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"If you want some accessible but informative insight into football then I suggest you couldn't do better than the Political Economy of Football website, which is not only intelligible but comes with the added bonus of being written by Addicks fan Wyn Grant."
Ben Hayes - Charlton Athletic programme

The plight of Midlands football


A few weeks ago we published a story about Aston Villa which made some comparisons with West Bromwich Albion.  A Villa fan took exception, pointing out that Villa still draw bigger crowds, even if they have declined.

From the point of view of the neutral, however, there is an interesting contrast between the increasingly cautious path taken by Randy Lerner at Villa and the prudent building up at the Baggies.   West Bromwich Albion have consolidated themselves as a competitive top flight club, while arguably Villa are not realising their potential - or matching up to their achievements in the past.

There is also a wider question about the state of Midlands football.    This article on the subject contains extensive quotes from me and my colleague Sue Bridgewater, but is an interesting overview.

My hunch is that there is some relationship between local/regional economic performance and the state of local football clubs.   This can be seen most starkly in the case of Coventry City, even if it has been compounded by serious mismanagement there.

I also think that a successful club can boost  a city, the contrast between the two Manchester clubs and those in Birmingham being a case in point.   The West Midlands region (albeit divided into areas with very distinct identities) needs a confidence boost and it's no good waiting for the High Speed Train which may never arrive.

I think that Birmingham missed a trick in not having an elected mayor, but that's another story.

The Villa complaint

There's no doubt that Aston Villa have been the only Premiership constant in recent decades, but the lack of any top-flight Midlands competition to keep it company has ensured that it has become a languorously tiresome spokesman for the region's footballing presence, safe, complacent and boorishly annoying in its supposed majesty over the rest of its less-profile neighbours. It now merely 'occupies' rather than demonstrates any meaningful reason for being in the Premiership, and while Paul Lambert is the more shrewd choice of manager for a new, sensible-spending age, it can't be ignored that Villa's not-too-distant years were engaged in spending enormous sums of money with casual abandon, with Lerner himself joining in before the reality of the situation made itself known.

It's not that Aston Villa are in anyway a small concern, but they're very much like the local stud, flabby, too familiar and trying to hide the double chin, jowls and the paunch while loudly demanding more conquests, while forgetting that their better days were long past, and that any triumphs have become a distant memory. Aston Villa have enjoyed the prominence of being the sole, long-term, top-flight West Midlands representative of the Premier League. But the drawback is that if they are, season upon season, all that the region has to offer - and can really give no other reason than just being there - then they become a 'usual suspect' and those outside the sphere of Midlands football will view their presence with an unsurprised shrug. A dour state of affairs, given that West Midlands football is, already, not exactly greeted with enthusiasm outside the region itself.

West Midlands football

Thanks for this interesting comment which makes a number of good points.   My concern is a kind of vicious circle in which some of the economic and profile challenges of the region interact with the state of football so that both lose out.   I would certainly agree that it is not exactly greeted with enthusiasm outside the region itself.  Another problem is that it is not really a 'region' in terms of identity, as distinct from location or some shared structural features such as the historic importance of manufacturing with some firms continuing to succeed.

A Matter Of Neglect

Thanks for replying, Wyn.

There is some substance in the region's industry/football profile, but I'd argue that the Midlands differs from the North/London 'hotbeds' in many ways, specifically that, dumb as it may seem, the culture there in every sense doesn't 'promote' itself as loudly as those other areas do, and with reason. All Midlands clubs have sunk well below the success radar, and all now follow a modest path where triumph is measured by either being promoted into another league or avoiding falling into another. Contrast with those areas commandeered by the major clubs in London, Manchester or Liverpool, where bites of the cherry leading to glory are continually taken and are backed by a yowling press and a noisy fan base, who treat every downfall as a drama which we all must follow and every success which, above all, 'is good for English football'.

Aston Villa once held the beacon for the Midlands, being its only voice of moderate success, but even now, that particular star has faded. I'd suggest that even if industry had been boosted somewhat exceptionally in the regions, the football clubs within it would have to undergo a seismic shift to achieve any profile nationally, so obsessed are media and, we assume, neutral supporters, with the more higher-profile North/South set-ups we're familiar with.

Only some years ago, every time a Newcastle manager was sacked and a new one appointed, Five Live would send a radio car and pitch up outside St. James's Park and talk to its bare-bellied, shrieking fans, who would bellow words like 'ethos' and 'religion' to an irritated nation. That doesn't happen now, but it was an example of how one section of football support, if they continually shouted and promoted themselves enough, would find a willing ear to bend. This, of course, was 'passion'.

You wouldn't get that in the Midlands. There's not just a feeling that better days are gone, but that it would be virtually impossible to influence a nation and its media so busily infatuated with Man Utd, Liverpool, Chelsea et al, because, frankly, there's not much to entice them. Villa have gone back to a pragmatically-financial square one. West Brom are showing, for now, the on-pitch benefits of a prudent financial system, allied with sensible, intelligent club stewardship. Birmingham City still face uncertainty and an uneasy path. Stoke are doing well in the Premiership, but are weighed down by constantly having to prove themselves being other than the bruiser reputation they quite enjoyed in years past, Nottingham Forest struggle, Derby struggle, Wolves tentatively rebuild after a dreadful Premiership season, Coventry represent the living dead.

In some instances, some of these clubs have suffered from the other kind of neglect: not just throwing money until it sticks, but years of slow death instigated by chairmen and boards who would make second-hand car salesmen look like Bill Gates. Not just money, but ideas, stagnation brought about by men who had very little in terms of ideas, clung to the one-dimensional, and, to use a phrase a good friend of mine came up with, 'treated the club as their own personal mini-bar'.

It's not all bad news. Many of the clubs are rebuilding - West Brom, especially - and, while some are recovering from the rotten financial situations they're in, lessons that have come full and hard have no choice but to be learned. They know what the alternative is, and their fans realise that. But the national perception of all of them? In the era we're in now, the perception of Aston Villa, West Brom and the rest has ranged from dismissive to patronising. The time to be spoken in the same breath of achievement as Manchester United is dead.

To be frank, the term 'the rest' is painfully appropriate.