The shifting demographic order of English Premier League clubs

Three big clubs occupy the Premier League’s relegation places. Villa are down, Newcastle almost there, with only Sunderland still clinging to slim survival chances. What causes these footballing behemoths to struggle when so many seemingly smaller clubs thrive in the modern football world?

These clubs really are big. Using most measures of bigness – they all excel. Big ground, big fan base, big population catchment, big tradition, big honours (in the dim and distant past) and crucially – big expectations.

The clubs’ stadiums have a combined capacity of 144,000 and represent the 4th, 5th and 7th largest grounds in the league [Source Wikipedia https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English_football_stadiums_by_capacity]. If they are all relegated, the combined Premier league ground capacity will fall by at least 55,000, taking account of their potential replacements (although this will be offset by capacity increases at West Ham, Liverpool and Spurs over the next few seasons).

They’re all situated in areas of enormous population (according to Wikipedia – see table below), and – unlike some conurbations – big population translates to big fan base. But these apparent advantages haven’t converted to on-the-field success. It’s difficult to pinpoint why, but one reason may be that big club expectations encourage poor short term decision making at the expense of long-term development.

The Football League has become a graveyard for big city clubs striving to return to former glories – Leeds United, Forest and the two Sheffield clubs spring to mind as examples. Previously Sunderland and Newcastle have succeeded in returning to the Premier League but there’s no guarantee they’ll do so this time.

Contrast Villa, Sunderland and Newcastle with a new group of Premier League clubs with modest tradition and backgrounds that have thrived in recent years – usually as a result of long-term planning and clever management – often with their genesis outside the top two divisions. Examples include Southampton, Leicester City, Swansea City, Stoke City and Bournemouth. None of these teams have been as burdened by short term expectations, their example shows that tradition – and even a giant stadium and fan base – don’t mean that much. Once promoted to the Premier League finances will sort themselves out.

It’s actually interesting to look at how English and Welsh population centres translate to Premier League teams – although it’s always difficult to define where to draw the line when comparing population areas. I’ve used information from Wikipedia’s list of UK urban areas as a way of demonstrating this relationship.

Rank Built-up area Population (2011 Census)

millions

Number of Premier League teams Premier League teams
1 Greater London Built-up area 9.79 6 Arsenal Chelsea Crystal Palace Tottenham Watford West Ham
2 Greater Manchester Built-up area 2.55 2 Man City Man United
3 West Midlands Built-up area 2.44 2 Aston Villa West Brom
4 West Yorkshire Built-up area 1.78 0
6 Liverpool Built-up area 0.86 2 Liverpool Everton
7 South Hampshire Built-up area 0.86 1 Southampton
8 Tyneside Built-up area 0.77 1 Newcastle
9 Nottingham Built-up area 0.73 0
10 Sheffield Built-up area 0.69 0
11 Bristol Built-up area 0.62 0
13 Leicester Built-up area 0.51 1 Leicester
15 Brighton and Hove Built-up area 0.47 0
16 Bournemouth/Poole Built-up area 0.47 1 Bournemouth
17 Cardiff Built-up area 0.45 0
18 Teesside Built-up area 0.38 0
19 Stoke-on-Trent Built-up area 0.37 1 Stoke
20 Coventry Built-up area 0.36 0
21 Sunderland Built-up area 0.34 1 Sunderland
22 Birkenhead Built-up area 0.33 0
23 Reading Built-up area 0.32 0
24 Kingston upon Hull Built-up area 0.31 0
25 Preston Built-up area 0.31 0
26 Newport Built-up area 0.31 0
27 Swansea Built-up area 0.30 1 Swansea
28 Southend-on-Sea Built-up area 0.30 0
29 Derby Built-up area 0.27 0
30 Plymouth Built-up area 0.26 0
31 Luton Built-up area 0.26 0
32 Farnborough/Aldershot Built-up area 0.25 0
33 Medway Towns Built-up area 0.24 0
34 Blackpool Built-up area 0.24 0
35 Milton Keynes Built-up area 0.23 0
36 Barnsley/Dearne Valley Built-up area 0.22 0
37 Northampton Built-up area 0.22 0
38 Norwich Built-up area 0.21 1 Norwich

Source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_urban_areas_in_the_United_Kingdom

The first thing to note here is London, obviously by far the biggest population centre – but also increasingly the centre of gravity for English football. In the last decade London has been the UK’s economic boom town and it’s certainly also been the case for football investment. The Premier League boasts 6 greater London clubs who’ll all stay up this season. Within the next decade at least 4 of these (Arsenal, West Ham, Spurs and Chelsea) will have super stadiums. And why worry about England’s chances of ever hosting the World Cup again, when London could launch a credible bid on its own?

Brentford, Fulham, QPR, Charlton and even Reading could also benefit from the London effect in future seasons. Although surely there’s a limit to how far London football investment can spread? [Chelsea, Fulham, QPR and Brentford even share adjacent pages on my A to Z]

The second thing I noted was how many very large population areas don’t have a Premier League team. Yorkshire stands out [West Yorkshire and Sheffield]; it’s perplexing why Yorkshire can’t sustain a premier league team. Although Middlesbrough, Hull City (both sometimes described as Yorkshire) and even Sheffield Wednesday may change this soon.

And it’s also notable how many large UK population areas there are, that haven’t traditionally been football hot beds. This illustrates that with good management and investment there are many unfashionable clubs that could become forces in the future – examples include teams such as Brighton, Huddersfield, Reading, Bristol City, Cardiff City and MK Dons. Even though Bournemouth doesn’t have a strong football tradition, they’re actually situated in a populous area – given their current structure and Premier League status they’re well set to become an established force.

There’s also a question of whether there are any more big clubs that may fall the way of Villa, Newcastle and Sunderland. In the Premier League, Everton appear to be the club in most danger, they certainly fit the profile. Even Manchester United and Liverpool might become concerned if they fail to return to the Champions League (although to an extent they’re protected by their huge brands). Arsenal and Spurs are probably protected by the London effect.

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