities around them. Demographic change and migration into and out of the inner districts are pertinent topics for policymakers for reasons not unrelated to the concerns touched upon in the previous paragraph. The continued transformation of parts of inner London into a playground for the moneyed classes has put a strain on the housing budgets of many local authorities, which, having been prevented from building its own housing to meet demand, have been forced to contribute to market rents to house tenants in private accommodation, something which has been seized upon by the coalition government as 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 noise is about? Certainly, if they are to maintain their status, inner 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 £14 for a place on the terrace, while the cheapest adult ticket at West Ham is £32 (and this is only for the lowest category games). Another issue is competition: the sheer density of professional football clubs within the capital may well be inhibiting 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 average has remained under or around 60% of total capacity in recent seasons, depriving them of vital funds without 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 in steady decline. The effect is even more pronounced in League 1. In 2010/11 Brentford, Charlton and Orient each recorded a decrease in attendance compared with the previous campaign, although very strong starts to 2011/12 by the former two may reverse this effect.
An increasing population brings opportunities, but not all of those who move in are freshly minted: migrants from the English provinces will more often than not bring a footballing allegiance with them. Meanwhile, those without a ready-made affiliation will take some persuading to 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 larger clubs are already spending increasing amounts doing just that: even while living within walking distance of a Championship stadium, I received frequent mailshots from Fulham’s marketing department, attempting to flog tickets for undersubscribed clashes with fellow mid-table fodder.
Given the density of clubs, the potential for the poaching of lower-league support by the larger clubs is likely to bite in future years. Increasingly, 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 see kids from the estates circling the ground 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, perpetuation of the status quo leaves many with a bleak future: declining facilities, a draining away of their traditional support by socioeconomic forces, and aggressive competition from better-resourced clubs. On the plus side – for some, at least – there is probably room for one or two more representatives of the capital to nestle in the lower reaches of the top flight, reflecting more accurately London’s role as the driver of the country’s economy. Despite their recent travails, both Charlton and West Ham retain Premier League infrastructure, and appear well placed to regain the top rung (the latter very soon).
Those left behind, though, will have to implement radical policies or face oblivion. The scorched-earth approach of leaving the concrete streets to the 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 Keynes shows just how possible this is. Indeed, it has been widely reported that those in charge at Orient have actively 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, such an approach wouldn’t necessarily be a panacea. Many of the satellite towns orbiting the capital already host established League clubs that would not welcome further encroachment by their London counterparts 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, while much more innovative thinking in their marketing and ticketing policies is needed to encourage lost supporters back and attract new attendees from their own doorsteps. The city’s non-league scene – which has already been losing clubs (although perhaps at the moment due merely to bad management) – is also a potentially fruitful partner. The professional and semi-pro clubs seem to exist entirely separately of each other at the moment, which is a wasted opportunity. Greater contact between them could help all parties to survive the destablizing effects of current policies. Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner, that I want all of the capital’s clubs to contnue to thrive. A true `Londonism’ shouldn’t leave anyone behind.