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January 18, 2016

The London effect: Why the capital's football teams are increasingly dominating the Premier League

By Joseph Kilroy

The premier league has gone all egalitarian. Recently there has been a great levelling off with perennial, nouveau riche, title challengers Chelsea languishing just above the relegation zone. Meanwhile Leicester City, a relatively recent (re)arrival to the league, is throwing its weight around in the top three, and West Ham is taking scalps from all of last season’s top four.

The end of the annexation of the top spots by the big clubs, and the Hollyoaks-isation of Chelsea, makes for great viewing for those of us who are neutral. But it’s distracted attention away from one of the processes that has flattened out the league’s hierarchy: Londonisation.

A lot of pundits are saying that this season has been just what the premier league needed – new teams coming to the fore, breaking the homogeneity of the top of the table.

But it’s interesting to note that the majority of these “plucky” teams are from in and around London (Watford, Crystal Palace, West Ham). That’ll consolidate the hold over the top six that the capital typically has.

Will this trend continue? If economic geography has taught us anything it will.

The London factor

As the age of narcissism in football continues apace, footballers are joining the rest of society and thinking about themselves and their lifestyle when it comes to choosing a club. London has a lot to offer, not only in terms of football clubs but also in terms of enjoyment. In fact, if you’re earning £100,000 a week, there are probably few better cities in the world to live, particularly in an age when society’s primary demand of us to enjoy ourselves at all costs.

Londoners are well acquainted with the costs of congestion: overpriced housing, packed trains, the hipster blitzkreig of once salt of the earth pubs to name but a few. If you’re a footballer earning £100,000 a week, though, the costs of congestion are likely to be offset by the benefits of agglomeration: access to high end housing, cultural amenities, green space, an international hub and a cosmopolitan community.

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Foreign players are more likely to find a sizeable community from their native country in London than any other city in England. Note the case of Alexis Sanchez, who purportedly chose Arsenal over Liverpool because of London’s large Chilean community.


Migation flows in England and Wales (click to enlarge). Image: Centre for Cities.

Research from the Centre for Cities suggests that people in their 20s move to London to find employment, and for the thrill of living in an international city. Of all of the twenty somethings who decided to relocate in recent years, almost one in three moved to London.  

This means that there was a large net inflow of people aged between 22 and 30 into the capital. The majority of footballers fit into this age bracket, and they are no exception to this trend. So, if footballers increasingly follow this pattern, it will feed the success of London-based clubs.

Migation to and from London by age (click to enlarge). Image: Centre for Cities.

As it stands, five of the top ten teams in the league are from London, compared to just three a decade ago ago.

In other words, the things that put the rest of us mere economic mortals off London are less likely to apply to moneyed footballers – but the capital’s advantages still do. There are clearly other factors at play here but the appeal of London is having an effect.

How does Londonisation work?

The Manchester clubs’ money, reputation, and success mean that there will always be a northern powerhouse in football. But Liverpool provides a potentially interesting example which shows how the Londonisation mechanism is working.

The attractiveness of Liverpool as a club is no longer built on success (they have not won the league in twenty five years), but rather reputation, and a hip new manager. As it stands they are below West Ham and Crystal Palace in the league, two clubs without much of an international reputation, but in a city with a global reputation.

For a player choosing between clubs in the premier league, all other things (particularly sporting success) being equal, this London factor has begun to swing their decision. The prospect of being a moneyed young man in London, at a club that enjoys a similar level of success to a club like Liverpool, is proving to be a decisive factor. Just look at the ability of traditionally mid-table, or even relegation-threatened, London clubs to attract talent that was formerly the reserve of the top four clubs and subsequently shoot up the table.

As mid-table London clubs’ ability to lean on the London factor continues to attract top players, so they will continue to achieve more success on the pitch: that will ultimately become an appealing factor to potential transfer targets in itself. If this mechanism continues apace, we are likely to see more and more London clubs in the top half of the table.

This leads us to a fundamental question in economic geography: would we be happy to let failing clubs fail in the same way certain authors suggest we should let failing places fail? Or is there something inherently good about having national league that is spread across the country/truly national? Football really does imitate life.

Joseph Kilroy works in Policy & Research at the Royal Town Planning Institute. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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