The rise of clubs such as Bornemouth and Southampton has perfectly intertwined itself with the demise of former giants such as Leeds United and Sheffield Wednesday - meaning that gradually the majority of teams who find themselves competing in English football’s top division has edged further and further south.
The north-west has managed to keep something of a grip on things as both Manchester sides have topped the table in recent years while the clubs on the Mersey remain strong too. Cameos from teams such as Wigan and Burnley have also boosted the north-west’s presence in the league.
In the north-east, Sunderland have been present for ten years but are about to exit; Middlesbrough are joining them after just one season which broke a seven year absence, and Newcastle are coming back up after suffering a second relegation in eight years. It’s hardly stable up here in the north-east.
Nowhere is the lack of northern Premier League clubs felt heavier than it is in Yorkshire, though. With the exception of Hull - who are also on their way down remember - there have been no White Rose representatives since Sheffield United’s relegation in 2007. For such a huge area with so many great clubs that’s remarkable. Huddersfield Town may break that run by winning the Championship Play Off final, but that will just further highlight the plight of many of the clubs in the region. Why is it The Terriers - a team tipped for relegation this season - are on the brink of making it back up first ahead of historically more successful clubs like both Sheffield sides and Leeds?
Perhaps it’s expectation that causes so much harm. Most of the teams who’ve won promotion from the Championship recently have been clubs with smaller fan bases which is sure to lessen the pressure faced by the manager charge. Be it Bournemouth with their stadium holding just over ten thousand supporters and a first taste of the top flight, or Brighton & Hove Albion, who were almost relegated out of the football league twenty years ago, and have never won a major trophy.
Whether supporters of clubs such as Sunderland or Leeds are conscious of it, the history of both clubs breeds expectation, and is partly why both draw such bafflingly large crowds; therefore, it’s surely no surprise that managers at historically successful clubs would be given less time to make something happen?
At a (and I use this word reluctantly) “smaller” club it makes sense that a manager would be given more leeway if the team are just pushing for mid-table because this is the best they’ve had it for a long time. They’re not like Leeds who can remember a Champions League semi-final in this century; the lack of memories and recent successes might enable the coach to build a philosophy at a much slower pace. For them, this is the start of a journey - not the start of a rebuild.
Sometimes, even inflated expectations pale in comparison to off the field issues plaguing many clubs. We all know about the soap opera at Leeds and its many spin-offs while the troubling tales of Blackpool and Blackburn Rovers have also been well-documented due to questionable ownership.
The history, prestige and support bring potential lucrative opportunities to cowboy owners who think they can make a quick buck from a football club. Once they get bored and realise it’s not possible to make much out of football though, the rot sets in. Blackpool are now in League 2, Blackburn are departing to League 1 and even Nottingham Forest (they’re north of Birmingham, so they count) just managed survival after a heap of turbulence off the field.
That’s not just a problem which is exclusive to the north though. Portsmouth had to be rescued by the fans after they tumbled down the divisions; not a game goes by at Charlton Athletic without some kind of protest, and Leyton Orient have gone from being within a penalty shoot of reaching the second flight, down to the conference in just three years. So it’s fair to say that the mismanagement of clubs doesn’t take any notice of the north/south divide.
So perhaps it is purely down to location. When Alexis Sanchez joined Arsenal over Liverpool, he said the fact the Gunners were in London played a huge part in the deal. Likewise with Eden Hazard, who was motivated to join Chelsea ahead of Manchester City because he didn’t fancy the north-west. Even Manchester United are having trouble tempting Antoine Griezmann because he has reservations about the weather. If that’s how the clubs at the very top are fairing, then surely it must be even harder for those further down the pyramid?
And it certainly does seem that way, with outskirts of London-based Watford being able to attract players from clubs such as A.C Milan and Napoli. A main reason they were able to lure Younes Kaboul away from our club was due to their proximity to the capital. Etienne Capoue from Spurs too, thanks to the fact that he didn’t have to be removed from the London lifestyle.
Outside of the M25, Bournemouth can even sell their location to players with areas such as the famed Sandbanks on their doorstep, while Brighton’s setting will mean they’re able to compete with already established teams when it comes to attracting top-level players.
So if players are signing for locations rather than clubs, then surely this is going to contribute to a growing sterility in the Premier League. Again, this isn’t something that exclusively occurs in the south, but it’s certainly more prevalent than it is in the north. That’s not to say a player can’t fall in love with the club after signing either, but with a London-centric attitude you’re going to get more mercenaries than honest players desperate to prove their worth.
To counter this southern attraction, teams in less fashionable areas are having to compensate by offering higher wages. We certainly know that’s been the case for Sunderland, and when these players don’t work out the clubs who have made the financial gamble are left saddled with debt which results in mismanagement, which in turn unsettles supporters with certain expectations eventually leading to changes in the dugout and within the club which is already lacking in direction of philosophy.
So it seems fair to conclude that location is playing a bigger part in football than ever. Many southern sides have taken advantage while the north has started to stagnate. Portsmouth won the FA Cup, Swansea lifted the League Cup, Fulham got to a European final and a seventh place finish for Southampton in 2015 was an excellent achievement. At a similar level, no northern clubs have made such strides, with the only real exception being Wigan’s FA Cup win in 2013 - but even that was a season which ended in relegation for The Latics.
Football has changed drastically since the advent of the Premier League and it seems that, for a multitude of reasons, the north has been left behind.