Geographies of Football: Economic Potential
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.
‘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
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
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 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
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
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.
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 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.