Football Cities: London

Posted by on Nov 9, 2015 in Football Cities | 7 Comments
Football Cities: London

In 2011, the company I work for chose to shut down their London office and move out of town. After much internal debate, I decided to switch with them. I had never thought I would leave the capital, regarding pretty much anything outside its orbit, aside from Brighton and a few northern cities, to be an incorrigible mix of 4x4s and farmers ready to unload their muskets upon the drop of a hat.

Since leaving, I’ve been a regular returnee to the city but it only took about six months for me to feel about as attuned to its way of life as Worzel Gummidge crossed with Joey Beauchamp. Having been a real student of London during my eighteen years in residence, a peregrinator to rival Iain Sinclair, an expert on its pubs, ever ready with a restaurant tip and high on its ever changing roster of artistic and cultural events, I suddenly found myself overwhelmed by it all.

Moustaches atop the lips of Shoreditch bar hoppers, chocolate mash, Uber, indie kids pretending to like Frank Ocean, hipster coffee by the gallonload, thirty two different Vietnamese sandwich outlets, pissoirs in Chinatown, Brentford being good at football, Dalston’s street life no longer the preserve of the dispossessed, empty cities in the sky in Battersea and Kew and all of it overseen by Boris bleedin’ Johnson. No wonder I felt like a whiting out of water.

I should say at this point that much of this, I’m a fan of (although not that floppy haired buffoon) – and it’s London’s ever evolving, ever different nature that makes it such a fabulous place. It takes leaving to understand that it never stops still. It’s a huge ever growing pulsating brain that rules from the centre of the ultraworld.

That London continues to prosper is a evident. The city rode out the financial crisis with about as much bother as Bayern Munich dealt with the departure of Jupp Heynckes. Its gross domestic product per capita is 176.7% of the national average, translating to £57,082 per person (as an illustration of the capital’s dominance, Manchester, often regarded as equally booming, comes in at £28,377). Disposable household income is 128.3% of the national average, the city’s working age population is 69.9%, comfortably the highest of any UK city or region, and house prices are surging at 20% a year.

And that position of hegemony is increasingly becoming the case in football too.

A Coming World Power

As Gary Neville so perceptively put it in an article in The Daily Telegraph in September, ‘a North-South divide is developing in English football that reflects the drift in economic power towards London’. And yet, despite the metropolis’s colossal size compared to its British forebears, the city could be said to have punched well below its weight in footballing terms until recently.

London’s first Champions League success didn’t come until 2012 when Chelsea somehow managed to defeat Bayern Munich in a feat of daylight robbery that would have embarrassed the Kray twins. In the league too, the capital went eighteen years without a title between 1971 and 1989, a period when Liverpool ruled the roost. In the artificial category that is the Premier League era, while there has been a slight improvement, with seven championships shared between Arsenal and Chelsea, Manchester United alone have scooped top honours on thirteen occasions. You have to go back to a time when megalosauruses patrolled Seven Sisters Road for a Tottenham Hotspur success in this context.

But the comparative recentness of Chelsea’s Champions League victory, albeit already reminiscent of a relic given the current dominance of the top German and Spanish clubs, the Blues’ competitiveness under Jose Mourinho (for now) and, above all, the untold millions available to the club’s exceedingly well-heeled ownership would appear to represent a slow alteration of the status quo, one aided by Manchester United’s extended period of transition and nouveaux riches Manchester City’s ever unconvincing attempts to make an impact on the European stage.

Many of the sport’s all-time greats have plied their trade in the boroughs that lie cheek by jowl with the river Thames – Henry, Osgood, Klinsmann, Moore – and those names have been joined by an increasingly crowd-pleasing bunch today – from swashbuckling Dimitri Payet to the wizardry of Alexis Sanchez; from the scampering of Christian Eriksen to the Schwarzeneggeresque Nemanja Matić. I could go on – London is a fabulous place for the soccer enthusiast.

Trickle Down?

There’s evidence too that that this feeling of clover is seeping into the lower reaches of the city’s football scene. As mentioned before, Brentford, of all clubs, have plans to abandon the quaint humility of Griffin Park for a new home, blood and guts replaced by pivot tables and multiple regressions. Fulham and QPR are even further down the line; my memories of an Auto-Windscreens trip to the former in the mid-nineties now a distant blur and a UEFA Cup Final appearance having intervened in the interim while the latter, despite financial decisions to rival Lehman Brothers, continue to style themselves as a boutique club and have a very wealthy man at the helm.

Crystal Palace, though arguably equally representative of Croydon as London given their fan base (see Terry Duffelen’s post on that south London neighbourhood from last week) are also in their pomp and even further down, the good times are catching. Who could have foreseen the emergence of Dulwich Hamlet as a magnet for the impossibly cool? Clapton too? Only Millwall continue to be largely immune, marooned as they are in their dockside fastness.

Competition

It could be assumed – indeed, it’s often been asserted – that London has too many teams to match the success of purely football mad cities such as Manchester or Liverpool. Look at Paris, the doubters say – one significant club in a metropolis of similar size.

But as often discussed in these pages, the spin off effects of a crowded market place are prone to drive up standards. Arsenal versus Chelsea is now threatening to be the capital’s rivalry of the future even if Arsenal-Spurs remains the most powder-keg ridden. Direct competition for the signatures of the world’s best players is happening more regularly – see Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell and Petr Čech who have followed in the cross-city move tradition of Pat Jennings and John Hollins. At youth level, the fight for the signatures of the best is perhaps even more acute.

That businesses group in clusters is a result of the availability of amenities and chiefly the labour market – London’s population rose to 8.1 million in 2012 from 6.9 million in 1995 and it’s an environment where the fierceness to compete at football top level is unabated and the well of talent almost bottomless – witness east London’s legendary Senrab FC that turned out to so many stars of the future.

That’s reflected in the number of people willing to pay to watch the sport and shell out for merchandise. Crowds are up massively on their similar levels in 2000, season tickets are oversubscribed. West Ham’s average attendance has risen from 20,118 to 34,846 in the past twenty years, Leyton Orient’s is up from 3,436 to 5,042 and Crystal Palace’s from 14,922 to 24,421. London can well support its huge number of professional clubs.

Infrastructure

The infrastructure to make London so prosperous has also been vital to the movement of people; getting folks (including football supporters) around the city and increasing the size of the population. Over a thirty five period, we’ve witnessed the regeneration of Docklands (a double edged sword but now a long way from the wasteland overseen by Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday), the Channel Tunnel rail link and its enhancement to include St. Pancras and numerous improvements to the tube system.

Around the corner, we have Crossrail and HS2 while the sporting picture has also been radically altered. London now has three gargantuan stadia of international proportions in the Emirates, Wembley and the Olympic Stadium. Only the former has proceeded with a minimum of controversy but few cities can boast this amount of house room.

Those ubiquitous Aussies Westfield have positioned their enterprise to take advantage of new population influxes and while they don’t brew my cup of tea, they do draw in visitors by the thousand, some of whom will tuck into tacos at Wahaca before visiting Loftus Road and who will do the same when West Ham finally skulk their way into the Olympic Stadium thanks to we the taxpayers’ money.

London is an enjoyable place to watch football. One can combine a day at Stamford Bridge or The Valley with a visit to an art gallery, a pint in one of the capital’s legion of fine pubs and a visit to friends. Transport will whizz you to places without fuss (well, apart from still isolated Selhurst Park) and you can even tuck into the odd prawn sandwich or two.

An International City

That infrastructure and the Channel Tunnel in particular have facilitated ease of access to London as a football city. Wembley will host the semi-finals and final of Euro 2020 and staged both the 2011 and 2013 Champions League finals. Cheap flights to the city’s five airports shuttle visitors to the capital with a minimum of fuss and the European Union’s porous borders allow for regular visits even if those dimwits we send in reverse such as Chelsea’s travelling army that so disgraced itself in Paris a few months ago would be welcome never to return.

All this provides evidence of London’s status as a global city. Now that’s a label and a truism that is often bandied out willy nilly and it’s not as if it’s a brand new thing – the city’s position as the fulcrum of an empire has defined its international status for two centuries now and the trade in wool and cloth with the low countries was a phenomenon that went right back to the Middle Ages.

Trade has long been key – for the spices and commodities that so evocatively lend their names to the streets and docks of Wapping and Limehouse, one can see parallels in the movement of goods and services today – and while such wealth is often recorded more as a line on an invoice or a bull bond than by the clanking of cranes, London has a case for being regarded as the globe’s financial capital.

Indeed, London could almost be seen as having outlived the country in which it is situated. The academic Michael Storper has talked of global cities’ challenge to the concept of the nation state in his book Keys to the City. London is no exception to this and as a global city region founded on trade, there are parallels with the Venetian and Genoan city states of yesteryear.

Immigration

That London is far from an inward looking, parochial city is a given and tolerance has been at the heart of its success. In a masterful post for us a couple of years ago, John McGee stressed the importance of immigration in improving the standards and profile of all four top divisions of English football and in the years since the Bosman ruling allowed for freedom of contract, the capital’s clubs have taken full advantage of this ‘cross-breeding of nationalities’.

It’s unthinkable to contemplate an Arsenal without Vieira and Bergkamp, a Chelsea without Gullit and Hazard and even a Leyton Orient without Romain Vincelot or a Millwall without Jimmy Abdou. Such players have enriched the city’s footballing heritage and done much to break down barriers. Amongst fans too, the pejorative remarks that accompanied day tripping ‘Norwegians’ with camera phones to Stamford Bridge are also now lessening as we rejoice in the breadth of support our clubs now attract.

The visitors – both of the on field and off field variety – drive up standards and bring money to the economy while also creating a global phenomenon out of the Premier League that sees its popularity maintained from Dalian to Djakarta, from Chicago to Cape Town.

The London City Region

These spillover benefits extend to other regions within the UK as well as abroad. In my recent post about football in the much maligned city of Milton Keynes, I posited the idea that a London city region has impacted on football.

With the green belt now a red herring, it’s arguable that London has extended its tentacles to other centres of population in the region. It draws on commuters from all around the South East of England and factories and suppliers now find it to be easier to base themselves outside the capital’s central districts but within easy reach by motorway or train.

The City Region as a defined geographical unit has actually reached the statute books elsewhere in the UK with the inelegantly named ‘Greater Manchester Statutory City Region’ now an actual thing. That level of concreteness has not extended itself to London but it can be detected nonetheless.

As well as MK Dons, clubs such as Reading, Watford and Brighton are now a considerably more redoubtable presence in the upper reaches of English football than they were in the past (Watford’s mid-eighties heyday at a time when football was on its knees notwithstanding). Fans, often discouraged by the price and difficulty of obtaining season tickets at the bigger clubs actually based in London, have often opted for a half hour to an hour train ride to see football in the flesh. Away fan diasporas of the capital also see midweek away trips to the Madejski Stadium or Vicarage Road as fair game.

Another academic, John Harrison has written of competitive city regions and London’s economic reach is now so all pervasive that it’s not unreasonable to think that Gillingham, Oxford United and Peterborough United may be the next to benefit –the South East as a whole has benefitted dramatically from the soaring wealth of its urban showpiece and on the football front, youngsters are more likely to be loaned out to clubs who don’t lie too far away.

Hubris?

The neoliberal age we live in has a habit of drawing us all along with it. Few of us fail to be impressed by a Sanchez shimmy or an Oscar thunderbolt. The entertainment on offer continues to be astounding and the Premier League, while to an extent overtaken by La Liga and the Bundesliga still possesses incredible strength in depth – witness Chelsea’s current travails against teams in possession of a fraction of their financial heft.

But the morphing of football into a pastime for the rich man is certainly an observable phenomenon and in London in particular, it continues to resemble rugby union in its development into a corporate led junket. Long standing season ticket holders at White Hart Lane or Stamford Bridge are genuine enough in their passion and willingness to follow their heroes but to muscle in on the party, one often needs to have a mate who works for a hedge fund or resort to StubHub.

For the price of the privilege to attend a Premier League match is a barrier in waiting for its development as a viable activity for the ordinary person. Although fans protest that a season ticket at the Emirates includes cup matches, a cheapest adult season ticket of £1,035 is no laughing matter. It’s a cost that debars the bulk of many of the local communities that exist within the very shadow of the stadium – Islington still has serious pockets of deprivation and the same is even more acutely true in Tottenham.

Football is not the only driver of inequality but is one of the most visible. Just as New York Yankees fans are whisked by the subway to their shiny compound in the still struggling South Bronx, for a long time now, it’s been the counties of Essex, Kent and Hertfordshire that have supplied a large phalanx of London clubs’ support and it is obvious how detached the fan base of many clubs is from the neighbourhoods they are supposed to represent.

Meanwhile, that clubs are often in the hands of rich owners such as Roman Abramovich and Tony Fernandes makes them playthings at the behest of the very rich – to potentially be discarded in the future after years of failing to break even and achieve sustainability. Big business, as elsewhere in modern society, has a stranglehold on the game and private finance based on speculation lacks a base in citizenship and democracy – ownership is seen as everything and while managers come and go, those who hold the purse strings remain untouchable.

With defeats as horrible as the one suffered by Arsenal against Bayern Munich, there is a danger that the new found fan will cease to see the outlay needed to follow the club as worth it in the medium to long term and the remoteness of clubs from their core base of support could lead to decline in time.

Conclusion

But for now we can reflect on a near high point in the game’s fortunes in the capital and London can perhaps now be seen to rival Manchester, Liverpool or Glasgow as a proper football city.

Mobile homes huddled beneath South Bermondsey tube station, pre-game pints in Borough Market’s Market Porter pub; the M4 side Post House hotel signalling the nearness of the metropolis; a fan advising this 8 year old not to display away colours at Highbury & Islington tube station; Chelsea fans throwing ripped up seats across the dog track at baying Yorkshiremen; cheekily asking for both John Motson’s and Clive Thomas’s autographs at the Bridge; spotting Tony Currie escaping the stadium by car rather than take the team coach; steaming piles of horse manure, the marginally more appetising odour of fried onions, Wayne Fereday linking with Trevor Francis to down Sheffield Wednesday; Gazza and Lineker running rings around Man Yoo; my great Aunt Iris’s ham rolls; a curry at Tayyabs before hopping on the tube to Upton Park; cut price Tools, Paint and Ironmongery; Danny Dichio slumming it at Underhill; Glad All Over; the late Tommy Caton turning out for England schoolboys; fans at Wembley booing The Star Spangled Banner; channelling the Lightning Seeds at Euro 96; Overmars and Petit putting Wimbledon to the sword; Plough Lane; Fisher Athletic; Messi bombing forward for Argentina against Croatia and Ronald Koeman thundering in a free kick to win Barcelona the European Cup.

Such are some of my London football memories and a football city it most certainly is.

Rob Langham
Rob Langham (pen name: Lanterne Rouge) is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 47 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Football Attic, The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, Futbolgrad and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.

7 Comments

  1. Jo Breen
    November 9, 2015

    Interesting to note that, in spite of their richesse, ’boutique club’ QPR don’t really go in for providing reliable electricity or running water in their away end toilets. Maybe, ensconced in their London bubble, they believe that such things are luxuries outside of the capital and that visitors can do without.

    Reply
  2. Rob Langham
    November 9, 2015

    Yes – just as Pompey in the old days had no workable dryers in the loos and yet were spending £20 million on the likes of Lassana Diarra.

    Reply
  3. Bill T
    November 9, 2015

    “…Brentford being good at football…”
    Brilliant, Rob. That would be pretty disorienting.
    PS, thanks for the tweets/re-tweets this last week.

    Reply
    • Rob Langham
      November 9, 2015

      a pleasure Bill – good to have you on twitter even though we must approach it as a medium with a large dose of caution

      Reply
  4. Paul M
    November 9, 2015

    At Reading, the club has forged a new identity by finally appealing to many people who used to follow bigger London clubs. It has enabled Reading to realistically claim a one town one club status that was sorely missing 20 years ago . This has been the most positive aspect of the changes mentioned in the article, and you can see the same thing emerging at Brighton and MK Dons. There may some aspects of this that angers purists but I enjoy bigger crowds supporting my local football club, and if this is due to some kind of supporting “trickle” down to the outlying regions of London, then I welcome this development.

    Reply
  5. ATM Events
    March 9, 2016

    As a HUGE football fan, I have travelled the world watching the sport. I was in Rio for the world cup, I was in Istanbul for the 05 champions league and many many more big events in major cities. I have been very lucky to travel so far to follow the sport I love. Living just outside of London, I can honestly say that I genuinely feel London is the best city in the world for football. So many clubs, so many supports in just 1 city. King Cross station on a Saturday morning is such a sight, so many different colours with different supports with different scarfs.

    I am a bit of a neutral football supporter, supporting any British team when in the European competitions, but deep down I am a Chelsea fan. I love going to the bridge and I love a home game in the great city!

    Reply

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