Sunday, November 17, 2019
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The Top 4 English Football Clubs

Old Division 1 & Premier League trophies (via Creative Review)Anticipation for the Premier League title race remains as high as ever ahead of the 2019-20 season – can Liverpool overhaul Manchester City? Will Frank Lampard re-ignite Chelsea’s challenge; is Ole Gunnar Solskjær the man to make Manchester United contenders again? Will Pochettino take Tottenham to the next level; are Arsenal ready to return to the Champions League?

 

Just don’t expect anyone else to break into this elite group of six. In the last fifteen years, Leicester City are the only club to disrupt their monopoly of the Premier League’s top four positions, taking the 2015-16 title in one of the biggest shocks of recent times. Since then, it seems that normal service has been resumed at the top of the table.

 

Using the current benchmark of the top four (as Champions League qualifiers) over the past six decades, the stats undeniably point to steadily diminishing competition in the Premier League era, and a growing gulf between the biggest clubs and the rest. There have always been dominant teams in different periods, but never such an established block at the very top.

 

In the Football League’s heyday, fifteen different teams finished in the top four positions of the First Division in the 1960s, with an incredible eight sides sharing the decade’s League titles. (Bear in mind that only six clubs have won the Premier League in the twenty-seven years of its existence!) It was the same again in the 1970s, when Derby and Nottingham Forest were among the Champions, both winning their first-ever titles under Brian Clough.

 

During the 1980s, thirteen teams were represented at the top of the table, where Liverpool took six titles. At the risk of getting misty-eyed, I grew up watching football in the days when Forest, Watford, Southampton and other ‘outsiders’ were all capable of challenging, if only for a season or two before fading away. It was an era when Chelsea and Manchester City were often found struggling to stay in the top flight, or outside it altogether, let alone winning trophies. Even in the three seasons between 1990 and 1992, the final years of the old First Division, eight different teams occupied the top four, including Crystal Palace, Sheffield Wednesday, and Leeds, winning their last League title (to date).

 

The early seasons of the Premier League continued in a democratic vein, with ten different teams finishing in the four top places up to the millennium, and Blackburn Rovers taking their first title in living memory. The extension of Champions League qualification in 1997 (before then it really was the competition for ‘Champions’ only), and the ever-increasing rewards for participation, was a key moment in modern football history.

 

By 2002-03, there were four English clubs playing in the competition, and fourth place suddenly became a coveted target. Though it took a few years for the effects to become fully apparent, in retrospect it was the major catalyst in making the Premier League’s top four ever more of a closed shop. The qualifiers have greater spending power, and are more likely to finish at the top again and compete in another Champions League, which once again increases their spending power…

 

The pattern has been repeated across Europe, with a select group of super-clubs coming to dominate their domestic leagues and contest European finals, initially under the banner of the G-14/18. The 1980s, into the 90s, saw some unlikely teams winning the Italian and Spanish leagues – Verona and Sampdoria; Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao – clubs which are unlikely to challenge again.

 

It is since 2000 that wealth has become increasingly concentrated in a handful of English clubs, with Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool (at least in terms of Champions League qualification) dominating the first decade of the twenty-first century. At one point they spent five out of six seasons, between 2003-04 and 2008-09, taking up the first four positions between them – a sequence broken only by Everton edging out Liverpool for fourth place in 2004-05, their highest Premier League position.

 

The years 2000-2009 and the current decade have both seen only seven different teams in the top four, with Leicester’s title win of 2015-16 a welcome surprise, if surely a one-off. Otherwise, Manchester City and Tottenham have joined the elite in the last ten years, while Leeds and Newcastle have since completely dropped out of contention (and the Premier League). The top group of six clubs seem to have solidified their status, sharing Champions League qualification between them.

 

They have capitalised on their position by maximising sponsorship revenues and undertaking lucrative tours to expanding markets, with several moving to new stadia and all enjoying the backing of billionaires, oligarchs and sheikhs. The possibility of their negotiating individual TV contracts, rather than the Premier League’s traditional collective deal, would only reinforce the growing gap.

 

Among the six Premier League winners, Blackburn’s Alan Shearer-inspired triumph of 1995 under Kenny Dalglish is now a distant memory, like Leicester the exception which proves the rule. It’s another indication of changing times that the Ewood Park club were accused of ‘buying the title’ using Jack Walker’s millions, with such extravagant signings as Shearer at a record £3.6m, David Batty (£2.75m), Paul Warhurst (£2.7m) and Chris Sutton (another record, £5m).

 

Today’s Premier League income generation makes those deals look like small change, with mid- and lower-table sides spending multi-millions just to stay in the Premier League. Only clubs with the backing of the super-rich and a regular influx of Champions League fortunes stand a chance of competing at the top end of the table, effectively creating a league-within-a-league. Whether this season, or the coming decade, will reverse the historical trend, with new clubs breaking into the top four, remains to be seen… Though I won’t be holding my breath, I will be interested in reviewing this article ahead of the 2029-30 season!

 

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