There is little doubting the fact that there is something special in terms of the North West of England when it comes to football in this country.
There are more clubs in that congested part of the map than anywhere else in the UK—by a distance. Recent events at Bolton and Bury have put the spotlight on football in the region, with many people questioning if it is sustainable.
It is something that is often spoken about, but for those clubs that are in the thick of it, is it something that is a help or a hindrance?
Where it all began
The preponderance of clubs being located in that region is certainly not new. Of the thirteen clubs that were founding members of the league, no less than six were from the North West (Preston North End, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Accrington, Burnley and Everton).
The rest of the country has caught up, but there are still huge differences between the various parts of the country. The South is very unrepresented, especially if you take out the London clubs, whereas the North West, even with the sad demise of Bury, boasts no fewer than 19 clubs in the top four tiers of the English game. That is more than 20%, and when Bury were still in existence, almost a quarter of all league clubs came from that region.
They are distributed evenly throughout the divisions as well, with the EPL currently boasting five representatives from the region, the Championship three, and Leagues 1 and 2, six and five teams, respectively. Throw into the mix the fact that the North West is also the area where the vast majority of rugby league clubs ply their trade, then it really is a congested picture. So, is it necessarily a bad thing? As is so often the case, there are two sides to the story.
The Downsides of so many clubs
Anyone under the age of thirty will have grown up with football on our TV screens, but the number of games is growing season on season. That is often held up as something that is helping to draw fans and potential fans away from supporting their local teams, or at least physically going to watch their teams.
So, when there are half a dozen clubs within easy reach, and at least a couple of those are playing at the highest level, it is not hard to see just how much of a struggle it is for the chairmen of these clubs to attract fresh blood and make ends meet.
Manchester City may not have started quite as domineering as last season, but they are still many people’s pick for the title; and in much the same way as Manchester United and Liverpool have done for the last four decades or so, City are drawing fans from all over the country, not merely from the North West. Being a third, or even fourth, team in those cities brings a set of challenges that other clubs do not have to contend with.
It is not just the fans, either. Trying to attract young talent to join your academy when you are the likes of Rochdale, Tranmere or indeed Wigan when there is a footballing giant just down the road brings its own set of problems. One of the reasons for Southampton’s phenomenal success with its academy in recent years was that they were not really competing for talent with anyone else in their watershed—something that is never going to be the case in the North West.
These may not be as obvious, but they are certainly there if you look for them. The first is the clubs are practically guaranteed at least two derbies a season. The games bring in more income, and local rivalries are what being a football fan is all about.
Another positive is that the competition for fans forces each club to do something different, become a part of the community, and accentuate its localness in the face of the modern global giants that the larger teams have become. While the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool look increasingly outward, the likes of Fleetwood, Wigan and Morecombe are looking to their own town and the streets and suburbs around their stadia. It is how football began, when the club was one of the (if not the) most important aspects of the town or city.
Wigan have all of the problems set out above, with Rugby League being a bigger factor than with most clubs as well. They have made a success of it, down to the way the club has been (and hopefully continues to be) run. The club’s future in the Championship is by no means guaranteed; however, it is looking more secure, even if that is at the expense of two of its fellow North West sides.
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