Geographies of Football: Economic Potential

Ironbridge
Image available under Creative Commons © Pete Ashton

Our series of posts this week has analysed the various impacts geography can have on the fortunes of soccer clubs. To round things off, we thought we would examine a cross section of eight cities, towns and city regions which can be said to be under performing in football terms and which may or may not have the potential to rise to Championship status or above.

Back in 2010, we picked out Peterborough United, Swansea and Cardiff Cities, Notts County and Doncaster as having Premier League potential and while the inclusion of the Rovers now embarrasses us, we predicated our thinking on their retention of Sean O’Driscoll and a sticking to principles – something the Yorkshiremen have clearly failed to do.

That analysis largely dealt with on field performance and day to day good husbandry remains the most important factor in helping a team ascend. Add to that the simple, distorting effect of money and a previous struggler can be transformed into a contender – Chris Nee’s post for us on Guernsey FC shows how backing can alter everything and from Eastlands to Crawley; from Fleetwood to the Boleyn Ground, the influence of high finance is prevalent.

But the prosperity of an area and locals’ willingness to spend money on entertainment makes almost any locality a potential hotbed – so which clubs should we reasonably expect to be doing much better given local economic and demographic conditions and ignoring any asymmetric injections of capital? This post will apply the principles of ceteris paribus and attempts to look at regional economies in isolation from new stadium and/or ownership plans.

Swindon

‘Matt Ritchie’s Swindon Town’ have roared to the League Two title and it’s been a hearteningly quick return to more rarefied climes after the misery of 2010-11. Two decades ago now, the Robins graced the Premier League of course, only to be swatted away continually by the fearsome opposition.

But Swindon as a town is bubbling under – the list of local businesses sounds like a who’s who of multinational corporations and Honda, Intel and Motorola are accompanied by BMW Mini at the local chamber of commerce. The building of the M4 and encouragement of the motor industry helped maintain the town’s fortunes, previously boosted by another form of transport in the railways – and the conurbation continues to grow – it’s predicted that there will be a 70,000 (38.9%) increase in Swindon’s population by 2026 from the current 180,000, to 250,000.

Of course ‘trickle down’ is a nonsense concept and the swelling coffers of overseas shareholders doesn’t necessarily directly benefit the locals – but Gross Value Added (GVA: £24,113 in 2002) remains well above regional levels for the South West (and a football hungry population will be keen for further success. Love him or hate him, the enthusiasm of their young manager could see Town into the Championship a lot sooner than you’d reckon.
Verdict: Big Potential

Oxford

Swindon’s local rivals are based in one of the country’s richest cities and richest counties – not that you’ll see anyone wearing a yellow and navy scarf when taking a Saturday afternoon stroll down Turl Street or through Christ Church Meadow.

United draw most of their support from the vicinity of the Kassam Stadium and the neighbourhoods of Cowley, Blackbird Leys, Barton and Headington are a world away from the spires of reverie, even if the last named district remains pleasantly suburban (Headington once lent its name to the U’s as well as housing them).

The Leys and Cowley in particular are surprisingly low income in nature and feel – proper football territory – and in that, enthusiasm for the sport in Oxford is higher than many outsiders would think. These districts came about as a result of the car industry’s growth of course – the Pressed Steel plant was a large enough concern to field a founder member club in the Hellenic League in 1953.

Cars remain King around here, albeit severely knocked by foreign competition and reliant more on assembly than manufacture (Unipart remains a large employer) but according to the 2010 Index of Multiple Deprivation, east Oxford has 12 areas which are among the 20% most deprived areas in England and one neighbourhood to the west of Greater Leys is among the 10% most deprived.

So a city of 153,700 residents enjoying an average income way in excess of the local average may not be as primed to challenge on the football field as they once did so memorably in the 1980s – varsity and inherited wealth distorts the figures and Oxford will always struggle to gain the attention of those more interested in John Constable than James Constable.
Verdict: League 1 potential but unlikely to rise higher

Cambridge

Continuing the rivals theme, but in a different sense, it seems appropriate to look at Cambridge, in particular due to its spectacular recession-defying economy.

Cambridge’s extra 1,200 private sector jobs created in the year up to April 2010 amounted to 2.4 per cent growth, the third highest in the UK, and its median weekly wage of £563 was fifth from top. The city also contains the highest number of patent applications – a common measure to assess innovation and growth in a region – and the early establishment (1970) of the so-called ‘Silicon Fen’ web of hi-tech companies has earned the town and surrounding area a reputation as the San Jose of England.

As old industry has faltered elsewhere, the nationwide strategy has been to move towards cutting edge science and engineering – and the presence of a world class university has aided this considerably. Oxford has made attempts to muscle in on the action but Cambridge is at the vanguard and enjoyed first mover advantage.

As the middle classes become more football oriented, the city could take advantage, if it were not for two factors – a serious town v gown split that again sees the chief soccer club again corralled in a distant burb and recent misfortune that has seen the Abbey Stadium outfit drop out of the league.
Verdict: a league return should be on the cards but Cambridge United will be content with that as a goal for now

The Medway

The Medway towns of Chatham, Rochester and Gillingham form a low income area in a relatively wealthy county – a direct result of the closure of shipyards at Chatham in 1984. The region was heavily reliant on the docks and hasn’t been afforded the radical market solutions presented to similar communities in London such as Rotherhithe and Bermondsey.

That has left the region with a GVA of £13,181 – well below average for the South East and in a county that also suffered from pit closures thirty years ago now. A wander from the station to the ground of local club Gillingham does reveal a tattiness uncharacteristic of the Southeast and repeated attempts by mercurial Chairman Paul Scally to get the club back to the position they occupied in the mid noughties – that of a competitive Championship club – have foundered.

However, the situation isn’t all gloomy – there was rapid job growth between the mid-1990s and the onset of the financial crisis in 2008 and closeness to France, the development of the High Speed One rail link, the growth of the nearby Ashford area and the Thames Gateway project could all bring major benefits. Indeed, Gills could be a candidate for the kind of county-wide support discussed in my fellow blogger Lloyd’s post on Cornwall on Tuesday, if Charlton hadn’t started running buses to the Valley that is.
Verdict: Strong potential to return to the Championship but the ability to move ground and other factors will be key

Kingston-upon-Thames

Jamie Cutteridge’s devastating post for The Real FA Cup recently looked at the controversies surrounding AFC Wimbledon’s residence at Kingsmeadow and any treatment of the League new boys’ occupation of Kingstonian territory will be fraught with controversy.

AFC wish to return to their original borough of course, but there is no guarantee of how quickly that will come to pass and, to take a brighter view, it’s not unfeasible to imagine Kingstonian FC themselves rising again.

This part of Southwest London has a retail footprint that came out as 25th in the UK in terms of expenditure, amounting to £810 million and if it’s debatable that locals see any of TK Maxx’s money, unemployment is at 2.6% almost a third of the London average, while the weekly wages of Borough residents increased by 7.3% to 9% more than the median for the capital – full time workers living in the Borough earned an average weekly salary of £670.80 in 2011.

The borders of Kingston-upon-Thames are hard to define of course and Chelsea very much regard this as their territory, while proponents of the oval ball also hold influence – but the ability of smaller London clubs to do well despite the presence of hulking neighbours is evident – Fulham, QPR, Charlton and Millwall can bear witness to that.
Verdict: Uncertainty over the borough’s two clubs will hold things up but Kingston as a town could support a highly competitive league club

Plymouth

Of course the spectacularly devastating events of the past half-decade override everything as far as Plymouth is concerned and the full back ground to the club’s financial meltdown and tentative rebirth can be explored via Roger Willis’s majestic series of posts for us in the Spring.

But the conundrum remains – how can the country’s nineteenth biggest city (256,700) have so under performed on the football field throughout its history?

A look at the local council’s attempts to strategize is not encouraging, with more emphasis placed on marketing speak and the importance of branding rather than the solid creation of new jobs, services and industries. A reliance on the private sector is nothing new of course – successive prime ministers have tried to teach us this – but lip service to a now outmoded style of ‘light spend’ regeneration isn’t going to turn a city round.

The economy has been boosted by the growth of the two universities and there are regional offices for the likes of PwC UK and Deloitte (if people think that’s a good thing…I don’t). Specialized marine biology stuff goes on and the opening of the new Life Centre as well as the arrival of a River Cottage cafe down on the Royal William Yard might lead one to think that the good times are beginning to roll.

But the city remains reliant on naval pursuits – Devonport Dockyard still provides 10% of Plymouth’s income and 7,500 armed forces are stationed in the city – that said, many are natives of other parts of the country so import their football loyalties with them. A more proactive attitude towards public spending and the vast potential could yet be unleashed, just in time for a club to start rising to its feet again.
Verdict: Strong potential – if Hull and Blackpool can do it, Plymouth can.

Telford

The third post in our Geographies of Football series looked at new towns and the various incarnations of Telford United have struggled to make an impact in the way Crawley and Stevenage have done.

That said, AFC Telford United recently secured safety in the Blue Square Premier after a 1-0 win over local rivals Tamworth – a satisfying end to a first campaign back at the non-league top table. Telford is very close to Birmingham of course and Wolves and Aston Villa in particular derive good support from the town – but it’s a large enough community at 162,300 to dare to dream – the period between 1992 to 2007 saw encouraging times and in that final year, a £250 million regeneration plan for the town centre was announced, leading to the creation of 1,750 new jobs and badly needed given the lack of a social hub.

However, the immediate past has been less rosy – unemployment in the area had risen to 5% by February 2011 and there have been significant job losses, with the movement of 500 Defence Logistics Organisation (DLO) jobs at the Ministry of Defence to Bristol, while the closure of the local sugar beet factory at Allscott in 2007 is another recent example of recession. Telford remains benighted and the modestly encouraging progress of the Bucks has come about in spite of local problems.
Verdict: the town can support a league club but the competitiveness of the non-league’s top level will make promotion difficult without a cash injection

Milton Keynes

Milton Keynes Dons have divided our writers in the past – in the same way that a few misguided souls sympathise with Rupert Murdoch – but as discussed in our post on England’s new town clubs earlier this week, it’s likely that football’s identity thieves are here to stay, even if I am typing this as the Dons have fallen behind 1-0 in this afternoon’s play-off encounter with Huddersfield.

To recap, the city vilified in song by The Style Council (given the lumpen nature of Paul Weller’s solo career, who’s laughing now?) witnessed population growth of population of 1.36% between 1999 and 2009 and is one of the top 10 performing cities in the UK in GVA terms – Cardiff, Edinburgh, Peterborough, London, Reading, Preston, Bournemouth, Bristol and the aforementioned Cambridge are the others.

Like its close cousin, Bicester Village, growth has been spurred by consumerism and while I have no more understanding of what spurs folk to visit these places of a Saturday than in trying to fathom the popularity of Game of Thrones, I don’t speak for the population at large. Besides, MK, like Docklands before it, was never going to be allowed to fail – incentives are high to do business there and the cost of living is cheap, speedy trains whisk you into London, Birmingham and Manchester and you can pootle around in your Mondeo to your heart’s content.
Verdict: Odds on to be playing in the Championship soon, if not before the end of 2012

So changing demography can bring about subtle changes in the sporting landscape. To return to that list of top ten performing towns, Reading have just returned to the top flight and have enjoyed a twenty year period completely unrecognisable from the Elm Park years, Cardiff have become a real fixture at the top end of the Championship and Peterborough might just have the wherewithal to launch a play-off challenge in 2012-13. This double dip recession is providing a stay of execution but the upward trend could be possible for many, as long as good decisions and sustainable growth are deployed in supplementing economic turnarounds.

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 44 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, Twisted Blood, In Bed with Maradona, A United View on Football and The Blizzard.

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14 Comments on "Geographies of Football: Economic Potential"

  1. Frank Heaven says:

    I had no idea Telford was so big. As you say, it is close to the West Midlands conurbation, and many of its first generation residents will lived there before Telford’s creation, so will still have loyalties to the region’s big four. But the second and third generations may feel more loyalty to Telford – that may explain the recent rise of Crawley and Stevenage.

    One other town possibly worth a mention is Newport. It has a population of 140,000, the county of Gwent numbers over half a million, and despite rugby’s profile in the principality, it has a healthy football history; over 18,000 watched Newport County’s Cup Winner’s Cup quarter-final against Carl Zeiss Jena in 1981.

  2. Lanterne Rouge says:

    Good point on Newport Frank – they may have lost out in the FA Trophy final but given the increasing interest in football in Wales and the success of Swansea and Cardiff in recent years, they could well be another team to look out for.

  3. Oxford Yankee says:

    I have to say that you’ve missed the mark with this one Lanterne. There is no reason, other than I suspect a personal bias, that OUFC could not reach the Championship. History shows that OUFC has spent a significant proportion of its league history at that level (or above) and although the last 10 years have seen us in the doldrums the support has been maintained and has the potential for growth (35k to Wembley for the conference play offs). Indeed it could easily be argued that Reading FC were a smaller club than OUFC before the excellent stewardship of JM and hence I see no reason why under similar circumstances OUFC could not match your own teams success.

    I think you did us a disservice in the article but appreciate that it is somewhat subjective. I know that the outside world’s impression of my fine city is skewed and being a resident yourself you will know that in many ways the University dominates. However look further afield and you will see that OUFC’s support is not just from Oxford. There are many decent sized towns in the county who provide a great deal of support and latent opportunity for the club to draw from.

    OUFC suffered in many ways by having our golden period during footballs darkest days. We were robbed of Europe and I myself went to top flight games with OUFC where less than 20k were in attendance ( at clubs now averaging 40, 50 even 60k). Had we been lucky to having the timing of your own club then I suspect we would match the attendances that you have enjoyed.

    Oxford’s turn will come again and I hope that we’ll prove you wrong. All the best.

    • Lanterne Rouge says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment Oxford Yankee.

      Unquestionably you are right that Reading and the U’s are of roughly similar size and there is indeed a case that Oxford are bigger – but Oxford were indeed unfortunate in that the club’s glory days coincided with football’s dark days (you are on the money there) while Reading’s have come since the boom. Far more money has been swilling about the game in recent years and Madejski’s good husbandry has transformed the Royals. I’d be interested to get your thoughts about Kassam? – an Oxford fan I spoke to last week said they he felt that the club was going nowhere under the current ownership and he seemed to have lost interest.

      A good point about the surrounding towns – I work in Didcot and I know it is traditionally Oxford United territory but, inevitably, you see a lot of Reading shirts at the station on match days.

      I am not especially biased twoards Oxford and indeed, remmeber being delighted at their victories of the mid eighties – that side Jim Smith built was truly impressive and the Milk Cup victory plus the various historic wins against top clubs (a 3-0 victory over Arsenal at the season’s climax really stands out) were amazing. Then, I remember a trip to the Manor a few years later when Joey Beauchamp took us the the cleaners and Matt Elliott was a rock.

      Of course there is a rivalry between Reading and Oxford and Maxwell’s behaviour during the Thames Valley Royals era wasn’t helpful but it’s probable that both clubs dislike Swindon more (I’m actually not particularly anti the Robins either). As an Oxford resident, I should say I absolutely love the town and freely admit that there is no comparison with Reading in terms of cultural amenities and things to do – it’s far better serviced, slightly under rated though Reading is.

      When all is said and done, I’m not naive enough to realise that the uncertainty over the Reading ownership coupled with their likely inability to compete in next year’s Prem together with the way Oxford have slowly improved under Chris Wilder (I was at the Kassam for the 5-1 win over Plymouth in the autumn and was mightily impressed) could see the two teams sharing league fixtures a lot sooner than anyone might suppose – but the way the town is divided into fans and non-fans does create curious circumstances.

  4. Eoghan Darbyshire says:

    Geographies of football? Can anyone spot the geographical common denominator?

    Tres southern.

    The article is mainly based on dispensable money from the middle classes? Is this now seen as the only group football can make money from, with sustainability? It would seem so, which is a real shame. Based on this prognosis it won’t be long until poxy towns are filling the lower echelons of the PL.

    Only I don’t see it that way, this whole notion of ‘value added’ is a bit flawed. Clubs like stoke, wigan and even champions man city buck this trend, in that they offer cheap season tickets and are attended by prominently the ‘working’ classes, with less disposable income. And they have worked their way up the leagues in recent years.

    I would say there is much greater chance that the established ‘big’ clubs in the lower leagues will rise up, in time (e.g. the sheffield clubs). Even at my club, Bradford City, the potential is huge – by far and away the best supported team in lg2 and with the population of Englands 5th biggest city to draw upon. Many of this population do not fit your profile for clubs to rise – middle class and with disposable income – rather they are poor and in the economic doldrums. Yet, if the price is right to match the wider conditions in the city, they follow their club.

    Long story short, there are many other factors than who’s got a reasonably sized middle class population base nearby, in judging likely future success stories.

    • Lanterne Rouge says:

      Some good points Eoghan. I should perhaps point out that in formulating the article, I was trying to identify a possible future outcome not one I wish to come to pass. I don’t especially want Swindon to do well any more than any other team and while they employ a manager with such dodgy politics they are actually pretty near the bottom of my list of favourites and as for Milton Keynes.

      The potential I was focusing on was Championship level – I think both Sheffield clubs would will be aiming for more than that – the top flight will always have a large number of teams from the old industrial centres.

    • Frank Heaven says:

      Eoghan – sadly, most people who run football today are marketing the game directly at those middle classes with large disposable incomes. And generally, they are lapping it up, despite the obscene prices and saturation coverage on television.

  5. Lloyd says:

    On the Oxford / Reading thing, Lanterne, you write that “there is no comparison with Reading in terms of cultural amenities and things to do – it’s far better serviced, slightly under rated though Reading is.”

    I agree. Culturally, parts of Oxford are up there. As you’d expect for a city that has developed around one of the world’s best universities with an up and coming ex-poly growing alongside it to boot…

    But in my book that doesn’t have anything to do with Oxford United FC other than in relation to why the club will probably always struggle to market itself to the city’s transient population of students, academics and culture vultures. Spot the odd one out: the first sip of a pint of Tribute in the White Hart; taking in a cutting-edge film at the Ultimate Picture Palace; leafing through medieval manuscripts at the Bodleian; punting on the Cherwell; idling an hour or two away in the Pitt Rivers museum; watching a football game at the Kassam; seeing stand-up at the Oxford Playhouse; taking on the Godzilla Challenge at the Atomic Burger; trying to find The Turf for the first time.

    Of all these activities, your average Oxfordian is likely to put a big red cross by the Kassam if pushed on what they’d least like to do. A trip out to the stadium is just such a dismal experience unless yellow is in your blood. While the location of the Mad Stad isn’t much more appealing, a Royals game is promoted up the list because, comparatively, there’s less to do in the Berkshire town. Moreover, your stereotypical Reading-dweller is probably going to more inclined to give up a few hours every few Saturdays for football. It helps that the team has also been doing so in recent years, of course.

    Oxford is a lovely place but it says a lot that I’d prefer to follow my team to Aldershot or Swindon rather than the Kassam, for example, given that it’s just such a desperately awful place to watch football. I’d be interested to know whether the experience has put off Oxford fans, both longstanding and would-be.

    I’m waffling. I’ll stop now.

  6. Lanterne Rouge says:

    Garath McCleary on signing for Reading today:

    “It’s amazing to be at a club like Reading,” said the Oxford-born winger.

    “Being a local boy as well, it’s the stuff that dreams are made of. I can’t wait to pull the Reading shirt on and prove what I can do.”

    That’s not going to please our friends at the Kassam.

    • Gilo (OUFC) says:

      ‘That’s not going to please our friends at the Kassam.’

      Indeed not but we’ve only got ourselves to blame. After not taking on Garath he went to Oxford City so its not as if the club couldn’t keep tabs on his obvious development & talent. Another one who we allowed to slip through the net!

      As for the article – very interesting. I’ve often wondered if our fanbase would do a ‘Reading’ if we were regularly near the top of the Championship. Unfortunately the current landlord (& ex-Chairman) will continue to dampen any dreams of a return to past glories for the foreseeable future…..

  7. James says:

    Are the wealthy middle classes really the ones to back a football team though? Obviously that hasn’t traditionally been the case, as surely Surrey and Buckinghamshire would both boast top flight teams if it were. While football certainly has a broader appeal these days, many of the middle class would rather watch it on TV than mix with the ‘chavs’ at a ground.

    With wealthy owners and TV money increasingly outweighing gate receipts, the local fan base (or its growth potential) is less vital to success. What is still important though, at least outside the premiership, is the potential for recruiting players from the local area. In the wealthier areas young lads are simply less likely to become footballers. For them, football isn’t the route out of poverty that it is for poorer people.

    Also, in the higher divisions, being able to attract top players is another issue, and one that really hampers Plymouth. With a choice of clubs to move to, who’s going to choose them?

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