Sustaining the exact definition of a monopoly – 25% ownership of a particular economic sector – in the Premier League currently, it would be unabashedly simple to deride English football as the preserve of an elite, financially superpowered London-based contingent. Blasé derisions of the quality, particularly of a previously domineering North-Eastern class, befall many. And while we regard Manchester’s dastardly duo as the present heavyweights, and key continental hopes, of British competition, London’s crop never fail to trace in intimate financial, or ambitious, proximity; exploiting any vacuum of instability across the M6 whenever it seldom arises.
Yet meanwhile, an all-too amorally apt trend is unfolding within the capital’s sprawling urban confines – a replication of housing crises, reliance on food banks and infiltrating poverty for those footing the bill for economic disarray, while a ruling class gather increasing swathes of societal wealth, with which to exploit legal injustices in Caribbean, or crown dependency-based, tax avoidance schemes. An elite, here represented by Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, and to an extent the recently flailing, relegation-flirting West Ham United and Crystal Palace, is profiting from the misfortune of Leyton Orient, Barnet, Millwall, Charlton, Dagenham & Redbridge and the void originally left by 1988 FA Cup victors Wimbledon FC, while suppressing the potential of non-leaguers Sutton United, Bromley, Boreham Wood, Enfield Town, Welling United, Dulwich Hamlet and Hampton and Richmond Borough, in an ultimate campaign to guard their fortunes, however ridiculous the prospect of any economic challenge arriving is in the present age of notoriously inevitable title direction. For all of the FA Cup-winning, Premier League accomplishing and continentally renowned prowess of London’s leading lights, the disparity with their historically competitive neighbours – fatally afflicted with financial mismanagement, inept coaching or the modern stadium phenomena – is gaping far wider than ever previously contemplated.
Of course, few external metropoles – capital or not, British or overseas – defer from this hierarchical rhetoric, yet none capture the example to quite the inglorious extent of England’s political, cultural and economic heart, unless referring to Russian or micro-state circumstances of polarity. Thus, through the lens of London’s extremities, a scope for introspective enquiry assembles; does the broader capitalist subtext of the sport act as an ideological vanguard to unfolding events, or a detriment when argued on a democratic scene? Encapsulating the lucrative industry that professional football has swiftly become for the nation, is the polarising trend perhaps the most vicious example of modern British capitalism, despite being fixated around ‘only football’? Whether this is a mere circumstance of aligning socio-economic factors, and not the conspiracy it may be construed through false interpretations of my rhetoric, remains a fundamental concern to a resolution and redressing of power balances in the urban mass of London. Nor should this be degraded as an ideological clash; morals form the basis of the struggle, and any compromise from the Premier League kingpins would hardly result in socialist uprising, rather a genuine demonstration of sincerity and humility for the husks from which they first emerged, with an acceptance of ethics paramount.
Ploughed forward in economic terms under its present guise by an influx of multinational conglomerates, opportunist investors and undoubtedly corrupt industries, the former domain of Britain’s systematically exclusive ageing white working male population has, projected upon itself, the direct influence of external finance. Half of Greater London’s twelve professional outfits remain British owned; Steve Parish’s majority at Crystal Palace, Joe Lewis and Daniel Levy’s reign at Tottenham, Messrs Gold and Sullivan’s prominent West Ham tenure, Matthew Benham’s Brentford buyout, the AFC Wimbledon’s Supporters’ Society and Anthony Kleanthous’ long-term Barnet control representing one end of the spectrum. Conversely, Russian, American, Belgian, Malaysian and Indian magnates dominate the divisions of Chelsea, Islington, Charlton and White City, defining a national precedent established by Roman Abramovich back in 2003. Each, regardless of their derivation of ownership, has profited from the capital’s 21st century construction boom – either in the process, having eased into new abodes, or planning modern stadia developments that have greatly benefited the lucrative London football scene, particularly alongside the ‘new’ Wembley of 2007. The Emirates, the Olympic Stadium and Barnet’s Hive Stadium have come to fruition; White Hart Lane’s revamp and Stamford Bridge’s modernisation are approaching fast; plans are afoot for the jettisoning of Griffin Park, Loftus Road, Kingsmeadow and Den sites – of Brentford, QPR, Wimbledon and Millwall respectively – for vaster expanses amidst varying respective concerns of sentiment, incapacity and external development pressure; where does the heritage of Selhurst Park or Craven Cottage, or Roland Duchâtelet’s stubborn reliance on Charlton’s Valley settle within this trend? Quite honestly, we cannot realistically anticipate their competition to sustainably withstand, if not for a capitalisation on the reconstruction and expense of local opponents at these stages.
Community presence remains such an enigmatic and influential impact on the local audience that it can be the ultimate test of acumen and resolve in the turbulent cityscape. Posed with stadia that had withstood world wars in Highbury, Upton Park, the original White Hart Lane, Stamford Bridge and Selhurst Park, the challenge to modernise and address the capacity concerns of a lucrative public has proven as constitutionally immobile and sacrificial as a space mission when manoeuvring the engulfing leviathan that is London. Reputation, resolved by these cultural implications, counts for much around these parts. Over eight million captive customers, potentially, from whom admittedly only 10% may be attainable footballing enthusiasts, are up for stakes in the challenge of North, East, South and West, with elite level football primed to usurp specific local performances and non-league outlets. Presentation of the idealised matchday image could certainly impact on your very future interpretation of the club, and no expenses are spared – and certainly should not be considering the exorbitance Arsenal fans, not alone by any means, have to foot for an Emirates season ticket. Luxurious football, service and all-round entertainment is prised, and little more can be achieved from the engaging public persona of these clubs – thus, slick modernisation is an obvious route to continued global, as opposed to merely local, relevance. Profitabilities from sponsorship deals, including those aforementioned, exceeds the moral cost for many chairmen of a betrayal of supporter trust, and can amalgamate achievements in a reciprocal, even synergetic, partnership. Progression, thus, is feasible if regulated in the correct processes.
Expanding capacities has enabled the direct monopoly of attractive Premier League football over London’s apparently pitiful alternative footballing platter. At one stage, during Wembley Stadium’s early-2000s reinvention and reconstruction, Stamford Bridge stood as the pinnacle of the city’s attendances; a mere 41,663 its relent, paling in comparison to Old Trafford’s burgeoning 75,000-seater aspirations, and even their 68,000 reality at the time. Evidently, the ambition that lay in the hub that played host to Arsène Wenger’s 2003-04 season ‘Invincibles’, a geographically diverse Chelsea side acquired by the mysterious Roman Abramovich in June 2003 and transformed into consecutive league victors from 2004 to 2006, and a Second Division Millwall outfit that upheld London’s pride in the 2004 FA Cup final, were harnessed to drive forward an ensuing seating revolution. Arsenal paved the way; forging a 60,432-capacity Emirates Stadium from the rubble of a much-beloved and regrettably-departed 38,419-seater Highbury, while shifting a mere 0.3 miles over the rails of the Northern City Line. As West Ham – from the Boleyn Ground’s 35,016 seats to an Olympic Stadium’s often-lamented 66,000 – Spurs – with works ongoing to increase the 36,284 infringed by infamous structural beams to a 61,000-behemoth reverted a few metres away – and Chelsea – with ambitions to implement a 60,000 feat of aesthetic engineering by the 2020-21 seasons – have pursued this trend, the population alone of the city’s sporting elite has, and will, alone nigh-on increase by 100,000 (151,382’s history leaping forward to 248,432). This is equal to the disparity between cities such as Huddersfield, and those comparable to Nottingham, which may not appear significant, but when ranking the Premier League’s total 35 occupant past and present conurbations, results in a distance of twelve positions, from 26th to 14th.
Meanwhile, further developments in the city’s outskirts promise to rival this expansion. West London’s Brentford, and the South West’s Wimbledon, each have upcoming constructions to increase respective capacities from 12,763 and a meagre 2.265 to 17,250 and 11,000 – with the latter potentially rising to 20,000. North London’s Barnet moved from their 106-year residence of Underhill Stadium the Hive Stadium in 2013, departing a 6,023-seater to a similarly constructed plot six miles across Edgeware, with ambitions to develop an 8,500-capacity courtesy of a renovated stand, while QPR – under the airline entrepreneur Tony Fernandes – retain as-yet deterred intentions to retire Loftus Road and effectively double attendances from 18,439 to 40,000. Ostracised to London’s leafy suburbs by the financially empowered elite, however, their objectives have been left unfulfilled, and, to protracted extents alongside callously managed entities Fulham and Charlton, have failed to capitalise on the fervour within the city’s volume. In a metropolis presently registered as the largest within the vast realms of the European Union, let alone the United Kingdom, and the third largest in Europe (after Moscow and Istanbul), 13.23% of the entire UK’s population resides – using precise figures, 8,778,500 of all 66,331,573 citizens – and a fairly equal 13.04% of all ’92 club’ constituents hail from its confines. Yet a minor alarm is sounded by the disparity between the 25% London representatives of the Premier League and the 9.72% of the remaining Football League.
It is no particular coincidence that those who survived the era of the Premier League prior to ‘parachute payments’ and fortune-spinning broadcast right deals have profited amidst the implementation of such cultural phenomena. Their sustained relevance has proved paramount to an expansion of business ambition, and not just in local or national vicinities. Broadcast to effectively each corner of the globe, their ability for recognition has developed exponentially, with regaling tales of the talents of cult heroes no longer relied upon for attention in the world’s most aloof regions; visible evidence is available at reasonably affordable prices for avid Thai, Indonesian, Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese and Malaysian consumers, in particular. Alongside this public engagement arrives the interest of these regions’ most lucrative corporations, affirming the support of a particularly successful footballing enterprise, and creating a cultish social dynasty in previously unaccounted nations. And as London’s population cultivates steadily year upon year, which demographic is sustaining this growth? Who is so blessed with the capital as to be able to sustain a lifestyle in the notoriously inhospitable financial demands of London? Typically, overseas-derived investors, the socialite middle-classes and corporate executives; not exactly an indicative thesis of a football fan.
Manipulating this socio-economic inclination as for it to play directly into their investments’ hands, however, have been the directors of Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs, West Ham, and to an extent relative Premier League novices Crystal Palace. How else would Ivan Gazidis and Stan Kroenke’s side be able to physically encourage ‘supporters’ to the Emirates for a season of inconsistent wallowing for upwards of a £1000 investment? Although they may be harnessing an influx of internal London migrants for match days from Barnet, Croydon, Bromley, Lambeth, Enfield or Ealing by expanding stadium capacities, their key economic focus remains on the commercial profitability of exclusive elites perched from the executive boxes, far away from the thriving concourses, over the tribulations of largely successful Premier League environs. As are the potential exploits of a city founded on heavy industry, but now almost exclusively reliant on online start-ups, globally-domineering finance sectors and sprawling tourism. The trepidations of heritages founded on suburban complexes candidly arise when compared to the economic successes of institutions derived from the manufacturing – West Ham – and armament – Arsenal – industries, and those who have shed previous interpretations to adapt to changing social times in the city. An inability to assert such perceptive and appealing exteriors has hindered the competitive fortunes even of those with an extensive top-flight pedigree, yet who err too far aside the city’s borders; Charlton’s eight Premier League seasons, QPR’s seven and the thieved history of Wimbledon’s fellow eight representing no recompense for exploits rendered apparently insignificant in comparison to the all-conquering financial rule of the top English tier.
This is without even mentioning further misfortune of the city’s extensive non-league entourage. Because accomplishment in the municipality is no longer reliant on local population, nor any distinguishable resonance of industry, their populations are meaningless aspects of summation. Traverse the National League ranks, and you find Sutton, Bromley, Wealdstone, Boreham Wood, Dagenham & Redbridge, Leyton Orient, Hampton & Richmond Borough, and Welling. Pursue this search further down the diverse rungs of the pyramid, and Dulwich Hamlet, Enfield, Harrow Borough, Metropolitan Police, Hendon, Kingstonian, Wingate & Finchley, Tooting & Mitcham and Greenwich Borough act as credence to the depths of sporting ability London possesses, and the application of inner-city tenacity in denying clubs perhaps representative of the scope of an entire county subdivision. While these outfits operate in the shadows of the nation’s footballing forefathers, and the doldrums of semi-professionalism, their plight is similar to the financial stagnation and commercial incapacity of Football League contemporaries, yet tinged with the greater disparities of incongruous wealth. The residue and dissolution of regional influence seldom feeds down to those at this level, and while representing a percentile of steps 1-11 constituent clubs (10.02%) that is statistically lower than the London’s English influence, questions over the reasonable extent of their constant compromise and deference to local kingpins arise as potentially pivotal to the entirety of the English non-league scene.
Sustaining power, and ensuring the facilities and attributes are in such place as to do so, is the key fixation of central London’s elite, and has encompassed aforementioned entities of engineering commission in trailblazing stadia, a definite intensification of commercial ties, and the rise and rise of the lucrative, ultra-professional youth academy. Harnessing the astounding ability honed on communal council estate facilities, concrete jungle street corners and local Primary school playgrounds, Chelsea and Spurs have been particularly noted for their achievements, both in the FA Youth Cup and Premier League 2, in recent years. An academy’s purpose and focus has entirely altered from the days of West Ham’s ‘academy of football’ – late ‘90s and early-‘00s Messrs Lampard Jr., Defoe, Ferdinand, Carrick, Cole, Johnson and Terry each now approaching, or having already resigned themselves to, retirement – and the capitalisation on this trend has been significant, even decisive, in the establishment of especially a three-team monopoly. England’s international youth squads, and resultantly Gareth Southgate’s recently ‘injury’-afflicted experimental selection, are predominated by these two, and possibly three clubs’ prodigies, for whom first-team prospects appear themselves polarised at clubs of altering opportunity under present ideological regimes. No longer can prospects fail to arise to their attention, and be convinced of the benefits and certification offered by courses in the intense environments of Chelsea’s Cobham training ground, Spurs’ Enfield Training Centre or Arsenal’s Colney base, before they become acquainted with the practices of semi-professional, or non-institutionalised, entities. So valued, regardless of eventual first-team appearance likelihood, are these youngsters that great fees will define even formative stages of their careers. Such are the costs that alienate non-league, suburban outfits from regional, let alone national, competition.
Posed with the potential benefit of a trailblazing academy in close proximity, however, certainly a logical repercussion would be realised in the direction of failed Premier League products into local entities. Unfortunately, little such transition has occurred, with a breakdown in communication and resonance particularly to blame. Even sides of the ilk of Bedfordshire’s Luton Town – 35 miles from London’s centre – are exploiting the repercussions of esteemed Premier League selectivity, with Pelly Ruddock, Dan Potts and brothers Olly and Elliot Lee – each former West Ham youth prodigies – and ex-Arsenal goalkeeper James Shea forming an impressive spine for the League Two Hatters currently, while West Sussex’s Crawley, Essex’s Colchester and some of Yorkshire’s leading establishments also supplementing local harvests. They are able to take an incisive advantage of London’s offcuts, while those within the region fail to replicate such trends, in spite of superior geographical proximity. Evidence of the empowerment of elite entities and alleviation of local ties amidst a commercialised, externally-aware age could rarely be so damning.
Market forces drove the aforementioned trend, encompassing profits for elite-level London chairmen, academy products themselves and respective agents. Financial consciousness lay at the centre of more geographically liberal negotiations, as predispositions of lifestyle have been compromised on amidst an era of heightened ambition, and expanded horizons. Historical rivalry between local clubs did not exist as the apparent begrudging relationship it is now defined as; dependability defined the close ties particularly between managers, chairmen and players alike in an industry far streamlined to what is presented today. Gone, however, are the days in which transfers were engineered on the basis of sincere comradeship, as media-fuelled rivalry – genuine or not – between the talented imports of Antonio Conte, Mauricio Pochettino and Arsène Wenger asserts the financial antagonism of such leading clubs.
An ultimate social injustice – indicative of cultural revolution – in the city, however, is served by the absolute greed and financial manipulation of West Ham United in their callous, and calculated, manoeuvre towards idyllic Olympic Stadium occupation. Utilising pretences of cityscape enfranchisement, and exploiting the cavity presented by 2012 Olympic Games investment, legal collusion amongst the Hammers’ degrading bigwigs enabled a defiling of the taxpayer to the reported extent of hundreds of millions of pounds, when funds could have easily been devolved to less financially solvent, and dependable, entities who receive none of the economic certainty of practically assured Premier League football. In contributions to the E20 Stadium corporation-owned construction, West Ham’s essentially boundless fortunes amount to only £2.5 million annual lease fees, while the taxpayer is left to foot the bill of policing, stewarding, heating, pitch maintenance and the much-derided farce of corner flags and nets. No longer does financial, or social, accountability exist for the Premier League’s elite, with a scheme that fixated upon the public-funded support of Newham Council and London Legacy Development Corporation a damning example at the indicative forefront. Free reign, effectively, has been granted to their economic superiority in apparent public pursuit of symbiotic profit. Meanwhile, of little apparent consequence, the stagnating attendances, financial plight and burgeoning disparity of Football League and non-league institutions – in a largely geographically diverse cluster around the city’s parameters – is granted a mere cold shoulder in a systemic cultural alienation in spite of loyal service to the sport’s local profit.
Nor does this trend appear close to halting. Encompassing aforementioned stadium developments on the affluent border between Fulham and Chelsea, and in socially polarising North Tottenham, the expansion of totalitarian franchises is impending. The mere seven EFL-member entities that typify suburban London may soon diminish if construction projects are being deferred so often, and competitors can capitalise on the financial instability that belies extensive geographical potential. What the elite may do well to remember, however, is that a pyramid is not upheld by the summit; the dividing stages are those that maintain its structure, and thus profitability. It is by no means a socialist outcry, and no ideological opposition to upper-tier advantage; what London, akin to all metropoles and respective provinces, is equity in scope, and the structural capability to challenge constraints. The Premier League’s Londoners have not made a mere capitalist escape from equal circumstances as their close competitors; they have performed an excessive campaign of brutal reconstruction, geographical ignorance and, in extreme examples, legal infringement in order to totally expose a momentary lapse in the capabilities of rivals from Brent, Bromley, Barnet, Dagenham, Ealing, the White City and the Isle of Dogs. Parity can hardly be anticipated in succession, and whether the ensuing events of the professionalised, and particularly Premier League, era can be construed as positive entirely depends on perspective, and sympathy for those undermined by its turmoil. As was once famously remarked about the city by Oscar Wilde, and as if to inadvertently condone such callous expense; ‘The man who can dominate a London dinner table can dominate the world.’ For all those who remain apathetic to the situation, there are those who will defend the concerns of those belittled by its structure. As such, I shall leave the final word to the late actor and playwright Sir Noël Coward; ‘I don’t know what London’s coming to – the higher the buildings the lower the morals.’
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!