With the start of the new English Premier League season just a week away, it is impossible to see any club other than three of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool occupying the top three positions at the end of the season.
In the last 10 seasons, apart from Leeds finishing third in 2001 and Newcastle finishing third in 2003, the top three final positions in each season have been occupied by three of those four clubs, reflecting an unprecedented degree of elitism at the top level of English football. Even in the two other major European leagues in Spain and Italy, each of which has historically been dominated by a handful of clubs, such a narrow elitism has not occurred.
In Spain, apart from the traditional powerhouses of Real Madrid and Barcelona, Atletico Bilbao, Real Sociedad, Deportivo La Coruna, Mallorca, Valencia, Villarreal and Sevilla have all finished in the top three within the last 10 seasons, while in Italy, Udinese, Lazio, Fiorentina and Roma have taken final top three places alongside the traditionally dominant Juventus, AC Milan and Internazionale.
Yet, until the 1970s, the top division in England was the most competitive and open of all the major European leagues. The number of clubs capable either of winning the title, or of finishing in the top three, has steadily declined since the Second World War. Taking four periods of 15 seasons each from 1947 to 2007, the number of different clubs winning the title has declined from 8 to 7 to 6 to 4. The number of different clubs finishing in the top 3 has also declined, from 15 to 10.
While the advent of the EPL in 1993 may have accelerated the formation of a narrow elite in England, earlier events had already put the process in motion. In 1961, the maximum wage for players was abolished. The effect was that smaller clubs with more limited resources could no longer hold on to their best players. Lancashire clubs such as Burnley, Preston and Blackpool were amongst the earliest to feel this effect. In the early 1980s, an arrangement by which clubs shared their home gate receipts with the away club was ended, which allowed clubs with larger home attendances to accumulate wealth much faster than clubs with smaller home attendances. Medium sized clubs such as Ipswich and Nottingham Forest were the next to feel the effect of these changes.
The overall effect has been that clubs with bigger fan bases accumulate wealth faster, which enables the clubs to bring in better players, and thereby improving the prospect of achieving success, which in turn attracts more fans. The process has also been shaped in recent years by external investors, who see in clubs with either or both of a great history and a fan base, the opportunity to make a leap forward in this cycle, by an immediate injection of substantial funds.
The formation of the EPL added much larger TV revenue and audiences into the equation. Further, the changes in recent years in the rules for qualification for the UEFA Champions League, which allows the top three of four clubs in England to qualify for the Champions League each season, with the substantial additional revenue that qualification brings in, reinforces the wealth gap between the top clubs and the rest of the EPL.
However, merely having a large fan base does not guarantee a place in the elite, as Newcastle United fans will testify. As even the bigger clubs largely finance the acquisition of top players by incurring debt, there is only a limited period during which a club must achieve success in order to cross the threshold into the elite, or risk collapse, as Leeds spectacularly did. Newcastle United lost one opportunity to cross the threshold they finished runners up to Manchester United in successive seasons in 1996 and 1997.
On the other hand, once a club has established itself amongst the elite and developed a pedigree, it has the potential to sustain its position in the elite for a whole generation entirely off the back of its loyal fans. Despite going 25 years without a league title between 1967 and 1992 and suffering relegation in 1974, Manchester United’s successes in the 1950s and 1960s, tinged by the Munich disaster of 1958, meant that Manchester United remained the most famous and best-supported English club in the world even before it ended its title-less sequence in the first EPL season of 1992-93. Since then, the club has gone on to win the EPL 9 times in 15 seasons, and is the current title-holder.
Manchester United’s 9 titles in 15 seasons falls short of Liverpool’s 11 titles in 18 seasons between 1973 and 1990 in the old First Division. Yet despite not having been crowned English champions in 17 seasons since 1990, Liverpool’s success of the 1970s and 1980s, including four European Cup wins, confirms Liverpool’s pedigree, and ensures its place in the elite for the foreseeable future.
The domination of the EPL by four clubs can hardly be good for it as a sporting competition in the longer term. The apparent predictability of the top three or four places diminishes the overall excitement that is ordinarily associated with the uncertainty of the outcome of a contest, while the wide disparity between the resources available to these four clubs, compared to that available to much of the rest of the league, undermines the principle of a level playing field.
The days of clubs breaking into the top three in England out of nowhere are long gone. A not uncommon occurrence in the first 50 years after World War II, it has not occurred for more than 10 years now. The equivalent of Nottingham Forest under the genius of the late Brian Clough winning the title in 1978 (and going on to win the European Cup in successive seasons in 1979 and 1980), or Watford under the management of Graham Taylor and with a young John Barnes in the side finishing runners up to Liverpool in 1983, or even Newcastle finishing third in 1994 under the management of the heart-on-sleeve wearing Kevin Keegan, in each case, after being promoted from the second tier the season before, are not likely to be seen again in the top flight in England anytime in the near future.
Breaking into the oligarchy made up of the big four is more likely to be achieved by a club with a good fan base and history, complemented by the financial resources of a wealthy investor. With the financial backing of new owners, clubs such as Aston Villa and Newcastle, have the best chance to break into the top three in the near future.