English Soccer, Geographical Divides, and Margaret Thatcher: How Has The Geographical Composition of The English First Tier Changed Over Time?

By Andrew Puopolo

Traditionally, English Soccer has been dominated by Northern clubs. A potential explanation is that in the Industrial North, soccer was the main leisure activity of the people, whereas in the wealthier South the people’s interests varied. This is a well documented phenomenon across Europe, as clubs from the more industrial cities like Manchester, Munich, Marseille and Milan all had more success than wealthy capital cities like London, Berlin, Paris and Rome. In the UK, clubs from provincial cities like Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham and Birmingham won European Cups before London based Chelsea won the UEFA Champions League in 2012. However, in recent times wealthy foreign investment and has blurred these lines, as capital clubs Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur have seen a major resurgence in recent years.

This got me wondering, has the geography of the English top division changed considerably over time. Has the North always been stronger, or has the South had period of dominance? Has the Midlands seen any variance in representation?

To do this, I took every club in every English top flight season dating back to 1946-1947. For each cub, I classified them as being from the North, South or Midlands. For the Southern clubs, I then broke them up into London clubs and non-London clubs (note: Watford are considered a non-London club). My reasoning for this was that Southern clubs from outside London like Southampton, Watford, Norwich and Swansea have all broken into the top flight within the last six years, and I wanted to see if there has been a major change over time. I then assigned each club a score for each season. The “score” for each club is calculated to be:

# of Clubs in League + 7 – Finishing Position

The reason behind adding 7 is so that each club in the league is worth at least 2% of the overall total (they would be worth 5% if all clubs were worth the same). From this, we have that the club that wins the league is about 4 times more important than the club that finishes last.

From this, we sum the scores for each club in the region, and divide by the total number of available points for that season (because the top division has not always had the same number of clubs). This gave every region a score between 0 and 1.

We obtain the following results:

1.) The North has historically ruled, but the South had one long period of dominance

From after World War II into the 1970s, the North ruled supreme in the English game, with clubs like Blackpool and Burnley winning league titles in the 1950s. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher became prime minister and was extremely harsh on the Northern cities. During this time, the Southern clubs experienced a ten year period of dominance that they had not previously enjoyed. This extended through 1990, coincidentally when Thatcher left office. In recent years, the North has held a slight advantage but the South has taken back over in the last five years, possibly because of the foreign investment mentioned earlier.

2.) The Midlands had its period of dominance, but has fallen on harder times

The Midlands dominated in the 1970s and early 1980s, with Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa winning the European Cup, and Derby County winning two league titles. However, in recent times the Midlands has fallen on hard times, with only midtable West Bromwich Albion, Stoke City and Leicester City representing the Midlands in the Premier League this year.

3.) London saw a huge spike under Thatcher and are now performing at a higher level

Besides Arsenal, London clubs have not traditionally been amongst the elite. However, during the Thatcher era, London clubs saw a huge spike in both quantity and quality. In 1989-1990, there were 9 clubs from London in the first division. Since Thatcher, the London clubs have receded slightly, but consistently outperform their pre Thatcher levels. Many of the capital clubs have seen considerable foreign investment and London has maintained a healthy presence in the Premier League.

4.) The Non London clubs in the South had a much stronger Thatcher effect

Like London, the clubs from the South that are not from London saw a huge jump in participation during Thatcher that immediately dropped off when she left office. However, in the last 6 years, many clubs have been promoted into the Premier League, which perhaps signals a shift in power towards the South that mirrors the growing economic divide between the two regions.

Editors Note 1: If you would like to reach out to Andrew with questions or comments, please reach out to him at andrewpuopolo@college.harvard.edu.

Editors Note 2: Special thanks to Laurie Shaw at Eighty Five Points/ for providing the data used in this article.

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