Bolton Wanderers, Gary Neville and the Northern decline

Earlier this month Bolton Wanderers were issued with a winding up order by HMRC.  Administration could follow and with it all but certain relegation to League One – but the four-time FA Cup winners, founding members of the Football League and losing protagonists of the Matthews Final are not the only northern powerhouse to fall on hard times.

In September Gary Neville wrote an interesting – or at the very least thought provoking – piece for the Telegraph with the rather lengthy title ‘The north is being cut adrift in English football – and I fear the damage may be permanent’.

This is his opening paragraph and loosely the premise:

“A North-South divide is developing in English football that reflects the drift in economic power towards London. I worry that the north of England will end up with only a token presence in the Premier League – with Manchester as an island in a sea of decline.”

Neville was a Sky pundit at the time and like his then employer I think he’s focused a little too much on the Premier League.  He addresses the states of Newcastle and Sunderland but I’d argue the mess those clubs find themselves in is more to do with poor choices at the very highest level, rather than an economic decline in the area.  The TV and sponsorship money in the Premier League make it possible to put together a strong squad regardless; Bournemouth paid £8million for a defender this summer as a newly promoted side – they got less than 12,000 for the recent win over Manchester United, meanwhile Newcastle have one of the highest average attendances in the Premier League and nearly five times capacity of the Cherries’ Dean Court available to them for home games.  If you can pay big money for players, as Newcastle and Sunderland have done in recent years, and command decent crowds but you’re still not getting results location isn’t a major factor there. They both have the resources they’ve just not been used correctly for various, and I would suggest fundamentally different, reasons.

No, any problems chancellor George Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse‘ concept will inevitably fail to solve can be seen much clearer further down the divisions, through the Football League and way below.

Bolton, sadly, are just the latest in a long line of clubs north of Watford to fall from grace. Their problems are also the result of miscalculations and downright failings at the highest level. They made what turned out to be a few poor managerial choices and then waited too long before putting said managers out of their misery, they paid too much for players on short deals and in a similar vein they failed to sell at the right time or for the right price. Gary Cahill went to Chelsea for £5million as the end of his deal approached – I can’t believe there wasn’t a better offer beforehand.  But how they got there isn’t the key issue, Crystal Palace fell on hard times and look at them now, it is what happens afterwards that is the worry.

Once you’re in the promise land of the Premier League you should be fine, but getting back there is the problem for the fallen northern clubs.  Southampton, Norwich and current Premier League pacesetters Leicester City have all been League One sides in the not too distant past and now all three are top flight clubs, admittedly for the Canaries a newly-promoted one but they have yo-yoed. Now think about Leeds United and Sheffield Wednesday, both have been in League One and both are meandering in the Championship – the Owls are arguably in the promotion picture but Leeds are flirting with trouble.  Sheffield United are still in League One after their rapid fall from the top level, which perhaps even some West Ham fans will concede was incredibly harsh in the first place.

Leeds should be a stellar investment; they are a one-club city and they get an average of 25,000 or so and could expect up to 35,000 and possibly beyond if they get a good team together.  They’re also well supported around the country but for some reason the only owners they attract are sub-standard.  The recovery problems after losing a Premier League place are having a  far greater impact on the northern outfits and that is where the problem lies.

Blackpool, Barnsley and Oldham could conceivably be relegated to League Two this season.  At the moment only Swindon Town have been down into the fourth tier having also competed in the Premier League (in the current guise, not simply the top flight) aside from Wimbledon, who have since reformed.  That’s an excellent pub quiz question incidentally but if those three northern clubs go down we can’t use that one anymore*.

League Two is where it becomes even more apparent however, as there are just five northern clubs, and three of those are in the bottom half.  You could perhaps argue Mansfield and Notts County can be classed as ‘northern’ for the sake of this argument, but that’s still only seven.

Why is this so significant?  Think about all of those northern teams that are out of the Football League altogether.  Darlington, Halifax Town, Stockport County, Tranmere Rovers (who reached a play-off final but failed to win promotion to the Premier League and lost the 2000 League Cup final), Macclesfield Town, Scarborough and Grimsby Town were all once well established League clubs, for some of them that seems an almost impossible dream now. Some of those clubs don’t even exist in their previous states any more.

It doesn’t even stop there – Northwich Victoria were a constant in what is now known as the National League, the fifth tier.  Now they’re languishing in the eighth tier having sold their ground and split into two clubs, a phoenix club and the remaining scraps of the original.  Hereford United admittedly weren’t a northern team but as a regional club they have a place in this discussion and they’re now a new club, Hereford FC, playing in the ninth tier of the football system, essentially as low as you can go.  The now defunct Bulls had been as high as the second division in their history, and were in League One as recently as 2009.

Sadly there was no saving Hereford United, Halifax Town AFC, Darlington FC and others, no football fan likes to see any team go bust regardless of previous rivalries, but I fear they won’t be the last clubs to fall by the wayside. The Wanderers luck might be turning with the Bolton News all but claiming a takeover deal seemingly led by former record capture Dean Holdsworth is close, and not only that former hero Kevin Nolan is coming back if it goes through. That scenario would be a Christmas miracle for the troubled club but the way it has been reported it feels as if the local paper doesn’t believe the hype. If it does happen good luck to them, but it doesn’t always work out so well when a new owner comes in, just ask the Leeds fans.

There is a North-South divide in football and like Gary Neville I too think that is a reflection of the country’s economic issues/structure, but the Premier League is sheltered from that by the money competing in it provides.  When a club can no longer suckle on the teat of that cash-cow, that’s when the harsh realities of life cut adrift from the top flight hit home and for the northern sides that seems to be markedly worse than it is for their southern counterparts.  The reasons the various clubs I’ve mentioned here fell into disrepair are varied and there are a number of different factors that came into play in each individual case – but the one common denominator is all are located away from the economic haven of London.

The only way to really protect the futures of all Football League clubs, and lower, in my view is to spread money from the Premier League out more across the entire pyramid. That would at least soften the blow of any disparities between the wealth of different regions and level the playing field a bit.  That however, is simply not going to happen.

You can read Gary Neville’s full article here.

*It has since been pointed out to me this isn’t correct, I’d forgotten about Bradford City – really should have remembered that, they reached a League Cup final as a League Two team and have been in the top flight more recently that Oldham or Barnsley. This is why I’m not on any pub quiz teams.

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