As the transfer window rumbles on, Newcastle United were this week linked with a move for Ajax and Argentina full back Nicolas Tagliafico. One of the eye-catching things about this otherwise mundane transfer rumour is the fact that the £8 million fee reportedly quoted by the Dutch giants, coupled with the player’s agents fees, could prove to be too expensive for the Tyneside club.
At a time when Huddersfield Town, Fulham, Cardiff and Wolves are splashing the cash like it’s going out of fashion, it is very telling about the current state of affairs at the proud North East football club.
It’s all a rather far cry from the heady days of the mid-nineties, when the pull of the Geordies was considerable. In 1996, they spent a world-record £15 million on Alan Shearer’s services from Blackburn Rovers. In today’s money, that’s somewhere in the region of £26 million. Those funds are now well and truly dried up and the desertification of the North East has been seen elsewhere in the once proud Northern football clubs.
Diminishing all the time
With just ten days to go before another Premier League season gets underway, there are just seven northern sides remaining in the top flight division of English football. With the momentum shifting to southern and less traditionally bigger clubs, the question for the North is: should they be concerned about their status in the game they did so much to create?
Football was very much forged in the North of England. Pioneers from industrial towns took the game to far flung corners of the globe. Lancastrian miners helped to form Dynamo Moscow, while football clubs in Chile and Uruguay bare the names of Everton and Liverpool; such is the influence of the region’s football on the globe.
For much of the Premier League era, there has always been a healthy smattering of northern sides to make up the numbers. As recently as 2010/11 there were eleven clubs, with eight of them coming from the North West of England.
However, despite this concentration and majority in the top flight, regions like Yorkshire and the North East were in decline. The Sheffield clubs have looked more likely to be competing together in the third tier rather than the first, while Middlesbrough, Sunderland and Newcastle have all been relegated from the top flight, five times between them, in nine years.
There are currently as many London clubs as there are teams from the north in the top flight, and with clubs like Cardiff, Bournemouth and Brighton nestling down for Premier League places, there really has been a massive ground shift over the past few years. Representation, though, only tells half the story. Financial and social pulling power is stacked dramatically in favour of teams from the South and, to a lesser extent, the Midlands.
Rich and Poor and not much in between
Since that aforementioned campaign of 2010/11, the likes of Bolton, Blackburn, Hull City, Sunderland and Blackpool have all faced financial hardship or administration. Bolton were recently one of the most indebted football clubs in the world, while Sunderland have gone down to the third tier with barely a penny to spend – and spiralling debt.
Many have faced other kinds of despair, too, whether it be a pair of Indian poultry merchants or a parasitical miser for a chairman. The fact is, the strife of Northern clubs has led them to wither away while other clubs have supplanted them in the financial rankings.
Meanwhile, clubs like Fulham, Wolves, Brighton and Leicester have been able to come in and outspend some of the traditional big boys. For instance, Fulham have spent more than Spurs this summer, with almost £55 million splashed out on top talent like Andre Schurrle and Jean Michael Serri.
When wealthy investors are drawn to the economic powerhouse that is London, it should come as no surprise that their investments fall on the surrounding football clubs in the region. The old mill towns and working class strongholds of the North just don’t have the same appeal outside of Manchester and Liverpool.
The pulling power of London is nothing new of course, as many a player from many an era has been attracted to the multicultural amenities and wealthy postcodes. Marcel Desailly turned Liverpool down to be nearer French schools. While Mrs. Sanchez clearly wasn’t impressed with the Liverpool One shopping district and was said to favour London as her husband checked out of Barcelona.
Even outside of London, smaller clubs fail draw to big names. Dietmar Hamann had just signed for Bolton after leaving Liverpool in 2006, when he got cold feet driving out of the smaller town and opted to stay with big city life, signing for Manchester City instead.
Skewed and spread stats
Of course, the big four in the North West are bastions of success and offer plenty of allure to big name players. Fifty-two of the one hundred and eighteen league titles have been won by these clubs, while Liverpool, City and United continue to be a dominant spending power amongst the elite clubs in Europe.
This success, though, rather skews the current picture of northern football. Economic hardship and the decline of bigger clubs like Leeds United, Newcastle and Everton have led to sporadic pockets of success for some smaller Northern clubs, who have temporarily filled the void left by their bigger rivals.
Wigan Athletic managed to defy odds and stay in the Premiership from 2005-2013, appearing in two major finals in that time. Burnley and Huddersfield have worked miracles in surviving with the big boys despite smaller crowds and budgets. However, this success is now mirrored in the South with clubs like Swansea surviving from 2012-2018, winning a League Cup in that time, with Bournemouth and Watford also holding their own in the top flight.
Ultimately, this could just be another cycle for English football. It is hard to determine the reasons behind this obvious malaise. Some point to the decline or working class clubs when a Conservative Government is in power. However, this argument is undone by the dominance of Liverpool and Everton in the eighties.
While football clubs always have peaks and troughs, it does feel as though, currently, the North is struggling to cling on the coattails of the rich man’s game for which it did so much to create.
The financial figures and troubles of the Northern clubs should be of some concern to the supporters and custodians of those teams. Blackburn Rovers are currently trying to navigate through debts of over £100 million, while Blackpool F.C remains strangled by the Oyston Family.
One exception of late is perhaps Leeds United. The club seem to have shaken off some of their recent money issues and are bold enough to be spending big on players like Patrick Bamford, with Marcelo Bielsa also ambitiously installed as head coach. They could be pushing for a return to the big time and a place in the top flight which their fans so desperately seek.
No club has the right to succeed forever and poor financial management and spending will only ever end up taking a club the wrong way. It could be a mere coincidence of fortune that money men and good coaches have wound up south bound on the M6. If some of that fortune could head up the opposite end of the country, there would many a fan who would rejoice in seeing the North rise once again.