English clubs · English league · Sociology & community

London Clubs

Tottenham Hotspur play Arsenal today, in what was traditionally the biggest derby match in London. However, in recent years, Arsenal against Chelsea has been regarded as the biggest match in London, reflecting changes in the relationship between London clubs and the metropolitan area of London.

Historically, the identity of London clubs was tied to the part of London in which they were based. For example, West Ham United is strongly identified with East London and its Cockney heritage.

The idea of a London club moving to another part of London would be anathema to modern fans. When Arsenal moved from Highbury to Ashburton Grove in 2006, it was essential in the planning of the new stadium that it was nearby and that the club remained in north-east London.

Yet, in 1913, Arsenal had moved from Woolwich in south-east London to Highbury in north-east London, a move that engendered a bitter rivalry with Tottenham Hotspur, which was already situated in north-east London.

However, in those days, Arsenal was hardly the club it is today. That season (1913), Arsenal had been relegated from the top tier (the old First Division) to the second tier (the old Second Division). Poor attendances in Woolwich had led to the bankruptcy of the club in 1910, and the new owner re-located the club further north in the hope of improving the situation.

Arsenal had joined the Football League in 1893, and for a long time, remained the only London side in the league. In 1901, Tottenham had won the FA Cup as a Southern League club, the only major title won by a London club until professional football in England was interrupted in 1915 by World War I.

After World War I, the First Division was expanded from 20 to 22 clubs for the 1919-20 season. Chelsea, which had finished second from bottom of the First Division at the end of the 1914-15 season, was given a reprieve, and allowed to remain in the First Division. However, Tottenham, which had finished last, was relegated, and Arsenal, who had finished fifth in the Second Division in 1915, was promoted to the First Division along with the clubs finishing first and second. Despite allegations of irregularity, nothing was established against Arsenal, and Arsenal has remained in the top flight ever since, a record unmatched in England. However, the controversy over Arsenal’s promotion (and Tottenham’s relegation) reinforced the rivalry between the two clubs.

Professional league football in England from 1888 until World War I was dominated by clubs from the north and midlands and clubs from the south in general and London in particular were no match. This changed in the period after the World War I, as Arsenal was at the forefront of a charge by London clubs to domestic league and cup successes.

In 1925, Arsenal appointed Herbert Chapman as manager. Chapman was the first truly great football manager in England, having won the league title with Huddersfield Town in consecutive seasons in 1924 and 1925. With Arsenal, Chapman won the FA Cup in 1930, and the league title in 1931 and 1933. Chapman tragically died of pneumonia in January 1934, and did not live to see Arsenal win the title again in 1934 and 1935, becoming only the second English club to win three titles in a row, after Hudderfield, who had achieved the feat in 1926.

In the 1930s, Arsenal was regarded as the wealthiest football club in England, reflected in the nickname the “Bank of England Club”. Arsenal’s power and influence extended to persuading London Underground to rename Gillespie Road station as Arsenal station in 1932.

Between 1950 and 1977, Tottenham joined Arsenal in being entrenched in the top flight in England, with both clubs challenging for major domestic honours. In 1961, Tottenham became the first English club to achieve a league and cup double in the twentienth century. Ten years later in 1971, Arsenal became the next club to do so

In the early 1960s, Tottenham was reported to be the wealthiest football club in the world, a position it is nowhere near reclaiming. Despite the fact Tottenham has not won the title since 1961, Arsenal, and more recently, Chelsea have ensured that that the title has found its way to London on more than just a handful of occasions in the 46 years since.

Chelsea was formed in 1905 by the owners of the Stamford Bridge ground, after they failed to persuade Fulham to move to the stadium. Chelsea is one of two famous English clubs formed to play at an otherwise empty stadium (the other being Liverpool, formed in 1892, after Everton had moved from Anfield to Goodison Park in response to a proposed increase in rent from £100 to £250 per year). Chelsea’s traditional rivals in west London are Fulham and Queen’s Park Rangers.

Before 2004, Chelsea’s history was marked by under-achievement, having only won the league title once, in 1955. Since Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought the club in June 2003, the resources he has made available has led to two Premiership titles (2005 and 2006). Chelsea is now the richest club in London, and rapidly on the way to overtaking Manchester United as the richest club in England.

The prominence of London clubs in the Premier League is reflected in the fact that despite the relegation of Charlton Athletic at the end of last season, there are still five London clubs in the Premier League (Arsenal, Chelsea, Fulham, Tottenham and West Ham). In fact, despite the move by Wimbledon (now known as Milton Keynes Dons) north to Milton Keynes in 2003, with the promotion of Dagenham & Redbridge from the Conference, there is this season a record 13 London clubs in all of the Premier League and the Football League. 11 of these 13 clubs have at some time or other played in the top flight (see table below).

However, apart from Arsenal, and more recently Chelsea, the successes of London sides have been largely in cup competitions, rather than in the league. Despite being by far the largest metropolitan area in England, the league title has been won by a London club 18 times only (compared with 27 for Liverpool, 17 for Manchester, 11 for the West Midlands, and 10 for Tyne & Wear, all cities or metropolitan areas far smaller than London).

Moreover on the most important stage of all, the UEFA Champions League, London clubs continue to underachieve. Arsenal’s Champions League Final defeat to Barcelona in 2006 remains the only time a London club has even reached the finals of Europe’s premier club competition.

London clubs have traditionally identified themselves with local parts of London, rather than with the metropolitan area as a whole. Other major cities in western Europe, from Munich in the east to Lisbon in the west, and Glasgow in the north to Rome in the south, have one or two top clubs that are between them widely supported throughout the city. London has no less than 4 top clubs, and several others capable of sustaining a run in the Premier League.

Increasingly, club rivalries within the London are not focused on the part of London that the clubs are based, but across London, as reflected in the growing importance of Arsenal against Chelsea as the big derby match in London. That Chelsea, and not Tottenham, is increasingly seen as Arsenal’s biggest local rivals also reflects the growing internationalization of football in London. Both Chelsea and Arsenal have foreign managers and coaches, and have very few British players in their ranks. Both clubs qualifying for and progressing to the later stages of the Champions League in recent seasons has intensified their rivalry.

The internationalization of London clubs has extended beyond Arsenal and Chelsea, with West Ham bought over by a consortium led by Icelandic businessman Eggert Magnússon in January 2007, while the purchase of Championship club Queen’s Park Rangers by Renault F1 boss Flavio Briatore, together with F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, was announced on 1 September 2007.

The question remains how long before a London side wins the Champions League. For the sake of London’s prestige and reputation, it cannot be much longer.

(The article as appeared in the Weekend Today on 15 September 2007)


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